Monday, April 18, 2022

CNBC explains the problems of suburbia and their possible solutions

I haven't written much if at all about "The End of Suburbia" since I replaced it with "Treasures of the Earth: Power" five years ago. That doesn't mean I'm not still interested in the sustainability issues of suburbia, which CBNC covered in a pair of videos, beginning with How Suburban Sprawl Weighs On The U.S. Economy.

America's suburbs are sprawling again. Over the 20th century, real estate developers built large tracts of single-family homes outside of major cities. The builders were following mortgage underwriting standards first introduced by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s. Over the century, those guidelines created housing market conditions that explicitly shut out many minorities. Experts say it is possible to update these old building codes to create equity while fixing some, but not all of the problems of American suburbia.

Last year, single family housing starts rose to 1.123 million, the highest since 2006, according to the National Association of Home Builders, however, options for prospective homebuyers remain lean.

Experts say the problems of America’s housing market relate to past policy decisions. In particular, they say restrictive zoning codes are limiting housing supply. These codes are based on 1930s-era Federal Housing Administration guidelines for mortgage underwriting. That includes “no sidewalks and curvy dead-end streets,” according to Ben Ross, author of “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.“

Ross and others believe that more must be done to manage residential real estate development. Ross lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, which recently revised its zoning code to bring more population density to the area. The county didn’t have many alternative options — 85% of build-worthy land is already developed.

Strict zoning laws favoring single-family homes have limited the supply of land available for multifamily construction and hampered production of more affordable housing. With land limited for multifamily projects, the price of that land has jumped and made those projects unaffordable for builders.

Today’s homebuyers are paying for past sprawl by drawing on credit to finance their lifestyles. Meanwhile, the cost of public infrastructure maintenance is weighing on depopulating towns across the country.
This video has its own answers to four questions from the semi-retired worksheet for "The End of Suburbia":
1. What advantages did suburban life promise, especially compared to the industrial city?
The narrator of "The End of Suburbia" those were "space, convenience, affordability, family life, and upward mobility". He and James Howard Kunstler then went on about how it promised the best of both country and city living conveniently close to the central city, including getting away from the pollution and masses in the city proper.
4. How did suburbia change the American Dream?
Living in a detached home in the suburbs replaced "anyone can make it" as part of the American Dream.
5. What effect did the rise of suburbia have on cities?
As Kunstler said in the documentary, suburbia decanted (poured out) all the functions of cities into the countryside, emptying out the "core urban areas" (central cities).
7. What is the relationship among cheap energy (including oil), automobiles, and suburbia?
Suburbia became possible when car ownership became cheaper.

CNBC followed up on the first video inHow To Make The Suburbs More Affordable.

About 46% of renters in the U.S. are struggling to make ends meet, according to Harvard University researchers. Builders say conditions for renters will get worse before they get better. A snarled supply chain, a labor shortage, and rising interest rates are worsening what some call a "throwaway" development pattern. Several real estate industry experts have ideas about how to make housing more attainable. Some of the most popular ideas include mixed-use districts and master-planned communities.

Americans who are short on cash to make rent may need to face an uncomfortable reality: Conditions will likely get worse before they get better.

U.S. housing supply fell to the lowest levels observed in over 20 years, according to the National Association of Realtors. That’s dramatically pushing up prices for consumers, and catching the attention of leaders.

“The most immediate challenge is a lack of lumber and other kinds of building materials,” says Rob Dietz, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. “The other challenge, and it’s one that’s going to be with us for some time, is a lack of skilled labor.“

Architects say better planning could ease cost burdens while shoring up public health.

“Suburban retrofitting has the potential to transform people’s lives,” said June Williamson, dean of architecture at City College of New York.

The Mosaic District of Fairfax, Virginia, is among the many “retrofitted” mixed-use districts and master-planned communities that have attracted major developers to the concept.
This video bears on three more questions from the worksheet.
2. How does James Howard Kunstler characterize suburbia as an allocation of resources?
Kunstler called suburbia "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and "a living arrangement that has no future." Chuck Marohn said that suburbia was a great one life-cycle product but didn't have a future beyond that, which I found similar enough to Kunstler that I wondered if they knew each other. They do, as they have been guests on each others podcasts since 2014.
25. What are the contributions of New Urbanism to the possible challenges of Peak Oil?
CNBC reframed the challenges as climate change and the short life cycle of suburban development, but the solutions are the same — planned, multi-use communities that consciously duplicate the kinds of urban communities that developed before single-use zoning arose, which the first CNBC video noted was a source of suburbia's problems. Those will encourage walking, public transportation, and the kind of dense convenient city life that promotes community, uses fewer resources, and produces less waste. By the way, I'm glad to see Celebration, which I mentioned in Disney's own government, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as well as the planned communities Disney is proposing to build, listed as examples. It's enough to inspire me to blog about them, albeit four years later.
26. What are the prospects for suburbia after Peak Oil?
Not good. In fact, the situation got worse within a decade after the release of "The End of Suburbia," as I wrote about Suburban poverty north and south of the border eight years ago. This is on top of the infrastructure and life cycle issues both CNBC videos describe.

The irony of the pandemic, as the first video points out, is that "it looks like more affluent people are taking the opportunity to move into better housing in the suburbs. If one has to shelter in place, then one might find a better place to find shelter." Let's see how long that lasts as gas prices rise while workers return to the office.


  1. My house was built in 1955. The projected effective utility was 60 years. In other words, past the, "best if purchased by", date.

    1. Welcome back! I'm in the same situation, as my house was built in 1954. It may be past the "best by" date, but I think it's still in better shape than the house I grew up in, which was built ten years later. I think this is more solidly constructed.