The return of the suburbs

And yes, mini-vans are back too

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

A funny thing happened when urban planners and developers got together to build much-needed, and in theory at least, affordable housing.

Many of the units sold immediately. Some of them before construction was even completed. And in a few cases, before construction had even begun.

And, in an even more unexpected turn of events, some already sold units never got past the planning stages.

Some of these buyers, some foreign, some hedge funds and some individuals bought their properties sight unseen – and some never intended to see them.

They were an investment only.

If completed, many of them would stand vacant for years.

The owners were literally banking on measurable appreciation – occupied or not. And many of them made money. And about as many lost everything.

I know of one shore line development where all the best view lots were sold immediately – but none were built on, for at least five years now.

They were purchased, sight-unseen, by several foreign investors who, besides “investing” were shielding their fortunes from instability back home.

Much of this wealth was the result of ill-gotten gains thanks to corruption, trafficking and gambling, among other things.

But no matter where it came from, two things were certain; money in that quantity was as infinite as it was untraceable, and, in the markets that attracted that money, prices would never be the same.

And, almost as certainly, nothing would ever be built on most of those lots.

Living in a bustling walkable urban center is great.

For some of us.

Cities are great – but who needs to live there?

For a single person or a couple with no kids, the urban loft/condo lifestyle is wonderful.

The work from home option made a car-less, urban village life pleasant and comfortable.

With no yard to care for and no home maintenance headaches, semi-immediate access to transit, what could be better?

Until it isn’t.

Then something very strange happened; the much aligned suburbs (and, of course, the vehicle of choice for suburban survival, the mini-van) have come back – with a vengeance.

Welcome to the suburb alternative

The work from home movement helped people realize that not only did they like working from home, they like just being at home.

The word home actually began to mean more than just a place to sleep and keep a few essentials.

Apodments (extra-small apartments, often with a shared kitchen down the hall) might have their appeal in terms of practicality and price-point – but are they anyone’s idea of home?

We Americans, and maybe everyone if they have the chance, love our space – and we love the idea of something being ours.

Beloved or berated, suburbs offer us a (relatively) affordable place to call our own – a place we can welcome visitors, develop hobbies, express ourselves and maybe even accumulate (and display) the random collection of photographs, art work or travel souvenirs an apartment would never allow.

And maybe even a pet or two.

It almost pains me to say this, but there is something ineluctably human about suburbs.

They give us room to stretch, to express and define ourselves.

Apodments or studios are great for a single person.

But as we accumulate other people and bulkier appliances in our lives, we need more space.

And our incomes are unlikely to match the growth in urban real estate prices.

In San Jose, California, for example, the median monthly mortgage payment is well over $7,000.

The required income to qualify for a loan to buy a home in Seattle is stunningly close to the same as it is in Los Angeles.

With rising interest rates, the suburbs across the country are looking better every day.

And those much mocked minivans?

What could be a better (and more cost efficient) way to transport bicycles, kids, sports equipment, pets, friends and miscellaneous middle-class stuff?