Monday, April 16, 2012 2:23 PM
Last week, Fannie Mae (via MarketWatch) reported that Americans were warming
up to the idea of homeownership for the first time in years. After a
behemoth of a housing crisis, 73 percent of Americans now believe that it’s a
good time to buy a home. If the housing market is ready for a turnaround,
prices will only go up, and Americans seem ready to embrace a return to
There’s just one problem:
there’s a good chance it won’t matter. Aside from the fact that polls like this
can be very misleading (last April, Gallup came up
similar numbers), the housing market faces a demographic problem that isn’t
likely to go away any time soon.
Since 2006, exurbs and
outer-ring suburbs have been losing residents as families move into large
cities in greater and greater numbers. This is first time in decades that many
suburban counties have seen a loss in
population, reports Urbanland.
Part of this has been the housing crisis. Exurbs dotted with subprime developments
have been hemorrhaging residents for years, but this won’t go on forever. A
greater problem, says John K. McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, comes as boomers retire. Baby boomers created
the strongest demand for housing in American history, but their offspring are
not likely to do the same. Generation X is far too small to make a similar
impact, and Millennials (the echo boom) so far don’t seem all that interested
in homeownership, or suburban living. This means that, even if the housing
market gets going again, there’s no chance for demand to reach pre-recession
The larger issue is that
suburbanization as a social and cultural process is designed for a bygone era.
The postwar years were a deeply unequal period of American history, and suburbanization
reflected that, especially in terms of race. Redlining—segregating
neighborhoods based on race—was federal policy through most of the postwar
boom, and segregation remains
a serious problem in many areas. But the 1950s and 1960s was also a time
when the environmental impact of development was not really a consideration. With
and more people and local
governments interested in transit, cycling, and walkability, car-dependent
suburbs seem increasingly out of place.
But what’s really
interesting about this trend is that it’s not the result of any actual federal
policy. Since the end of World War II, federal dollars planned, created, and
maintained suburbia, through public highways, home mortgage insurance, tax
deductions for homeowners, and other incentives. As John D. Fairfield points
out in 2010’s fascinating The Public and
Its Possibilities, in the years following World War II, federal money made
suburban homeownership actually cheaper than renting in large cities—at least
for the white middle class.
And since then, the
fundamentals haven’t changed all that much. The FHA still subsidizes suburban
homeownership (albeit more equally), and federal highways and infrastructure still
make suburban life possible. Obama has signaled that he’d like to rethink
some of these policies, including getting rid of Fannie and Freddie and reducing
mortgage subsidies for new buyers, but actual changes are not likely soon. In
the meantime, we may see even more people defy government incentives to settle
away from urban centers—young people, especially. If these trends continue,
cities could look very different over the next generation. Homeownership may
remain an American Dream, but suburbs may not.
Society Pages, Treehugger,
Atlantic, the Public and Its Possibilities, Huffington.
Friday, October 21, 2011 3:36 PM
Over the past few years, many photographers have tried to frame the home foreclosure epidemic in a meaningful, visceral way. They’ve tried to capture the empty bedrooms and abandoned lots of an over-mortgaged, hollowed out, defaulted-on American Dream.
Ben Grasso, an oil painter based in Cleveland—a city no stranger to foreclosure—has a different method of baring America’s suburban emptiness: blowing up houses. Not literally, of course, but artistically. Ka-boom!
“Grasso takes a modern American painterly tradition and mixes it with contemporary cinematic spectacle,” comments Architizer’s Kelly Chan. “In his subject matter and painting style,”
he overtly borrows the visual vocabulary forged by hallmark painters of modern American life. His thick brushwork and rich, opaque colors find resonance with works by artists like Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keefe. However, his in-your-face spontaneous combustions recast images of the American dream as volatile fantasies. In these paintings, pristine homes are desecrated, caught in the path of an apocalyptic disaster fit for a summer blockbuster movie.
I’ll add that Grasso’s disassembled homes echo the modern architectural principle of materialistic “honesty,” or being very up front about how the building materials used relate to the structure’s design. (Yes I’m grossly oversimplifying that idea.) Every plank and pipe, every concrete pylon and whitewashed windowpane is exposed in schematic isolation. The homes in Grasso’s painting are frozen between a blueprint and a scrapheap—similar, you might say, to the lives of many middle class Americans today.
Images courtesy of Ben Grasso.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 12:47 PM
Many families are shrinking their demands on the American Dream as job prospects dry up. As one woman told Minnesota Women’s Press, a little stability is all she’s seeking. “My new American Dream,” writes Joan Riederer, who has subsisted on temp work for two years while applying for more than 300 positions, “is to have a job with benefits.” Her modest demands come four years into her family’s financial struggles, which started with her husband being laid off after 24 years at an IT consulting company. Mr. Riederer moved to New York, hoping a new job there would support his wife and daughter in Minnesota until he could return. They’re still waiting. In the meantime, the family meets twice a year, “maybe less now that airfares are rising,” writes Joan. Because they still have one IRA—they cashed in the others to cover expenses—the family does not qualify for subsidized healthcare. “I have spent thousands of dollars over the past year alone for medical and dental care,” writes Joan.
“I feel my years slipping away and I have so much I still want to do,” she writes. “I fear there are many more people with this same story—the one the president doesn’t tell in his employment figures.”
Joan is right that many Americans are struggling to find permanent work. And for those with less financial security than the Riederers, times are, unsurprisingly, even tougher. Today’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reports a 27 percent increase from 2007 in homeless families seeking help from Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located. “People who work with the homeless say the increase is driven by people losing their jobs, foreclosures on apartment buildings that displace renters, and the effects of welfare reform that has recipients reaching the end of their 60-month lifetime limit on cash assistance,” writes the Star Tribune. In these circumstances, the poor may be pitted against struggling members of the middle class, according to the Star Tribune, people much like the Riederers: “When foreclosed apartments put poor people on the street and they begin looking for a new apartment, they may find themselves competing with people who once owned homes.”
For more on this topic, see “Reimagining the American Dream” in the May/June Utne Reader.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 12:59 PM
As if abject data roundups like the Harper’s Index weren’t dour enough, there are even more depressing numbers being crunched. Gathering figures from the UK Independent, Bloomberg, and other sources, Eyeteeth compiles various statistics to show the country’s hellbound, handbasket-borne trajectory.
For example: The Misery Index—by far the most poetically named of the numbers on offer—is calculated by adding unemployment to inflation. It’s at 10.5, its highest in 15 years. There’s a 30-year gap in the average life expectancy between residents of Connecticut and Mississippi (people in the former state live longer). And a new Time/Rockefeller poll shows that 52 percent of Americans believe the “American Dream” is no longer attainable.
The figures are worth a glance, but it’s also illuminating to click through and read the articles from which they’re derived, which examine some of the reasons behind our crumbling quality of life, place them in historical context, and offer suggestions for how we might reverse these negative trends.
Image by ang (3 Girls & a Boy), licensed by Creative Commons.
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