By: Mike Thomas www.orlandosentinel.com
Urban sprawl can ruin the environment and our quality of life.
But could it also undermine our economy? There is growing sentiment among urban planners that cities are surrounding themselves with the slums of tomorrow. These are the outlying developments, many thrown up with reckless abandon during the housing bubble to feed speculator demand.In 2005, Florida cities and counties gave out a record 208,000 permits for detached homes, mostly out in the burbs of Central Florida and coastal cities.
These far-flung projects have been hit hardest by the plunge in housing values. Dropping prices can kick off a spiral of foreclosures, rentals and abandonment. A recent eye-opening piece in The Atlantic Monthly titled "The Next Slum?" picked examples of new subdivisions around Charlotte, N.C., Sacramento, Calif., and Florida's Lee County -- some with $500,000 homes -- falling into crime-ridden decay. As this happens, such developments bring in less tax revenue but require more services in the form of police patrols and code inspection.
Making matters worse, some demographic researchers think the current housing downturn simply exacerbates a long-term trend. As people age, they go from being homebuyers to home sellers. This means that with the impending retirement of the baby boomers, we are entering an era of more sellers in proportion to buyers.And the sellers will be selling suburban homes designed to raise children, while a growing percentage of buyers won't have children.
Arthur Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, predicts a glut of 22 million "large-lot" detached homes by 2025, with large lot defined as one-sixth of an acre and up.Put another way: If we didn't build another house in the suburbs, we still would have too many of them 17 years from now. The home-vacancy rate in Central Florida is a staggering 7.4 percent, by far the highest in the nation."For Sale" signs are multiplying on the urban fringes, along with unkempt yards."There are more empty houses the farther out you go," says Jack Connor of Alliance Appraisal & Consulting Services. "I was down in Kissimmee, at a development on Lake Toho, and it is a ghost town."Empty downtown condos have become a housing-bubble poster child. But the glut in the outlying burbs is the real time bomb.
Sprawl supporters say these areas provide affordability. But the Charlotte Observer recently reported that starter-home subdivisions there are most prone to problems. Virginia Tech's Nelson notes we have mitigating factors in Florida. Growth has stalled, but history says it will resume, making us better able in the long term to soak up excess housing inventory. And given our narrow peninsula, the suburbs here are denser and not as far-flung as they are around Sacramento, Atlanta and Charlotte. But getting to long-term stability will require short-term survival. We need aggressive police and code enforcement in at-risk subdivisions. If they tip into a state of decay, they may never recover, and new growth will pass them by. We also need a hiatus on developing outside urban service areas. It's past time to stop moving out and start filling in. But Florida politicians never say no to developers. Not even the possibility of a looming crisis will change that.