Suburban Slums?

When we hear the word “slum” we think of run down urban areas with unmaintained buildings bearing broken or boarded up windows, trash filled vacant lots, and an active and rampant criminal element. But how often has the word been applied to the suburbs? In the past, never. Bit these days, slums are more likely to be found away from the cities and in the suburbs. Perhaps it can be blamed on the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

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.

In the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent in suburban Lee County, Florida, where one in four houses stands empty. Charlotte’s crime rates have stayed flat overall in recent years—but from 2003 to 2006, in the 10 suburbs of the city that have experienced the highest foreclosure rates, crime rose 33 percent. Civic organizations in some suburbs have begun to mow the lawns around empty houses to keep up the appearance of stability. Police departments are mapping foreclosures in an effort to identify emerging criminal hot spots.

Empty homes become tempting targets for the homeless and drug users and dealers. No one is around to stop them from forcing their way in and setting up residence. It's a cycle we've seen in cities, where abandoned buildings attract the criminal element, which in turn drives law abiding residents to leave, which means even more empty buildings and homes for the squatters to take over. A once vibrant neighborhood becomes a dangerous place, crime rates soar, and entire blocks decay into something looking like films we've seen of bombed out cities during World War II.

As urban neighborhoods have been gentrified - rehabilitated and renovated – the criminal element has been driven out. As homes in suburban areas have become vacant due to the mortgage crisis, in many cases in newer developments, denizens once seen only in urban slums have moved out to the suburbs where the pickings are easy.

Also, many of the larger suburban homes, so-called McMansions, may end up being renovated and turned into apartments. They will become the new tenements, bringing the problems that go along with them out to the 'burbs.

While this isn't likely to occur everywhere, it will happen in enough places to make the suburbs in a lot of areas less than desirable places to live.

I don't expect something like that to happen here in central New Hampshire as we're probably too rural and many of the McMansions around here are second homes, not the type that would be affected by the sub-prime loan crisis.

Not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Living patterns have been changing which are also contributing the problem.

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.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

People like the convenience of urban living. Everything is within walking distance, unlike the suburbs where you have to get in your car to do anything. Only suburban areas with a similar set up to urban areas – everything within walking distance – will continue to see an in-migration. Of course we've had something like that here in New England for a long time. They're called villages.

The stereotypical New England village had just about everything one needed close by. There are shops, restaurants, and many businesses in a central area, with residences mixed in or along the periphery of the 'downtown' part of the village. Just about everything was within walking distance, even the schools.

But that changed in the late 1940's when the first suburban housing development was built in Levittown, New York. The model created by that housing development hasn't changed much in 60 years, and that's one of the causes of what we're seeing in the 'slummification' of the suburbs. Maybe it's time shed ourselves of that broken model and take a step back to something that worked for a couple of hundred years, namely that stereotypical New England village.

Of course I've gone off on a tangent, but it is germane to the post. Maybe the best thing that could happen to these developing suburban slums is for them to be bulldozed, much as vacant buildings in urban slums were demolished to prevent them from being used by the more unsavory members of our society. Squatters should be evicted and, if necessary, jailed, much as what happened in urban areas. Suburban slums are not inevitable, but all it takes to create them is neglect. That's a lesson that was learned some time ago in the cities. Now it's time for the suburbs to learn the same thing.

(H/T Maggie's Farm)

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