[permaculture] Slumburbia By TIMOTHY EGAN Opinionator Blog New York Times Feb 10/10
Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network
lakinroe at silcom.com
Thu Feb 11 11:02:59 EST 2010
February 10, 2010, 9:30 PM
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
LATHROP, Calif. - Drive along foreclosure alley, through new planned
communities that look like tile-roofed versions of a 21st century
ghost town, and you see what happens when people gamble with houses
instead of casino chips.
Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter
mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang
graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the
winter storms that have hammered California's San Joaquin Valley.
Nobody is home in the cities of the future.
In a decade, they saw real property defy reality in real time in
these insta-neighborhoods that sprouted in what had been some of the
world's most productive farmland.
In places like Lathrop, Manteca and Tracy, population nearly doubled
in 10 years, and home prices tripled. After inhaling all this real
estate helium, some developers and their apologists in urban planning
circles hailed the boom as the new America at the far exurban fringe.
Every citizen a homeowner! Half-acre lots for all! No credit, no
Others saw it as the residential embodiment of the Edward Abbey line
that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer
Now median home prices have fallen from $500,000 to $150,000 - among
the most precipitous drops in the nation - and still the houses sit
empty, spooky and see-through, waiting on demography and psychology
to catch up.
In strip malls where tenants seem to last no longer than the life
cycle of a gold fish, the bottom-feeders have moved in. "Coming soon:
Cigarette City," reads one sign here in Lathrop, near a "Cash
Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in
eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract
new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national
average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment
hovers around 16 percent?
Yet if these staggered exurbs, about two hours inland from San
Francisco, were an illness, they would not quite be Abbey's cancer.
Though sick, foreclosure alley is not terminal. This is not Detroit
with sunshine. It will be reborn, remade, inhabited. The question is:
Nationwide, a record 2.8 million homes received foreclosure notices
last year - up 119 percent from two years ago. Just under 5 million
homeowners - 1 in 10 mortgages - owe more than their houses are
worth. The impulse is to walk away. Surrender. And many have.
What they leave behind, along with the gang presence, the vandalism
and the absence of vested owners, is a slum. A new slum. In an
influential article in the Atlantic in 2008, the writer Christopher
B. Leinberger predicted that the catastrophic collapse of the new
home market could turn many of today's McMansions into tenements.
I'm not sure of that. After several days in foreclosure alley, this
broad swath of the Central Valley that has been rated by some
economists as the most stressed region during the Great Recession, I
can't see such apocalyptic forecasts coming true.
Yes, huge developments are empty, with rising crime at the edges, and
thousands of homes owned by banks that can't unload them even at
But through it all, the country churns and expands, unlike most other
Western democracies. That great American natural resource - tomorrow
- will have to save the suburban slums.
Through immigration and high birth rates, the United States is
expected to add another 100 million people by 2050. If you don't
believe me, consider that we've added 105 million people since 1970.
This is more than the population of France. More than Italy. More
than Germany. Currently, we have a net gain of one person every 13
At some point, the market will settle on proper pricing levels. At
its peak, only 11 percent of the people in this valley could afford
the median home price.
In the meantime, during these low, ragged years, a few lessons about
urban planning can be picked from the stucco pile.
One is that, at least here in California, the outlying cities
themselves encouraged the boom, spurred by the state's broken tax
system. Hemmed in by property tax limitations, cities were compelled
to increase revenue by the easiest route: expanding urban boundaries.
They let developers plow up walnut groves and vineyards and places
that were supposed to be strawberry fields forever to pay for
services demanded by new school parents and park users.
Second, look at the cities with stable and recovering home markets.
On this coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego come to
mind. All of these cities have fairly strict development codes,
trying to hem in their excess sprawl. Developers, many of them, hate
these restrictions. They said the coastal cities would eventually
price the middle class out, and start to empty.
It hasn't happened. Just the opposite. The developers' favorite role
models, the laissez faire free-for-alls - Las Vegas, the Phoenix
metro area, South Florida, this valley - are the most troubled, the
Come see: this is what happens when money and market, alone, guide
the way we live.
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