We Need Another Housing Boom (And New Dreams)


Americans demanded gleaming houses on individual squares of lawn far removed from urban centers, and the people who finance and construct real estate delivered the goods. This is how we wound up with expanding rings of suburban sprawl orbiting every metropolitan area. This is how we turned ever-larger swaths of open space into grids of look-alike homes, the inventory that came to be tinder for the foreclosure inferno. The developers, bankers, salespeople and their government enablers were merely working to satisfy a public craving.

But the real estate bubble was in fact an orgy of profiteering run by and for the benefit of special interests that stuck the public with the cleanup. Investment banks poured money into housing because mortgages had become raw materials for a lucrative business churning out mortgage-backed securities. Homebuilders carved acreage into subdivisions far in excess of demand because money was free and volume was good for share prices. Money was free because the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low while Fannie and Freddie kept guaranteeing mortgages. Land was accessible because the government expanded highways and subsidized gas prices.

For decades, homebuilders and their financiers marketed an appealing version of the American dream, the idea that nourishing family life plays out in new single-family homes, the trophies of upward mobility. That vision has gone cancerous. We are wasting hours in traffic and dollars on gasoline. We are squandering land on individual lots that could be used as broader green space. Government is surrendering vast sums to maintain highways when it could repurpose that money toward energy-efficient mass transit.

Most of the proposals on display [at MoMA’s “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” exhibit] would not be allowed under existing conditions. Zoning codes often require the separation of industrial and residential developments — a legacy of efforts to protect households from the environmental hazards of smokestacks. But these restrictions now spawn modern environmental ills as people drive greater distances between home to work, spewing pollution. Our legal and financial apparatus is resistant to vague lines of ownership. This is the central insight of the exhibit: The rules at play are depriving us of potential solutions to our problems.

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Chattanooga, Tenn., where limited mass transit is exacerbating unemployment. People who are out of work and who can’t afford cars are effectively stranded, unable to reach many jobs. The resulting story provoked an outpouring of comments, many of them sharply judgmental: These people who needed to ride the bus were losers depending upon a government program to get to work, some declared, in contrast to those of us with cars, who can take pride in being in charge of our own destinies, the very models of self-reliance.

This is powerful mythology, the sort of free enterprise fantasy talk that has turned public coffers into corporate welfare for bankers and homebuilders. The roads got there because of a government program, one that has subsidized debilitating suburban sprawl.

We need another housing boom. This was my takeaway from this inspiring exhibit. Not another boom that redistributes wealth from middle class families to financial executives while sapping public coffers, but one that works in reverse, yielding reinvigorated communities built to last, adapt and thrive.

via Foreclosure Crisis Spurs Quest To Reinvigorate Suburbs by Peter S. Goodman on The Huffington Post

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