The Next Real Estate Boom
Christopher B. Leinberger, Patrick C. Doherty, Director, Smart Strategy Initiative, New America Foundation
We’re unlikely, however, to see a real estate recovery based on a continuation of the type of development that has driven the industry for the past few generations: low-density, car-dependent suburbs growing out of cornfields at the edge of metropolitan areas. That’s because there is now a massive oversupply of such suburban fringe development, brought on by decades of policy favoring it—including heavy government subsidies for extending roads, sewers, and utilities into undeveloped land. Houses on the exurban fringe of several large metro areas have typically lost more than twice as much value as metro areas as a whole since the mid-decade peak. Many of those homes are now priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them, which means that their owners have no financial incentive to invest in their upkeep. Under such conditions, whole neighborhoods swiftly decline and turn into slums. This happened in many inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s, and we’re seeing evidence of it in many exurban neighborhoods today. The Los Angeles Times reports that in one gated community in Hemet, east of L.A., McMansions with granite countertops and vaulted ceilings are being rented to poor families on Section 8 vouchers; according to the Washington Examiner, similar homes in Germantown, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., are being converted to boarding houses.
Many hope that when the economy recovers, demand will pick up, inventories of empty homes will be whittled down, and the traditional suburban development machine will lumber back to life. But don’t bet on it. Demand for standard-issue suburban housing is going down, not up, a trend that was apparent even before the crash. In 2006, Arthur C. Nelson, now at the University of Utah, estimated in the Journal of the American Planning Association that there will be 22 million unwanted large-lot suburban homes by 2025.