Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? The Exodus

This is another in a series of blog posts excerpted from Reconnecting America's report "Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America"

The “old stereotypes” ... are the “incomplete communities,” the single family homes in single-use residential neighborhoods that became defined after WWII as the American Dream. They are connected by wide roads and freeways, and were built farther and farther out from downtowns. These are the neighborhoods that were promoted first by the loan guarantees provided by the G.I. Bill, and supported by the mortgage tax deduction, the lending policies of private banks and a massive road-building program, which together with other factors prompted an exodus from cities to the suburbs.

As Buzz Bissinger writes in the 1998 book A Prayer for the City: “The FHA, founded in 1934, was intended to help revive the nation’s dormant housing industry during the New Deal. But the ultimate influence of the FHA and its housing cousin, the Veterans Administration, went far beyond that, making the dream of home ownership available to millions of middle-class Americans, just as long as it was a dream that largely confined itself to the suburbs and not to the older cities.”

Mark I. Gelfand provides more detail in A Nation of Cities, a book published in 1975, explaining that the Federal Housing Administration “red-lined vast areas of the inner cities, refusing to insure mortgages where the neighborhoods were blighted or susceptible to blight.” Blight was defined not only in terms of the physical quality of the neighborhood, but also its racial and ethnic composition. “This action practically guaranteed that these districts would deteriorate still further and drag cities down with them.”

Top 10 Regions With Households In Opportunity AreasAs a result, the suburban population increased by 43 percent from 1947 to 1953, compared to an increase of only 11 percent for the general population, according to Harvard professor Lizabeth Cohen. And over the 1950s families continued their escape to the suburbs, which grew an explosive 45 percent, compared to a growth rate in cities of just 0.1 percent. To meet this enormous demand, the home building industry developed a mass production model geared for large tracts of suburban homes linked by freeways, and the suburban population continued to grow, reaching 50 percent of the total national population in 2000, according to Cohen.

But this trend seems to have turned around, at least in the near term. As of July 2011 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that suburban growth had slowed to less than that of urban areas and that the nation’s cities were growing faster than the country as a whole, as the financial and foreclosure crises pushed more people to rent, soaring gas prices made long commutes unappealing, and high unemployment drew more people to big job centers.

“There’s a pall being cast on the outer edges,” says John McIlwain of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, in an April 2012 USA Today story. “The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It’s uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off.” Adds Frey of Brookings, “This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they’re starting their families. So many people have been burned by this . . . First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit.”

Unfortunately, the real estate industry’s mass-production model doesn’t work when it comes to building infill housing on small lots in urban neighborhoods — which is where the real estate market is most active now — because there isn’t the same economy of scale. An article in The Atlantic in 2011 summed up the situation, pointing out that the suburban McMansion on a large tract of land exemplified a way of life in America at a particular point of time in the 1990s when Baby Boomer families were at the height of their income and household size, consumerism was at an all-time high and so was debt. But that moment has passed — parents are retiring, children have left home — and the foreclosure crisis has hit the suburbs hardest.

More Blog Posts In This Series