Strong opinions, weakly held

The future of the exurbs

Over the past decade or two, it’s been impossible not to notice the trend of people moving back into cities from the suburbs, and more recently, the rise of engineered walkable neighborhoods in suburban centers that emulate some of the best qualities of city life. Call it urban renewal if you like, or gentrification if you’re less sanguine about it, the trend is real and it’s certainly coming to a city near you.

The big question has always been what happens to people of lesser means to whom the city centers were abandoned in the second half of the 20th century. Renters will be leaving as their landlords cash in by selling their land for redevelopment, and rising property taxes insure that homeowners in poorer neighborhoods don’t stick around.

In the current Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Leinberger argues that they’ll be moving to the suburbs, or more likely, the exurbs. Just as mass abandonment of the city for suburbs created a huge stock of cheap housing, the reverse migration of people back into the city will leave plenty of houses that are suddenly extremely affordable. Here are some numbers:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

Those houses are going to be the cheap rental properties of the future.

There’s definitely a lot more going on in the US housing market than the subprime collapse.


  1. A “large lot” is 1/6th of an acre? Doesn’t feel like it to me.

  2. I haven’t yet read the f*&%$!ing article, but–outside of a few of the largest cities–I just don’t see new urban living as a replacement for the suburbs for families. In the Austin area, I can currently get a large new(er) house in the burbs with good schools for, say, $250K (looks like the median home price for 2006 was $173K).

    Meanwhile, all the new condos going in downtown are much more expensive and very small. Plus, you have generally less attractive Austin ISD schools to deal with. Furthermore, in many cities, like Austin, major employers are not necessarily all centered downtown.

  3. It’ll be interesting to see of the “suburbs = good schools” equation continues to hold up as reliably as it does right now.

  4. OK, now I’ve RTFA… My conclusion: I accept the thesis that poorer people are being pushed out of the city centers, but I am still skeptical whether center-city housing will replace the more affluent suburbs anytime soon.

    Also, I feel that this article has a strong East-coast bias. I think that many of the statements don’t apply so well to other parts of the country.

    Take this statement, for instance:

    This future is not likely to wear well on suburban housing. Many of the inner-city neighborhoods that began their decline in the 1960s consisted of sturdily built, turn-of-the-century row houses, tough enough to withstand being broken up into apartments, and requiring relatively little upkeep. By comparison, modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls.

    The areas of Austin that are being gentrified are primarily single-family suburban houses of early generations–that were built just as poorly as current suburban homes.

    As another example, the author refers repeatedly to the importance of good public transportation to the gentrification process or the viability of suburbs. Around here, no area currently has good public transportation. Virtually everyone who moves into the expensive downtown condos in Austin still needs a car, and a large portion of them drive to work and to do much of their shopping.

  5. I think that “replace” is too strong a word for sure. I think though that in the future there will be more balance than there is today, and there’s already more balance today than there was even ten years ago.

  6. Rafe, that’s a very interesting article and post.

    In the Raleigh area I don’t see folks necessarily moving downtown so much as I see the Suburbs sprouting “downtown like” areas. North Hills in Raleigh is a great example as is Crabtree Valley, Southpoint in Durham, or even the new ParkWest development in Morrissville. I don’t know how this compares to more mature cities, but I’m certainly surprised at the density of development going on in this area.

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