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Why Non-Suburbanites Distrust Suburbanites August 30, 2011

I’ve had the great Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs, on in my car recently, and have been inspired by it to a few thoughts.

Most people, especially people with children, aspire to a real house and not a condominium or an apartment, a house you can walk around the outside of, with at least a semblance of a private back yard.  And they are willing to sacrifice easy access to alternatives to the automobile in order to have this. Is there anything wrong with this?  No, not if

  1. you can afford it,
  2. you don’t demand that the price of gasoline be controlled or subsidized
  3. The costs of setting up and maintaining infrastructure, and costs of new schools, public and private, must be paid.  I think there are aspects of Proposition 13 that could be reformed, but the principle that the buyers or occupiers of new homes must pay for the infrastructure that their homes make necessary, rather than burdening the existing residents, is one that we are stuck with, and even though I would like to see housing less expensive I think that this is probably a good thing.

However, people move to suburbs not just to get things, like bigger houses and yards, but to get away from things in their old neighborhood:  crime, traffic, and bad schools [if they’re not religious, they are likely to assume that the public schools in the suburbs are ‘good’].  And how to keep the bad things from following them?  They have to be able to control the neighborhoods around them.  This means, of course, either through the power of the state, or through the power of covenants and deed restrictions that create a quasi-state.  One major city, Houston, relies exclusively on private covenants to control land use, other than ‘health and safety’ regulations; they have not even had zoning, much less the Conditional Use Permit system that has replaced zoning in many parts of California.  It is popular in conservative circles, especially, to talk about ‘smaller government,’ but ‘smaller government’ is the last thing that suburbanites want if it means that whatever they were trying to leave behind can come into their neighborhood.  And we tend to think of suburbanization as a conservatizing force!

Interestingly enough, local governments have started to imitate homeowners’ associations, in that they claim the right to compel neatness and other things that traditionally a civil government did not claim beyond a demonstrable health or safety standard.  And also, city residents often regard themselves as having a property right in the ‘General Plan’ of the city in the way that they would in the CC&Rs of an association.

Crime is one thing.  Even the cities are now much safer now that the new ‘broken window’ type policing tactics have been adopted.  And while I covet the right to use or misuse my property as I choose, if what I choose can be shown to make criminals feel more comfortable, that I will surrender.

Density and traffic are another.  So are ‘property values;’ it is assumed in many circles that to say that a thing ‘lowers property values’ is an argument against it.  The only way to keep traffic and density down is to restrict the further building of housing or industry or workplaces.  And housing, like currency, loses its value if you print too much of it.  Is this why the American Housing Dream ended? In the 1950-60s millions of people, originally the World War II generation and then their descendants, were able to buy homes.  But in many areas, did it turn out that the only way for these homes to build wealth for their residents was to slow down the process of new housing, to make the existing stock more valuable?  The house is still habitable, but as far as an asset to sell for retirement it isn’t worth much if they’ve ‘printed’ too much other housing in the vicinity.

Then there is the issue of ‘incomism.’  Some of the underclass do live very dysfunctional lifestyles that make them bad neighbors.  So the respectable poor seek to move somewhere just expensive enough that the dysfunctional people could not afford to live there.  But as a society, we have often acted as if we believed that people who made less money than ourselves were inherently inferior people, and at the very least, undesirable neighbors.  [Sometimes people who make a lot more money than we do are considered undesirable neighbors, too!  They drive up prices.]  I think that ‘incomism’ is morally problematic.  Note I have not said ‘classism,’ because social classes are primarily, in my view, cultural entities, and you don’t change classes by making more or less money unless you change your cultural values as well.

Race was a major factor in the earlier 20th century; covenants, and sometimes government regulations, supported a culture that believed that confining people of color, and sometimes even Jews, to certain areas, was better for the community.  I think that while this prejudice still exists, it has little legal force, and that this kind of snobbery today is mainly expressed through incomism and classism.

When my wife was involved, about ten years ago, in a major project in our home town in Iowa, by the way, one of the discoveries of our research is that small town people have attitudes more like those of an urban neighborhood than like those of a suburb.  Their tongues may cluck more at moral misbehavior, but they are more tolerant aesthetically.  Most small town residents did not come there to leave things behind which they now need to use the political or legal system to exclude, to keep from following them.  Suburban people, however, are, in summary:

  1. often interested in excluding whatever it is they were trying to leave, therefore no fans of ‘small government’ at the local level;
  2. if home ownership is to be a good investment, it helps if not too many homes or other residences are built!  So perhaps the FHA, VA, and other home ownership programs started in the 1940s carried the seeds of their own destruction – it was in the 1970s in many parts of the country that the system stopped being able to produce affordable housing for the lower middle class.  For Levittown or Lakewood to be a good investment, it helps if no more Levittowns or Lakewoods are allowed.
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