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Oops, we built too much

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New York Times online contributor Timothy Egan reflects on the state of California's empire of foreclosure:

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 problem!

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 cell.”

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.

 Egan believes that we will eventually grow into our overbuilt housing stock. But he also points to some valuable lessons we should take from this moment:

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.

--Bruce D. Snider

 

 
 

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