This is just one of a number of major news stories piling up on how the fermenting deep recession in the United States, along with falling and flailing house prices, are likely to turn great swathes of suburban American 'McMansionLand' into the slums of tomorrow :
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.
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.
Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.
If there are not enough customers to buy these millions of homes, entire suburbs may have to be bulldozed, or McMansions will have to be converted into apartments.
Americans are moving back to the cities, searching for lifestyles that don't include long hours of commuting and lifeless mall complexes. Town planners are reacting to new lifestyle demands that don't include needing to pile the family into the car to go and buy an ice-cream, or to catch a movie. Americans, apparently, want to do more walking.
If the American Dream was actually the Suburban Dream, owning your own three or four bedroom home on a large block in tree-lined suburbia, it sounds like that dream is coming to an end. At least, the growth of suburban America as typified by 1950s and 1960s television shows and domestic-bliss Hollywood movies is apparently peaking. Smaller families, lower wages, higher inflation means smaller homes for most.
Tens of thousands, and expected to soon be hundreds of thousands of Americans, are giving up on fighting the banks to keep their homes in the suburbs, and are choosing instead to walk away rather than attempt to pay off a home they brought for far more than what it's now worth.
They are simply packing up and disappearing into the night, abandoning their homes to intruders, squatters and the elements.
How the United States deals with the long-term economic destruction of the sub-prime fiasco, and how Americans return to the cities and urban centres and what results from such a monumental reshaping of where Americans choose, or are forced, to live will be extremely interesting to watch.