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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Death of suburbs? I don't think so

Hardly a week passes when I don't see a story proclaiming the death of suburbs. Clearly something is happening, but let's be more precise when we look at it.
  • In places like Michigan, it's easy to find decaying suburbs. C'mon. Decay in those places is nearly universal.
  • For every suburb in metro Atlanta (for example) that is decaying -- let's be honest, the references are to Dekalb County -- there are other suburbs like Gwinnett County that are doing fine.
  • Some cities like Washington, DC that began to depopulate in the 1950s have a large amount of housing stock available for gentrification. Other cities like Raleigh do not and consequently must rely on new high-rise housing.
  • Do people in their 20s eschew the suburbs? Possibly. Negative population growth among that segment, if it continues as they get older, would mean less demand for backyards. But another way of looking at it: compared to 30 years ago, people in their 20s cannot afford to buy suburban housing these days. Instead, all that's within their financial reach is downtown housing not yet gentrified. And most of them can't afford newly built high-rise housing, either.
Raleigh is a healthy city because, in part, North Carolina law has allowed aggressive annexation. The population of Raleigh has not grown as quickly as the population of Wake County, but the delta has not been significant -- until now, when there is a clear divergence between the largely Democratic Raleigh and the largely Republican Wake County outside Raleigh. But Raleigh has annexed about all it can because it now abuts the surrounding municipalities that were once small, distinct countryside towns but have morphed into true suburbs. Raleigh is also abutting the city limits of Durham in a few places. The golden era of Raleigh's horizontal expansion is over.

What does the future hold for Raleigh? I foresee a continuing decline in the percentage of Wake County residents who live in Raleigh, despite attempts by Raleigh leaders to go vertical. Those attempts are supported by downtown property owners anxious for profits and sincere but politically ineffectual persons who think sprawl is bad. The free market for housing will continue to function, and farm land in east Wake will continue to be developed into new subdivisions.

Meanwhile, I live inside the Raleigh city limits. My neighborhood is not a suburb; it merely happens to be an area of low-density housing in the nation's 42nd-most populous city. I'm getting angry at the hypocrisy of those in Raleigh government who decry low-density residential development while being happy to collect and spend my property taxes.