Are Suburbs Triumphant?

In a recent post, I speculated that suburban development in the IE might be on the rebound after a decade of slow housing construction. Other cities, especially in the Sunbelt & Texas, have reached their pre-crisis housing output.

After the financial crisis, there was a moment when urban counties were growing faster than suburbs, and pop wisdom held that suburbs were dead and people were returning to cities. This was always suspect, because severe zoning restrictions were clearly going to make it difficult for many people to do so. Now, though, with suburban construction picking up and surveys consistently showing that most people want to own their own single-family home, it feels like the pendulum of pop wisdom has swung too far in the direction of suburban triumphalism. So let’s look at a few ways that post-crisis suburbanization is different than the pattern that had held since World War 2.

Suburbs Are Back, But They’re Not the Same

Like an athlete returning to play after a serious injury, the suburbs don’t have the same range of skills they once did.

One of the most obvious ways suburban development is different is a lack of golf course development. When I worked in highway design, we did a fair amount of land development work for new residential projects, including communities centered around golf courses. Nobody is building golf course development now; the number of courses in the US has been slowly declining. The decline has created a desire for infill development in some places; for example, Rancho Cucamonga is allowing housing to be constructed on a former course.

Another obvious difference is the lack of new commercial construction. Whether it’s due to oversupply from before the crash or the increasing impact of online retail, as of a few years ago, no new enclosed malls had been built since before the financial crisis. (I tried to find updated info but couldn’t.) Mall vacancy was very slow decline after the recession and has actually ticked up the last couple months. Since many suburbs depend on sales and property taxes generated by commercial development, the lack of growth in retail space strains municipal budgets.

Meanwhile, while some cities have recovered, national housing production remains at historically low levels, including for single-family housing. Some fast growing cities, like Atlanta and Phoenix, are still not producing as much housing as they once were, despite increasing prices. As Calculated Risk frequently notes, suburban builders are not producing entry-level homes they way they once did.

The Desire for Cities is Real

While the increase in desire to live in cities, or at least walkable neighborhoods and older suburbs close to cities, may have been overstated, it is nevertheless very real. On a recent walking tour of neighborhoods in East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz, someone mentioned this to me as one of the primary differences between now and the 1980s, and I think they’re right.

In the past, except for a few enclaves like Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Hancock Park, people with the means to move to new development in the suburbs generally did so. For whatever reason, some people with money have decided they want to live closer to the city, and they are outbidding lower income people. Jed Kolko did an analysis in 2016 and found that people aren’t urbanizing, but money is. The result is that the people moving to new suburbs aren’t the wealthier people, at the same time that suburbs are not producing entry-level housing and are being squeezed by lackluster commercial growth.

We Still Need to Upzone Cities

A lot of new housing is going to be produced in suburbs, and we need to look at the reasons why it’s not as affordable as it once was. But that still won’t solve the problems in cities outlined above. People want to live closer to cities, and if we don’t build enough housing, somebody will lose out.

3 thoughts on “Are Suburbs Triumphant?

  1. Henry Fung

    In terms of retail, one important factor that has accelerated since the last bubble popped is consolidation of chain retail. The merger of Macy’s and Robinson’s May, the complete decline of once prominent category killers like Best Buy and Toys R Us, Albertson’s and Safeway essentially being one chain, etc. means that there is so much oversupplied retail space. In diverse markets supermarkets can become ethnic and become regional draws for that community, like Super King for the Armenians, 99 Ranch for the Chinese, or Cardenas for Hispanics, but in traditional mono-racial suburbia like that in Santa Clarita these retail centers are not needed when you only have Kroger and Safeway as your mainline chain grocer options. I’m reminded when I visited Klamath Falls, which had eight mainline grocery stores for a county of less than 70,000 and a trading area of maybe 100,000. When Albertsons bought Safeway and Haggen failed, that cut that down by half (IGA, Albertsons, Grocery Outlet, and Fred Meyer).

    In a neighborhood I’m very familiar with, most of the 60’s era grocery store shopping centers have become evangelical churches. I don’t see them well attended based on parking lot use, but they must have gotten them on the cheap, while the buildings still have life on them. But once the roofs start leaking and the parking lot needs repavement, the next step is for them to become housing.

  2. TV James

    Thanks for this. It seems like the houses are big and the land smaller. As older neighborhoods mature and houses are renovated or replaced, there becomes fewer and fewer starter homes. (Same with new apartments in LA, big fancy affairs all chasing after the same wealthier part of the spectrum.) Blame land costs, parking requirements, a disinterest from local government in the cost/benefit of housing over other types of property, whatever. But I think it’s real.


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