Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Deconstructing Suburbia

A few weeks ago, I viewed a piece on 60 Minutes which was about a current phenomenon occurring in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.  As is the case across the country, many home owners are experiencing foreclosures.  In Cleveland’s case, the banks, who now own the properties, have neglected to maintain and protect the houses as a cost saving measure.  Additionally, vandals have come through and stripped out plumbing and lighting fixtures, copper wiring, and even aluminum siding that can be easily accessed.   The TV images shown, paint a rather bleak picture that is hard to comprehend.

To further compound this deterioration, the county tax collector notes that this situation has resulted in a further decline in property values in the affected neighborhoods.  As a result, a decline in related tax assessments and revenues for the county is significant.   To stop the bleeding, the county has decided to tear down these structures!   The rationale is that this is a cheaper alternative to the continued deterioration of the neighborhood and subsequent loss in property tax revenues.  This drastic approach has led to the creation of numerous vacant lots adjacent to homes that are currently owned and maintained by families that are, in many cases, struggling to keep their homes.

It was upsetting to hear that this was happening and maddening that the banks selfishly felt compelled to only look at their bottom line and let someone else, namely the adjacent homeowners and the county tax collector, deal with the mess that they created in the first place.  I know that if this was happening in my neighborhood, suburban or not, I would be wondering where is the justice in all of this?  I know my neighbors, and I would not take kindly to this callousness.  How would you feel if the families next to you were kicked out, and their houses were torn down? 

Perhaps you might see this situation as simply an opportunity to implement new land use or planning policy…I think it’s a much larger issue.  Where is the humanity in all of this?  As a society, are we going to let communities unravel at the expense of corporate bottom lines?  Sometime ago George Carlin, comedian, quipped… “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”  For many, it’s ironic how true this is, and how it’s become a real nightmare!!

Your comments are welcomed.

Tony Battaglia, Architect & Planner

1 comment:

  1. Tony, thanks for raising this subject. I didn't see the 60 Minutes segment, but have talked to many who did. And I know that Detroit has been doing something similar for years, demolishing old row houses that have fallen into disrepair with no hope of finding new owners to do the major renovations needed.

    Although I understand the actions by the county, I'm concerned that it is a short-term fix without adequate consideration of the long-term implications. Who'll maintain the newly-cleared lots? I suspect the remaining homeowners will find a weed-chocked vacant lot only marginally more acceptable than a derelict home. What is the long term intention for the lots? Will they be available for new single-family homes when the market needs them? How about the water services to the now-vacant lots? Have they been capped so they aren't a contamination risk to the remaining homes? And ultimately, what are the thoughts about density? In a world where higher density is increasing seen as a necessity to provide efficient services such as garbage collection and transit, the county is effectively reducing density. Is there a long-term strategy to counter that effect?

    Also, I appreciate but don't share your sense of outrage at the lenders who failed to secure or to maintain the homes. Corporations are about making money and they'll do what they must to make the bottom line work. To expect them to act in the public good is like expecting a venomous snake not to bite. I'm not saying that they're evil, only that they are behaving in accordance with their basic character. The Ben & Jerry's of the world may have occasional runs, but ultimately the Unilevers win out. If we want corporations to behave with a higher level of public interest, it is up to us, working through all levels of governments, to impose the necessary obligations.

    Thanks again for beginning the discussion - Dave Alden