I’ve noticed a common downward trajectory of neighborhoods all across the country. It’s the same process I witnessed as a much younger person when inner cities went belly up beginning in the 1960’s. Now it’s happening in the suburbs. The economic tide is rolling out and the detritus left behind isn’t pretty.
Over and over again I’m told the problem is that the “wrong element” has moved in and “taken over.” The story is repeated verbatim in every state. “Upright virtuous people used to live here. Now it’s all lazy trash and people looking for handouts, scraping by on public assistance, and destroying everything they touch.” There’s also the meme that evil extractive investors buy up property and degrade these once perfect neighborhoods. I understand why this narrative is popular. But people don’t understand that neighborhoods lose value first, then poorer people arrive when prices drop – not the other way around. The moralizing and hand wringing is a side show after the fact.
The solutions towns reach for are oriented around repelling what is believed to be the wrong people with an enforcement regime that mandates middle class appearances. If you don’t cut the grass and trim the bushes around your home there are heavy fines. If people “loiter” (meaning walk or otherwise look unsavory when not inside a respectable home or car) they’re stopped by the police. Ordinances are created to force local businesses to have more attractive signage. There’s an effort to put unsightly utility wires underground and a general obsession with making things tidy and planting flowers. Ever more regulations are imposed that micromanage the way buildings can be used and what can and can’t be built or modified. But these rules are designed to correct the cosmetic symptoms, not the root causes. So the decline continues.
Out on the aging suburban arterials the old 1950’s motels have converted to de facto affordable housing for transient low income populations. It’s awkward to simply declare motels illegal and shut them down. The owners would have to be compensated if the bulldozers ripped them up as many officials would prefer. But a police substation (I’m sorry – a community resource center) is installed next door to remind the residents and management alike that they’re on thin ice. Beating back poverty is an expensive and time consuming activity, especially in a town with a shrinking tax base and the burden of maintaining aging infrastructure. The proliferation of rehabilitation centers and halfway houses falls into a similar category.
The dark side of this process is that it becomes ever more difficult to repurpose these buildings due to the endless prohibitions and restrictions that are zealously enforced. In an attempt to banish blight the landscape is simultaneously sterilized from productive reinvention. It’s worth noting here that everything inner cities did to shore themselves up in the dark decades of their decline not only didn’t help, but actually made things worse. Urban renewal – pulling down block after block of historic buildings to make way for parking lots – made them less desirable when the pendulum finally swung back in favor of downtown living.
One of the ways newer suburbs have attempted to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening is to mandate minimum home and lot sizes. A 4,000 square foot house comes in at a certain price point that lower income people simply can’t afford. Problem solved, right? Well… I witnessed numerous subdivisions in Southern California collapse in value after the 2008 financial crisis. No buyers appeared and the foreclosed properties sat empty until they were bought by investors for pennies on the dollar. The absentee landlords then rented to whoever made the homes cash flow.
The solution to the problem of unsavory renters infiltrating a neighborhood often comes in the form of HOAs and CC&Rs that forbid rentals within private communities. In this case properties that lose value and can’t sell simply remain vacant until the price drops enough for lower income families to purchase and inhabit the homes rather than rent. The arrival of “inferior” owners infuriates older residents who tend to move even if selling involves a financial loss. “We got out just in time.” Rinse. Repeat.
The other thing to keep in mind is that production home builders and material suppliers have gotten very creative when it comes to supplying the demand for large homes by making them out of compressed dust and plastic film. Some of these places look like they were manufactured from cake frosting. They don’t hold up very well without continual care and feeding.
There are larger economic forces at work here that can’t be addressed by local regulations. The American middle class has been shrinking for at least thirty years. Wealth and opportunity have been concentrating in fewer and fewer geographic locations. And across-the-board saturation debt levels are choking off more and more options for the larger population. Maintaining the suburbs in the ways they were designed to be maintained is extraordinarily expensive. And we’re broke. You can’t legislate prosperity. And moralizing about the failures of the inferior classes doesn’t accomplish much – especially when a great many of those poor people might once have been middle class.