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An Urban or Suburban Future: A Review of Foreclosing the Dream by William H. Lucy

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From its title one expects that Foreclosing the Dream: How America's Housing Crisis is Reshaping our Cities and Suburbs, the new book from William H. Lucy, professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia, will be about the impact of the mortgage foreclosure crisis on the pattern of metropolitan growth in America, but that expectation turns out to be far less than half the story. It is not long in reading the book that one learns that Prof. Lucy is using the crisis as a "teachable moment."

The lesson Lucy wants to impart has more to do with long-term demographic and cultural change than any particular crisis; he believes that America has reached a point where the long trend toward more dispersed and suburban living is turning toward a more urban future. As he sees it, the foreclosure crisis is more an effect of this turn, if a reinforcing one, than a cause.

To begin the book, however, Lucy describes the foreclosure crisis vividly, and paints it as primarily a suburban event. The data back him up, inasmuch as foreclosures have been concentrated in the booming metropolitan edges of Florida, Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. A connection between the crisis and the nature of development in the suburbs is not, however, so clear.

Foreclosures have largely occurred where there are a lot of new mortgages, and that necessarily means places where there has been a lot of recent development. Those areas are mostly on the metropolitan fringe, and, yes, foreclosures have been concentrated there, in what Lucy calls the "Ring of Death." But not all recent development was on the edge, and not all foreclosures occur there, either.

For example, and as Lucy points out, officials in Minnesota produced a detailed map showing foreclosures by census tracts, and found that while, in Lucy's words, the foreclosure problem "skips over the more prosperous and longer established suburbs," there were exceptions, namely in "newly developing townhome areas within long-established cities." Lucy himself describes empty condominiums, what he calls "the dark tower at the center of town," built during the boom in downtowns all over; while those developments may have not found buyers to reach the mortgage and then foreclosure stages, there are many downtown developers who went under.

Lucy recognizes this, and quickly pivots to his main argument about the impact of demographic and cultural changes. He identifies two "huge movements" -- the housing bubble and demographic changes -- that caused the foreclosure crisis, but says that the former is "strictly of its time" (created in great part by conscious policies to promote an "ownership society"), while the latter represents a "profound and momentous change in our society".

Lucy cites data assembled by Arthur Nelson of the University of Utah for the proposition that by reason of the aging of one generation, the Baby Boomers, and the youth of the next large generation, the Millennials, there will be a surplus of single-family houses until 2025. Lucy also cites data showing that for the first time in decades per capita income has been rising inside cities, while poverty has been increasing in suburbs (particularly inner-ring suburbs). He argues that cultural changes as well as the demographics mean future growth will be urban, and even though developers overbuilt condominiums in cities, they were not wrong about the direction the market is taking.

Lucy points to declining housing values in the suburbs as a sign that people are now preferring cities (and that retiring Baby Boomers are selling their suburban houses), but it is not clear how strong or long-lasting this trend will be. One could just as well argue that the post-bubble surplus of discounted houses on the fringe is the likely location for near-term population growth in places like Southern California where rising housing prices have discouraged investment in new businesses because entrepreneurs could not be sure their employees would be able to afford housing. That problem appears solved, at least for a while.

One would hope that cities could recognize the opportunities the changing demographics offer and encourage investment in housing, but NIMBYism within the city is an obstacle. Lucy surely gets it right when he discusses the politics of infill development, and finds that:

A glance at the headlines... will show that anything of this sort [infill development] always draws tremendous opposition from political left and right alike. It sometimes seems as though the one thing industry and environmentalists, conservative suburbanites and liberal city-dwellers, rich and poor can all agree on is that they don't want dense new development nearby.

As Lucy points out, these difficulties are exacerbated by the absence of regional planning and government.

As a city-lover I hope Lucy's predictions prove true, but they are no more convincing than those of suburban loyalists like Joel Kotkin, who base their case on ideologies about "what people want". Patterns of future growth are subject not only to factual givens, like demographics, but also to the vagaries of popular culture, public policies, the market and the economy. In the end, regardless of all those factors, lovers of and believers in the city must do their part to create good places for living. In this case the (paraphrased) refrain from Field of Dreams is accurate: "If you build it they will come".

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.