The problem of older suburbsIt's a very busy week, so a quick pass-along this morning. An interesting Alan Ehrenhalt column in Governing magazine on the deepening problems of inner-ring suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s, of which Houston has quite a few. The core problem: the houses are just too small relative to what most families are willing to live in these days, generally around 1,000 square feet. This story hit home because my own house in Meyerland is a tiny 2-bedroom from the 1950s that got expanded into a 4-bedroom in the 1970's with a two story addition in the back. There's no way we would have bought the house at its original size.
So house size turns out to be the primary driver of the middle-aged suburban syndrome. From it flow most of the other consequences: first, population decline, then loss of retail business, weakened public schools, even crime. Lucy and Phillips put it rather succinctly: “Everything is worn — houses, schools, streets and commercial districts. Many residents experience these conditions and leave. Many prospective residents anticipate them getting worse and they don’t buy.”and some proposed, albeit weak, solutions:
Houston has the "tear-down and replace with multiple townhomes" solution inside the Loop, but there are plenty of other areas where that's not gonna happen. Maybe Houston should consider some of these other ideas for neighborhood revitalization programs?
Some of them are modest and simple, such as distributing guidebooks to show homeowners exactly what they need to do to turn a small house into a bigger one. Some local governments offer lists of contractors and lenders willing to take them on. Others have waived the standard permit fees for the house expansions they particularly want to encourage.
In the Kansas City area, the metropolitan regional council publishes what it calls the First Suburbs Coalition Idea Book, with design ideas for renovation of almost every common middle-aged suburban house, along with practical lending advice. Chicago has its “bungalow initiative,” through which small-house owners are given free permit assistance, discounts from vendors, as well as financing assistance.
None of these programs are guaranteed solutions for any middle-aged neighborhood that has begun to decline. But compared to resuscitating a school system or reviving a retail district, they hold out at least the prospect of tangible benefit at modest expense. One thing, at least, is certain: Very few American families who have options will be interested in buying Levittown-size houses in the coming decades. That leaves thousands of middle-aged suburbs with little choice but to redesign themselves if they are going to survive and prosper.