Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The problem of older suburbs

It'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:

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.

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?


At 10:32 PM, June 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a good bit of the 50s subdivisions in Houston have bucked this trend. Oak Forest and Shepherd Forest are doing nicely. Sharpstown is doing incredible considering all the ghetto apartments around. Meyerland is only for those with big bucks.

At 11:04 PM, June 21, 2006, Blogger Adam said...

I actually really like the townhousing idea a lot for some neighborhoods. I assume we're talking about places like Sharpstown, Westbury, and Spring Branch?

Most of these places probably have deed restrictions that make it hard to build townhomes on 'old' residential land. They probably also don't have quality of life features that recommend them to premium in town living, like Bellaire and the Heights do.

But what if we made TIRZ benefits avaialable for residential projects, and worked on re-forming deed restrictions. Then you could put town homes in, and use the tax increment money on local schools and parks.

Just a thougt :)


At 9:11 AM, June 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely think that some sort of program or office to streamline home additions should be established. A one stop shop so to speak, where you could quickly get the permits to expand an existing house. Maybe throw in some property tax deductions to encourage it a little more.

I think that there are plenty of areas that you talked about that simply don't have the marginal rate of return to tear down and rebuild. Midtown and the warehouse district have been successful because they were mostly vacant tracts.

I must say that this seems like a market opportunity to exploit. I've batted around a number of real estate ideas before, but never thought of expanding neartown homes to fetch a higher price.

At 7:29 PM, July 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps with soaring energy prices, small homes will seem like a good choice once again. I used to live in Spring Branch about six years ago, and the homes seem to have appreciated nicely since then. Some of the condos are also being gutted and renovated and offered at much higher prices. I always thought the area had a good ambiance, with older trees and well-laid out streets.

At 3:35 PM, August 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found some great information on obtaining permits for home renovation in Houston on this website:
This site even provides information on renovations that can help to reduce energy costs, so you don't have to settle for the small home!


Post a Comment

<< Home