Headline Reversal

Figure 2 City and Suburb Growth Reversals

source: Brookings Institution/William Frey/May, 2014

Navigating through  a headline!

Goosing the housing recovery? A Wall St. Journal story with a big headline  and an even bigger arial picture of a housing development observed  that pronouned “Suburbs Regain their Appeal”.

The numbers in the story are not compelling; overall cities are still growing slightly faster that the suburbs- and suburbs grew at a rate of .96%, roughly on par with the .95% growth a year earlier. Not much change.

Bloggers were quick to note that the definition of suburb is key- after all, infill and higher density are taking place- particularly if the suburbs are near mass transportation.  The validity is questioned by “Bacon” the blogger.

Why not go to the source though. Note census data compiled by William Frey at the Brookings Inst itiute. The suburban growth is flat and the cities are recovering the ground they lost over the last 30 years as the Baby Boomers fled the cities.

Moving to the Burbs



The Millennials say they like the urban experience but there can be  compelling financial reasons  to move out of  the major cities. In San Franciscothe median house value (March, 2014)  in the city was  $937,500 but only $555,000 elsewhere in the Bay Area. Sixty percent of those who sell leave SF proper. But, where do they move to? A survey by Paragon Real Estate followed the trajectories of different sellers. One couple ended up in Burlingame. Why Burlingame? If you know the Bay Area, it is only 15 to 20 minutes to San Francisco….by Bart….and maybe 30 minutes  to the South Bay….by Caltrain. Sellers may be leaving the city, but they are not necessarily jumping in their cars when they do so.

Driving- in- Place



Aging in Place (from the National Association of Home Builders web):

Homeowners want to stay in their homes for the duration. By instituting simple universal design techniques, professional Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists can insure that you live in your home comfortable, safely and independently for as long as you want.”

I like the NAHB site- don’t get me wrong. But really, has anyone thought out driving-in-place? Better put,driving-from-place? No matter how well you retrofit a home for aging, you can not change the simple facts of getter older and driving ability.


Back to the Garden



It is hard to ignore the lead real-estate stories in the Wall St. Journal  (5/7/2014).

The first story, p.1 , finds that in Cleveland and other cities there is high demand for inner-city apartments. Office spaces are being converted into apartments to meet the new demand.

Developers Turn Former Office Buildings Into High-End Apartments – WSJ.com.

The second story, p. c1, is that there is a real-estate slump in Hong Kong. New complexes are not seeing the buyers (but the prices, at US$2,500 a square foot) might be a deterrent.

But, the real story, p. c10, brings the two stories together. In  Hong Kong buyers are showing a preference  for vintage apartments, built from say  1960 to 1980. These units do not look as pretty on the outside, but they have more space and better layouts. People don’t seem to care if their residence lacks a clubhouse or a gym.

So, what does that have to do with Cleveland and the surge in apartments  there?  As younger people move out of the suburbs and discover more urban settings, they take with them an affinity for more eclectic spaces, openness, charm, and some garden greenery.


A Bus Called “Bridg’



And finally,  a  local story for a change….Somewhat like the Google bus and other private shuttles that operate in San Francisco, a kid/entrepreneur in Brookline’s Mass. Coolidge Corner says he will start a “pop up” bus service in May, 2014. The service called “Bridg”  will be a supplement to Boston’s MBTA service. The kid/entrepreneur , Matthew George, compiles data of where peopel live and work, and uses it to create a more direct bus service.  “Bridg” (a.k.a., not Bridget) seems  ambitious, with plans to expand the service”every week” (Brookline Tab, 4/16/2014). But, it did receive startup financing- just like  SF!

Perhaps this is a throw back to a much earlier time when there was competition in mass transportation . Depending on its success, the concept could move the Boomers from their surburban and exurb houses into the mainstream.


Location Efficient Mortgage


source: Victoria Transposrtation Policy Institute, 2006


While we are spotlighting the H+T index developed by the Center for Technology, we should also return to a more “homely” instrument used by a few Boomers to buy their first home.

The L.E. M., or location efficient mortgage, was introduced by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the National Resources Defense Council, and backed  by Fannie Mae (FNMA),circa 1999. One article called it the “Bus-Riders Mortgage”  (Wikipedia). The goal was to let borrowers who lived in an area close to jobs centers and shopping opportunities qualify for a larger mortgage. The intuition was that they could cut down on their transportation costs, which are typically 1/3 of more of the household expense. There were offered in SF, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles.

During the housing recession, “exurb” homes did fall in value more than urban properties. The  L.E.M. mortages, although few in number, are thought to have had a lower default rate.

The chart, presented by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, is from 2006 data. It would be timely to look at the current affordability index.


Drive to Qualify


If  “Houses of Boom” had a subtitle, it would be “Drive2 Qualify”.  Booomers will remember that phrase was the mantra of real-estate agents. Larger, more affordable properties were located further away, and that spurred longer commutes.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicavo has now quanitified what “Drive2qualify” means in financial terms. Using their map tool  you can see how nearly 180,000 neighborhoods are affected when you add the cost of transportation to their cost of housing.

There are more dimension to this, waiting to be mapped: the physical time it takes to travel (google maps),  the use of energy and  dependence on fossil fuels for transportation, and the use of energy, and human investment  in  these longer commutes.





Home to the Car

Donald Shoup of UCLA has made planners everywhere aware of the hidden costs and consequences of  vehicle parking. The extensions to housing and real-esate are obvious. When we build homes and carports, we reduce the need for on-street parking. However, the cost of building increases, and for suburban tract homes, 20 to 25% of the overall square footage may be relegated for vehicles. The design and physical layout of a home are also impacted by the garage. While no one wants to give up their parking space, think of design in a future city where ShareCars are the norm, and taxi services like Uber or Lyft are more common. Meanwhile, in  the chart, you can see that the Northeast is the least likely area  of the country to have garages and carports, and the West is the most likely. One is older and one is new…but neither are contemporary.

The Neighborhood Not

no entry-no exit
no entry-no exit

Driving in America will be a problem as the population ages. “Houses of Boom” recognizes the problem.

But, the issue is finding an alternative.  These  are sobering statistics from “www. smartgrowth america”:

  • Almost 40 percent of Americans over the age of 50 say their neighborhoods lack adequate sidewalks.
  • 55 percent report inadequate bike lanes or paths.
  • 48 percent have no comfortable place to wait for the bus (addendum: this assumes there is as bus!)

How will Boomers get from here to there- enjoyable and safely? In older suburban neighborhoods,  even Levittown, sidewalks were part of the infrastructure. And, access to public transportation, like rail, was feasible, albeit at a distance.  The newer suburbs lack transport redundancy and are built solely around car. Going forward, how will we?

What about the Kids?



What about the kids?…and why a map of Long Island?
Most urban planners and transportation analysts know  a lot about Levittown. One of  the reasons that it was so popular was that parents wanted a superior place to raise their children.  J. Llance Mallamo*, a Suffolk County Historian, writes that in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were numerous fantasy and youth related establishments there . “At one time Long Island boasted a seemingly never-ending host of childhood delights including Syosset’s Lollipop Farm, Frank Buck’s Zoo and Monkey Mountain, and Harveys…”.

What changed? Mallamo says demographics but could it really be The Houses of Boom? In the 1980s and 1990s  we built McMansions that turned child raising inside and inward.

*see Long Island Architecture, ed. Joann Krieg, 1991