Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rethinking the Suburbs (again! or, still....)

The Atlantic article that I posted about back in February is quoted in a NYT article from today, entitled Rethinking the Country Life as Energy Costs Rise. The specific quote is, “Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s — slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay,” declared Christopher B. Leinberger, an urban land use expert, in a recent essay in The Atlantic Monthly.

The NYT article is one more in a long line of articles recently extrapolating the rising costs of living in suburbia, or exurbia, and how home prices are plummeting. People are realizing that this whole $4 a gallon thing is probably gonna stick around, and only get worse.

Basic household arithmetic appears to be furthering the trend: In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April of this year — when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon— the same household was spending $3,196 a year, more than doubling consumption in dollar terms in less than five years.


But life on the edges of suburbia is beginning to feel untenable. Mr. Boyle and his wife must drive nearly an hour to their jobs in the high-tech corridor of southern Denver. With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, Mr. Boyle recently paid $121 to fill his pickup truck with diesel fuel. In March, the last time he filled his propane tank to heat his spacious house, he paid $566, more than twice the price of 5 years ago.

Though Mr. Boyle finds city life unappealing, it is now up for reconsideration.


Juanita Johnson and her husband, both retired Denver schoolteachers, moved here last August, after three decades in the city and a few years in the mountains. They bought a four-bedroom house for $415,000.

Last winter, they spent $3,000 on propane for heat, she said. Suddenly, this seemed like a place to flee. “We’d sell if we could, but we’d lose our shirt,” Ms. Johnson said. Recently she counted 15 sale signs. One home nearby is listed below $400,000.

“I was so glad to get out of the city, the pollution the traffic, the crime,” she said. Now, the suburbs seem mean. “I wouldn’t do this again.”

I guess if you have enough money to buy a $415,000 home and commute, you don't think too much about fuel costs until they're an issue. But I find that so strange. How could you not? It's like when I was watching The Unforeseen, the documentary about growth in Austin, when they talking to the couple who bought the home in a tract subdivision out in the middle of desert nowhere, with fake grass and trees planted everywhere. The couple was shocked when suddenly they were being forced to ration water, not being allowed to water their lawns, and their home values were plummeting.

Oh, really??? What did you expect? I'm not righteously blaming these people necessarily; I understand the desire to own your own home, and it's just not doable in the city for most people. It's sad, though, the position these people have put themselves into.

And speaking of that, one more reason why I'm changing my stance on welfare medicine: the CDC reported today that 8% of Americans now have diabetes. And another roughly 16% have pre-diabetes risk conditions.

I asked a good friend this morning who originally pointed this out to me if my new stance against socialized medicine* made me a Republican, and he said no, it just made me someone who didn't want to have to pay for other people's bad choices.

*I'm not really against socialized medicine per se, just against a welfare system. I think people who take care of themselves and take preventative measures should be rewarded, while those who don't should have to pay for the extra care. As my friend said, he thinks this country knows the difference between someone who gets fat and lazy and eats badly and someone who needs help because they were in a car wreck. Touche.

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