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Why Suburbs May Become the Next Slums

The poor are fleeing our cities, but life is not always greener in the suburbs, even when affordable housing comes with a two-car garage.
 
 
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The financial meltdown has produced a vast patchwork of foreclosed and abandoned single-family homes across America, accelerating the decades-long migration of our nation's poor from cities to the suburban fringe. In 2005, as rising property values reduced affordable-housing stock in inner-city neighborhoods, suburban poverty, in raw numbers, topped urban poverty for the first time.

The trend will continue. By 2025, predicts planning expert Arthur C. Nelson, America will face a market surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (a sixth of an acre or more), attracting millions of low-income residents deeper into suburbia where decay and social and geographic isolation will pose challenges few see coming.

"As a society, we have fundamentally failed to address our housing policy," said Nelson, director of metropolitan research at the University of Utah. "Suburbia is overbuilt and yet we will keep on building there. Most policymakers don't see the consequences, and those who do are denying reality."

Nelson and others warn that suburbia's least desirable neighborhoods - aging, middle-class tract-home developments far from city centers and mass transit lines — are America's emerging slums, characterized by poverty, crime and other social ills. Treating those ills is complicated by the same qualities that once defined suburbia's appeal — seclusion, homogeneity and low population density. "We built too much of the suburban dream, and now it's coming back to haunt us," Nelson said.

To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience — dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers — while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.

Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones — sometimes called "demographic inversion" — will continue for decades.

"Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they're tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities," said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan. He said consumer preference is reflected by Hollywood: "People identify with Sex and the City and Seinfeld. So why are we still building like Leave it to Beaver?"

Leinberger is an unabashed urbanist who preaches the gospel of dense, mixed-use communities like a missionary saving souls in the jungle. As a visiting fellow this year at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., he walks to his office and to appointments around the city. He argues, with few dissenters, that suburbs are losing favor because they make little sense, forcing people into their cars, limiting social interaction and discouraging racial and socio-economic diversity. Enlightened planners across the country are promoting compact "24/7" urban centers were people live, work and play in close proximity. Virtually every major U.S. city is targeting once-gritty urban neighborhoods for revitalization and, inevitably, gentrification.

The displaced poor find value in the aging, outer-ring tract-home developments that once promised easy living far from the city's hustle and bustle. And housing officials, resolved to breaking up pockets of concentrated poverty (where at least 40 percent of the families are living below the poverty line), are thrilled. The federal Section 8 housing program, which allows recipients to negotiate government-subsidized rentals anywhere, is grounded in the belief that a safe, stable neighborhood can help unbuckle the straps of poverty.

 
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