[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

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 
Advance" outlet.

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: 
as what?
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 
fire-sale prices.
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 
suburban slums.
Come see: this is what happens when money and market, alone, guide 
the way we live.

More information about the permaculture mailing list