When you’re inside a private suburban home with a gourmet kitchen, a formal dining room, five bedrooms, four baths, a bonus room above the three car garage, a backyard swimming pool… it’s pretty sweet. And when you climb into your car and hit the road at sixty miles an hour the freedom of mobility feels great.
But step off your front lawn or stand still in a parking lot for a minute and look around. The public realm is abysmal. Until recently it really didn’t matter. Most middle class families never had to think about these interstitial spaces. The entire world was made up of a series of private or semi-public/private destinations. The home, the car, the office, the church, the mall, the school, the gym. Everything in between was just… road. Why would anyone care about what the road was like? It just needed to get you from Point A to Point B with plenty of free parking along the way.
Unfortunately, we’ve already entered a new era where the middle class is rapidly contracting. It’s actually been shrinking consistently since 1970, but we’ve managed to patch and juggle and fake it all this time to keep things looking like we were all doing okay. Except now we can’t paper over the cracks anymore. The structural problems are just too big. More and more people are falling out of the middle class and are now getting a taste of what life is like to be priced out of private comforts and thrown at the mercy of a neglected commons. In fact, the very concept of a “commons” is alien to the people who live in modern suburbs. The entire point of suburbia is that everything is private by design.
I’m going to get wonky here for a minute. Bear with me on the numbers. These spacious cul-de-sac homes are in a subdivision where properties sell for about $260,000. For California, that’s actually a bargain. With a 20% down payment and today’s ridiculously low interest rates the monthly mortgage payment will be about $1,300. Financial planners will tell you that it’s a bad idea to spend more than a quarter of your income on housing. The families who live here should earn at least $5,200 a month. That’s $62,400 per year. The median household income for this census tract is actually only $52,230. Per capita income is $21,074 which is actually less than a decade ago, so that income is in decline.
Now look at the cars in the driveway. If you tally up the cost of car payments, insurance, gas, and repairs the average American spends $9,000 a year per car. I know that number seems high, but if you sit down and add it all up that’s the real number for most people and most cars. For example, the average cost of car insurance in California is $1,962 per vehicle. The average annual car payment (principle and interest) is $4,723 per vehicle. Those numbers are averages so they include both new and used vehicles as well as BMWs and Chevys. Add in gas and repairs and you’re looking at $9,000.
Most homes in this particular area have three cars parked out front. Statistically, those three cars collectively cost each family $27,000 a year. That’s $2,250 per month – nearly double the mortgage. So after these folks pay for housing and transportation their theoretical $5,200 monthly income is reduced to $1,650. If they actually have the more likely lower median income of $4,353 per month then they only have $803 left over for everything else in life: food, utilities, student loans, credit cards, medical expenses… In other words, these folks are living pay check to pay check and they’re one illness, lay-off, or divorce away from foreclosure. They aren’t actually middle class so much as the new insecure “working poor” who just happen to live in a big house and own three cars.
These once shiny and new homes are aging badly as family fortunes stagnate. A common response is for families with more resources and flexibility to sell and move to a town with better prospects. Often people of means relocate to an entirely different county or state. These better educated higher income folks are typically the first to sense a change in the neighborhood and the best able to take action earlier rather than later. Nationwide there’s an accelerating divide between suburbs on the rise and suburbs in decline – with many more losers than winners. Money goes to money. Others are left behind. This is in keeping with the statistics regarding the contracting middle class. Conservatives like to blame liberal policies. Liberals like to blame conservative policies. But it’s been forty five years since the onset of this economic transition so there’s plenty of evidence that this goes beyond any specific leader or party.
Ironically, one of the ways members of the contracting middle class have attempted to hold on to their status is by migrating farther and farther away from jobs and culture in order to buy large suburban homes at more affordable prices out on the edge of metro areas. In this way they have achieved a short term economic and social goal while isolating themselves and their children from longer term opportunities for upward achievement. The suburbs were once a guaranteed stepping stone to a better life. Now they’re often a poverty trap.
That brings us to the most recent controversy in the neighborhood. Last week Walmart opened what they call a “neighborhood market”. It’s a smaller version of Walmart that just sells groceries. In other words, it’s a discount supermarket. The neighbors reacted badly to the proposed construction on the grounds that the new Walmart would increase traffic congestion in the area, chew up open space, and reduce property values. Those things are probably true. Keep in mind, this is privately owned property that was already planned and zoned for retail development even before the residential subdivisions were built. But when asked what they would want the land to be used for instead of a Walmart the nearby residents said they wanted a Whole Foods. Their primary concern wasn’t actually about traffic or loss of open space. It was really about status. Walmart is low class and reflects poorly on the “prestigious” homes in the area. A Whole Foods would have been in line with how the locals feel about themselves and their place in the social hierarchy. Unfortunately, both Whole Foods and Walmart ran the numbers on the site and the numbers (as described above) made it very clear that these people are in fact a Walmart demographic. There just isn’t enough collective disposable income in the area to support an upscale market of that size.
Now I want you to look a little closer at these photos this time. Those little blurry dots are people. When these suburbs were first built there was an unquestioned assumption that all the people who would live there would be prosperous and everyone would drive at all times. On the one hand, this was just what most buyers wanted and developers and city planners cranked out the standard suburban product. On the other hand, there was a conscious effort made to exclude “the wrong element” with zoning and building codes that made it highly unlikely that people below a certain economic threshold would ever live in the area. If the only homes that a town builds are 2,800 square feet on quarter acre lots then the only people who will be able to buy them will be relatively well off. Public transit is associated with the poor. Any attempt to make the suburbs easier to navigate without a car is equated with people who can’t afford private vehicles and is therefore discouraged. “Why would we want to attract that kind of population?” When county, state, and federal highway funding comes with strings attached suburbs reluctantly implemented half-assed bus systems as an afterthought, but these are always wildly inefficient in such dispersed environments. The more the suburbs decline the more adamant the insecure middle class becomes about eliminating the things that would make life easier for the poor.
The end result is that many of the people who once relocated to suburbia thinking they were stepping up find themselves living in an environment that doesn’t support their basic needs. The hardest hit are the young, the elderly, and the infirm since they’re the groups that are the least able to pay for private transportation. Many of these folks probably never imagined they would end up without a car or the cash to support the America Dream. But there they are on the side of a busy eight lane arterial with their grocery bags wondering what went wrong.