For a generation or more, no swath of the United States has grown more madly than the Sun Belt. Of course, the area we call the “Sun Belt” is vast, and the term is something of a catch-all: the cities and metropolitan areas within it have grown for disparate reasons. Los Angeles is a mecca for media and entertainment; San Jose and Austin developed significant, innovative high-tech industries; Houston became a hub for energy production; Nashville developed a unique niche in low-cost music recording and production; Charlotte emerged as a center for cost-effective banking and low-end finance.
But in the heady days of the housing bubble, some Sun Belt cities—Phoenix and Las Vegas are the best examples—developed economies centered largely on real estate and construction. With sunny weather and plenty of flat, empty land, they got caught in a classic boom cycle. Although these places drew tourists, retirees, and some industry—firms seeking bigger footprints at lower costs—much of the cities’ development came from, well, development itself. At a minimum, these places will take a long, long time to regain the ground they’ve recently lost in local wealth and housing values. It’s not unthinkable that some of them could be in for an extended period of further decline.
To an uncommon degree, the economic boom in these cities was propelled by housing appreciation: as prices rose, more people moved in, seeking inexpensive lifestyles and the opportunity to get in on the real-estate market where it was rising, but still affordable. Local homeowners pumped more and more capital out of their houses as well, taking out home-equity loans and injecting money into the local economy in the form of home improvements and demand for retail goods and low-level services. Cities grew, tax coffers filled, spending continued, more people arrived. Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes.
Phoenix, for instance, grew from 983,403 people in 1990 to 1,552,259 in 2007. One of its suburbs, Mesa, now has nearly half a million residents, more than Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or Miami. As housing starts and housing prices rose, so did tax revenues, and a major capital-spending boom occurred throughout the Greater Phoenix area. Arizona State University built a new downtown Phoenix campus, and the city expanded its convention center and constructed a 20-mile light-rail system connecting Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe.
And then the bubble burst. From October 2007 through October 2008, the Phoenix area registered the largest decline in housing values in the country: 32.7 percent. (Las Vegas was just a whisker behind, at 31.7 percent. Housing in the New York region, by contrast, fell by just 7.5 percent over the same period.) Overstretched and overbuilt, the region is now experiencing a fiscal double whammy, as its many retirees—some 21 percent of its residents are older than 55—have seen their retirement savings decimated. Mortgages Limited, the state’s largest private commercial lender, filed for bankruptcy last summer. The city is running a $200 million budget deficit, which is only expected to grow. Last fall, the city government petitioned for federal funds to help it deal with the financial crisis. “We had a big bubble here, and it burst,” Anthony Sanders, a professor of economics and finance at ASU, told USA Today in December. “We’ve taken Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams and now it’s Field of Screams. If you build it, nobody comes.”
Will people wash out of these places as fast as they washed in, leaving empty sprawl and all the ills that accompany it? Will these cities gradually attract more businesses and industries, allowing them to build more-diverse and more-resilient economies? Or will they subsist on tourism—which may be meager for quite some time—and on the Social Security checks of their retirees? No matter what, their character and atmosphere are likely to change radically.