The recent phenomenon of housing abandonment in the suburbs is only the beginning: projections now estimate that by 2025 40% of large-lot homes will be standing vacant.

Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community's 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son's bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who'd moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, "I thought I'd bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen."

In the Franklin Reserve neighborhood of Elk Grove, California, south of Sacramento, the houses are nicer than those at Windy Ridge-many once sold for well over $500,000-but the phenomenon is the same. At the height of the boom, 10,000 new homes were built there in just four years. Now many are empty; renters of dubious character occupy others. Graffiti, broken windows, and other markers of decay have multiplied. Susan McDonald, president of the local residents' association and an executive at a local bank, told the Associated Press, "There's been gang activity. Things have really been changing, the last few years."

The decline of places like Windy Ridge and Franklin Reserve is usually attributed to the subprime-mortgage crisis, with its wave of foreclosures. And the crisis has indeed catalyzed or intensified social problems in many communities. But the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market-a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.

Full Story: The Next Slum?



Michael Lewyn's picture

seems unlikely

Some suburbs are losing ground because of the foreclosure crisis- but then again, so are some city neighborhoods (especially in depressed cities like Cleveland). Right now, the big losers are lower-income homeowner neighborhoods in city and suburb alike.

Maybe Not So Unlikely

The biggest price drops are in the drive-till-you-qualify suburbs: there was a front-page article in the SF Chronicle a few days ago showing a picture of a McMansion in Brentwood (a very remote suburb) that had sold for $925,000 and was now selling for $525,000.

It is possible that "drive till you qualify" will no longer be economically feasible if gasoline and energy prices keep rising. In that case, some of the most remote suburbs might be abandoned.

Remember that in the 1960s, as people moved to the suburbs because of federal freeway policies and cheap gasoline, some inner-city neighborhoods such as the South Bronx were abandoned. Now, if energy keeps getting more expensive, there could be abandoned "outer-suburbs," just as there used to be abandoned inner-cities.

Charles Siegel

Studies re higher oil prices encouraging central location

In my book Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty I make mention of two land use studies of the 1970s oil crisis which suggest that consistently high oil prices would cause centrally-located land to increase in value as households and firms try to reduce travel costs (they also note, however, that the forces driving metropolitan decentralization are not easily counteracted -- which I feel is as true now as it was then).

I had a hard time finding additional studies of this phenomenon, and would be grateful for any suggestions of similar studies that have been done -- especially recent ones.

BTW, for anyone interested, the two studies were:

Small, K. (1980) "Energy Scarcity and Urban Development Patterns," International Regional Science Review, v5 n2 pp97-117

Evans, A. and Beed, C. (1986) "Transport Costs
and Urban Property Values in the 1970s," Urban Studies, 1986:2, 105-117.

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