Exurbia’s Long Winter

An unfinished subdivision in Mountain House, CA.  Source: theatlantic.com

Familiar with “zombie” subdivisions?  This Atlantic article sums them up pretty nicely:

“They’re one of the most visible reminders of the housing boom and bust, planned and paved in the heady days where it seemed that everybody wanted a home in the suburbs, and could afford it, too. But when the economy tanked, many of the developers behind these subdivisions went belly-up, and construction stopped. In some cases, a few people have moved into homes in these half-built subdivisions, requiring services to be delivered there. In others, the land is empty, except for roads, sidewalks, and the few street signs that haven’t been stolen yet. In some counties in the West, anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant, according to the Sonoran Institute.”

The question now is what will become of unfinished suburbia?  Now that we’re some 6-8 years into a “new normal” for housing development, and there are growing signs of potential homebuyers and renters showing a preference for a more diverse range of community types and housing choice, what will happen to zombie subdivisions, most of which are located at the outer edges of suburbia?

Many readers of this blog may be aware that I spent a few years working for one of the Chicago area’s major “boomburbs” of the last twenty years, Joliet, Illinois.  Most of its huge growth predated my time there (I started there in 2007), but the city was quite proud of the accomplishment.  In many respects, you can’t blame them for that.  Joliet was a town built on three prongs — steel, a prison and river traffic — for much of the 20th century.  Joliet grew steadily and consistently between 1900 and 1970, approaching 79,000 residents by 1970.  Then, with the contraction of the steel industry, the closing of the in-town prison and the explosion of truck freight replacing barge traffic, growth stalled for nearly 20 years.  It was during this time that the city sought to remake itself as a suburban Chicago community rather than an outlying satellite city, and compete with surrounding towns for new home construction and homebuyers.  The plan worked.  Joliet grew by nearly 40 percent in both the 1990-2000 and 2000-2010 decades, getting to more than 147,000 residents.

When I interviewed for my position in Joliet in 2007, I asked the planning director if the city had done any projections of the ramifications of full build-out for the city.  He indicated that, even though there were signs of housing development weakening at that time, he would still project that housing development was strong enough to put Joliet at around 250,000 residents by 2020.  Maybe even 300,000.

Truth be told, however, residential growth in Joliet came to a grinding halt by 2008, and has basically flatlined ever since.  The 137,433 Joliet residents reported in the 2010 Census has become 147,806 in the 2013 American Community Survey, a gain of just 0.3% over three years.  That growth rate is lower than natural replacement levels (births over deaths), indicating that Joliet is beginning to experience some population outflow once again.  On the residential development side, a big part of what’s been left behind in Joliet are subdivisions that are far from complete at the outer edges of the city — 60 percent complete, 50 percent complete, often less — with diminishing expectations on their completion.

Astute followers of history will know that America has been down this road before, and a quick resolution to this is probably not in the offing.

Most of America’s large cities annexed and subdivided in the 1910s and 1920s in the same way that many suburbs or smaller cities did in the 1990s and 2000s.  The speculative frenzy that drove real estate development was rampant.   But when land prices were revealed to be unsustainable, and the supply for new housing began to greatly exceed the demand, a huge correction was inevitable.    The Great Depression hit; building ceased for decades.  Some building did begin to come back in large cities in the late ’40s and into the late ’50s, but that was relatively short-lived; suburban and Sun Belt development took hold and dominated for the next half century.

To answer that question of what will become of unfinished suburbia, I have two examples that are not exactly favorable.  The neighborhood in Detroit where I grew up was annexed into the city in 1926, but my house and all others in the area were not built until 1950 or later.  My uncle used to remark that he and my grandfather used to hunt on land where my house would later stand.  The location of my South Side home in Chicago was annexed into the city in 1890, but the home was not constructed until 1958.

I think many communities with zombie subdivisions and grand intentions of filling them may have a very long wait ahead of them

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