What do you do with an aging suburb that can’t compete with either the trendy urban core or newer upscale suburbs? This is the challenge confronting many lackluster communities all across the country.
One approach is to reinvent the place with soft infrastructure – otherwise known as… people. An unadorned anonymous 1970’s concrete box turns out to be the absolute perfect spot for a group of tech savvy young musicians.
This group has a million followers across Latin American and they earn good money on their web based platform. Similar studio space in the downtown core is prohibitively expensive. Residential city rents are equally high. Setting up shop in an exclusive outer suburb is not only pricey, but culturally awkward. Here in this overlooked older suburb these young people can live, work, and play comfortably on a shoestring budget.
Given the cost of an upscale exurban home or downtown condo these modest older homes are imminently affordable for young buyers. They’re easy to improve and expand over time. They offer more space than a city apartment while providing home ownership, privacy, and a bit of land. This could be the sweet spot for a new generation, particularly as they start to get married and have children.
The woman who owns the music studio lives next door and is in the process of upgrading and expanding her home. In fact, she owns a few nearby properties that she’s been renovating and renting out to smart engaged young people.
She was able to purchase three buildings and the adjacent vacant lot for a grand total of $190K. That’s less than one city condo or newer suburban home in most locations. Each building was more or less in good condition. They just needed to be cleaned, painted, and brought up to a slightly more modern standard. That was accomplished on a tight budget. She paid cash and now lives comfortably on rental income. This is a highly resilient economic situation for her and a good deal for her tenants since she’s actively engaged in promoting everyone’s ongoing success. Now they’re all eager to see more like-minded people move in to the neighborhood. They’ve already formed a daisy chain of friends creating a draw for the area.
Wouldn’t it be great if the VCR repair shop across the street were repurposed into something more relevant to the needs of a new generation? There’s a lot of plain vanilla real estate available at reasonable prices waiting to be reinvented.
Around the corner another woman owns three shops that offer items at three different price points. She buys bulk lots of estate merchandise and sorts things into high quality, medium quality, and utilitarian items. Each of her shops serves a different need in the community. People can spend real money on beautiful antique furniture or buy a $5 chair depending on which of the three shops they gravitate towards. She’s engaged in the community and actively participates in events that build social capital with other shopkeepers and residents.
This is the dynamic interconnected soft infrastructure that elevates a town over time. It isn’t about money. It doesn’t necessarily involve government. It’s more subtle and fine grained than any top down economic development program or subsidy scheme. In a cash constrained world this may be one of the few paths forward for a lot of places.