Suburban America has been declining since at least the 2008 housing and banking crisis, says an editor at Fortune Magazine. Leigh Gallagher was the keynote speaker today at the annual affordable housing conference put on by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. She talked about her book, The End of the Suburbs, published in 2013.
This is the first day of a three-day gathering at the Lansing Center.
Gallagher referred three times to Jane Jacobs, the author of Death and Life of Great American Cities. She died after years living in Toronto.
Gallagher is from suburban Philadelphia and lives in New York City.
She spoke with Chris McCarus in a taxi on her way out of town.
CMC: We’re with Leigh Gallagher. Leigh you’re an editor at Fortune Magazine. The name of your book is?
LG: It’s called The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.
CMC: I thought at first…great. Let’s end them.
LG: Well it’s not that simple. But they’re changing. Many of them will end. We’re seeing the beginning of a completely new paradigm in terms of what people what from their communities and the places they live. The current suburbs are not satisfying for many people.
CMC: You have empirical evidence of that.
LG: I’ve got lots of data in the book. About housing preferences, valuations, prices and everything is reversing from the way it was for close to fifty years.
CMC: Why is it hard for people, say in the state of Michigan, to get the idea that the suburbs’ best days are behind them?
LG: It’s a provocative idea. It’s the way we’ve been taught that that’s the way we do things in America. And no one wants to hear that the way we do things is wrong. Some suburbs are ok. it’s the kind of suburb. The kind that you have to get in your car and drive for 20 minutes just to get a gallon of milk at 10:30 at night. Nobody benefits from that kind of lifestyle no matter how cheap and how big the house is. You spend way to much money on gas. You live your lives in your cars. And people don’t really want that anymore.
At the same time the makeup of our country is shifting. The nuclear family is what the suburbs were built for. That’s now a minority household type in our country. So there are all these big changes happening and people resist the thesis now. These trends are just starting to be known and will accelerate.
CMC: Could you use some numbers?
LG: Census data that came out showed that for the first time in more than 90 years the rate of population growth in cities outpaced that of the suburbs. Now you can say that was a blip because of the housing crisis. Everything was turned upside down for a moment and it’s started to change. But look at the demographic trends of more baby boomers and senior citizens living in the suburbs than there are families living with children. That is revolutionary. The suburbs were born, conceived and created for the nuclear family with children. That is what this whole infrastructure has been set up for and now we are a different country with different needs.
CMC: Did Michigan and the rest of the country fail to learn from the 2008 housing and financial crash?
LG: It’s too early to say that for sure. People come up to me and say there are bulldozers in my neighborhood so the suburbs aren’t over. They are still building. Yes they are still building. It’s hard to turn a giant ship like that around. I only said that a year and a half ago. I wasn’t the first to say it either. There is going to be building still because that stuff was paid for and committed to years ago. And because some people still want it. Especially at the high end, maybe that’s what you want. But we’re seeing a demand for different options.
Michigan is not as bad as other parts of the country. Look at Las Vegas, Florida or parts of California. But you have some smart people here who are starting to make smart decisions.
CMC: So what should the rest of Michigan, the ones who aren’t as smart, know?
LG: So many of our suburbs don’t have any kind of town center. There is nowhere for people to go. People stay in their houses all day. Or they are in their cars all day. Building or rebuilding any kind of town center is key. Public transit is key. That’s a heavy lift. People are more resistant to that. But it’s essential going forward. The millenials, and 16 year olds now they don’t care about getting their driver’s license which is anathema to those of us who grew up differently.
CMC: The City of Detroit was the fourth largest city now it’s the twentieth largest even though the metro area kind of makes up for the loss. But it still doesn’t have any large scale mass transit.
LG: You’re going to need it. You’re going to need it. There are efforts being made to put it in place. It’s a start. This is the way the country is going. Public transit ridership hit a record level in 2013 and 2014. The writing is on the wall. All you have to do is look at the data. You need this.
Detroit is very appealing for a million other reasons. That’s why you are seeing so much investment there. So many people go there. Now is the time for the risk averse go in. Now is the time for forward looking companies to go in. It’s not going to be as opportunistic forever.
CMC: In 2007 in the Atlantic Magazine Chris Leinberger wrote ‘The Next Slum.’ You must have read that.
LG: It’s a fantastic piece. I am hardly the first person to suggest this. That piece was revolutionary. Such great reporting. So ahead of its time and so true.
CMC: What was he saying?
LG: He made many points. One was that we overbuilt so much. A lot of the houses that were built the farthest out were put up overnight, not made of anything and will fall apart. Already there is poverty moving in to the outer suburbs. That is absolutely happening. We’re seeing a role reversal. The wealth is moving into the city. The poverty is moving out of the city. Not just poverty but gangs and drugs. All the things that led everyone to flee the cities in the ’70’s are now in the suburbs.
LG: It is.
CMC: How about race? How do you see that in Michigan? How far behind on race relations are we and what does that have to do with housing?
LG: Oh gosh. I mean the whole country is far behind on race relations. The original blueprint for the suburbs had redlines. It was racially discriminatory. People got housing based on discriminatory factors. That was technically eliminated at some point but still persisted. The suburbs have grown so big now that whatever is part of America is part of the suburbs. Way back when they were exclusive places for the white and wealthy. That’s what you say about the cities now.