Letters to the editor

Slumming it

Christopher Leinberger is correct in predicting the decline of suburban communities and a renewed interest in city living (“The Next Slum?,” March Atlantic). As a former professional remodeler with a decade of experience researching and writing about residential architecture, however, I have to say that Leinberger’s description of the ills of newer suburban homes misses the mark.

There are some noteworthy differences in the quality of older and newer housing stock, but Leinberger’s wholesale nostalgia is misleading. Every city has had its share of substandard housing; time and redevelopment often claim these structures, while their better-built peers survive and create the impression of a former golden age of quality. Some of these buildings do surpass newer homes, but not because today’s structural materials are necessarily shoddy. Properly installed, neither plywood subflooring nor asphalt roof shingles suffer from the rapid degradation Leinberger describes, and his suggestion that many newer homes rely on drywall for their structural integrity is absurd. Legal codes govern virtually every aspect of home building; no such compromised structure would ever receive either a building permit or a certificate of occupancy.

Two factors share responsibility for the banality and inhospitality of suburban homes and neighborhoods. One is the widespread use of engineered finish materials, especially plastics, because of their lower initial cost and minimal maintenance requirements.

Worse than the shortcomings of materials, though, are the design and marketing trends that equate more square footage with quality and that give undue prominence to automobiles. Huge entryways, vaulted ceilings, and up-front garages for three vehicles are “impressive” features that undermine the modest comforts and human scale that make many older homes inherently appealing. So much money goes into making new homes larger that the craftsmanship and premium materials that create true quality are either used sparingly or jettisoned entirely to cut costs. This gaudy “go big” aesthetic shapes neighborhoods as well, creating public spaces scaled to motor-vehicle traffic and unfriendly to pedestrians. Affluent residents eventually find some place more satisfying to live, while poorer citizens with fewer choices move in to take advantage of lower housing costs. It’s an old pattern with a new twist, which in this case is the suburbs’ unexpected fall from grace.

Bill LaHay
Des Moines, Iowa

Christopher Leinberger does a disservice to your readers and to the East Franklin neighborhood of Elk Grove, California, by cribbing from other published reports to craft an anecdotal lead for a story that’s more about urban revival than suburban decline. Had Leinberger done some original reporting—instead of repeating an oft-published quote that was taken out of context—he might have discovered that thousands of residents enjoy living in East Franklin. Like many communities across the country, it has been affected by the mortgage crisis, but it’s grossly inaccurate to report that “graffiti, broken windows, and other markers of decay have multiplied.”

The community has good public schools, a new public library, superb parks, and an abundance of nature and green space. East Franklin has had some growing pains, most of them due to the phenomenal run-up of housing prices, but with the community now virtually built out, many here feel good about the prospects for the future.

Furthermore, only a very small fraction of the 20,000-plus people who live here are members of the Franklin Reserve Neighborhood Association, so it’s a stretch to say Susan McDonald’s group is “the local residents’ association.”

Tom Couzens
President, Board of Directors
Wisteria Place Homeowners Association
Elk Grove, Calif.

Christopher Leinberger replies:

I find little to disagree with in Bill LaHay’s comments. However, “wholesale nostalgia” is not what this piece is about. I certainly recognize that we get a selective view of the past; only the structures that are both sturdy enough and architecturally beloved are maintained and renovated for posterity. But the percentage of poorly built structures, both residential and commercial, must be at a record high today compared with, say, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For residential structures, one reason for cheaper construction is consumer demand for bigger and bigger houses, which LaHay mentions. This has required home builders to find a thousand different ways to cut construction costs, including the use of two-by-six wood-frame construction and thin drywall, the latter providing the structural stability in many starter homes I referred to in the article.

A second reason why housing has recently been built more cheaply is to allow for the cost of the cars required to make fringe suburban housing work. In most suburban households, every driving-age adult must have a car to connect to work, school, friends, and shopping. As a result, Americans have been shifting their household budgets from a generally appreciating asset, their house, to a depreciating asset, their fleet of cars. (AAA reports that, in 2007, owning and operating the average car cost $7,871.)

I certainly did not want to mischaracterize anyone’s neighborhood. One’s home, and neighborhood, is not only an emotional foundation of family life but the largest asset on most households’ balance sheets. As I stated in the article, the subprime-mortgage meltdown will not drag down every drivable suburban neighborhood. But the mortgage crisis shows that residential neighborhoods are by their very nature fragile places. Because these neighborhoods are continually dependent on residential property taxes, when communities stop growing—and especially when they face a cyclical or structural downturn in value—they do not have any fiscal options. Revenues go flat or decline while the need for social and police services goes up.

To avoid this tenuous state of affairs, committed property owners need to band together, as I’m guessing Tom Couzens’s organization has done, to slow down or reverse threats of market and tax decline.

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