A House of Cards

10 11 2008

A recent article in The Walrus, Grim Repo, describes the fallout from the US housing crisis in Stockton, California. Families who were surviving in the good years when housing prices were rising and gas prices were low enough that the cost of an hour and a half (each way!) daily commute to San Francisco was manageable, have folded up and drifted away. They’ve left behind scores of empty houses: 1 in every 10 in Stockton has been foreclosed upon in the last several years since the housing market started its freefall.

Urban decay in Harlem, by futurebird

Urban decay in Harlem - photo by futurebird

I often wonder (and worry) about the future adaptability of suburban landscapes. Monoculture land uses are functional as long as driving is affordable. But if gas prices spike (and stay spiked), suburbs become a land of privilege. Or poverty. More affluent areas will survive, as their residents more easily absorb increased costs. But residents of more modest means may find it less and less affordable to stay, and will find it harder and harder to find someone to take their property off their hands. Remote and unifunctional suburban areas could become the new slums, sprawling versions of urban decay a la 1970s Harlem.

Inner ring suburbs will likely fare better, as they are close enough to the center to be practical, and yet they are also old enough for redevelopment to be a natural evolution. Depending on their age, they may even be less segregated in their land use; maybe they will already have corner stores and offices in the neighborhood that could be easily expanded or adapted to serve an increasingly localized population.

But some of these older neighborhoods will pose problems as well. Intentionally disconnected, curvilinear local streets make sense for a driving culture, but are the opposite of what pedestrians, cyclists and transit require. They are also less adaptable to higher-density urban style development. Ripping them up and starting from scratch may be a tempting solution, but may be a prohibitively expensive proposition for a society burdened by ever-tightening energy supplies.

“Repo Tours,” rapid-fire group viewings of foreclosed properties, are all the rage in Stockton these days. Speculative buyers grab these properties at auction rates, fix them up a little bit and hope for the good times to return so that they can flip them for a profit. Maybe this optimistic scenario will play out in the next couple of years and speculators will find enough people who want to buy these houses. But I don’t think I’ll be one of them.

Check out futurebird’s blog (where I got the photo) at futurebird.livejournal.com




One response

12 06 2009
Thinking About Shrinkage « Tom Young

[…] and job losses hollowing out neighborhoods in places as geographically diverse as Orange County and Stockton, California, to Cook County Illinois, with those cities and counties struggling to find the […]

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