Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sprawl Ain't What It Used To Be

Time was that you got something for sprawl - that is, unbounded development on less-expensive land far from city centers that gradually chewed up rural land. Development spoiled that country feeling, and those of us who grew up in suburbs (in my case the western edge of Los Angeles) sometimes felt stranded in a no-man's land between city and country missing the benefits of both. Suburbs also reflected white flight, continuing and intensifying the racial segregation that is still with us. Nonethless, there was a big upside: more space, more green, more air, more peace, more of the uncrowded road. Above all, there was more affordability. Your money went farther, you could do more things on your middle-class or working-class wage. You could have hobbies, hang out, not worry about where the kids were, and take vacations. The historian Kevin Starr once pointed out that L. Frank Baum wrote the Oz books with 1900s Southern California in mind. Oz was the utopia of the little people, of the working-class he renamed munchkins. The suburb, free of ward bosses, mobsters, slumlords, bad sanitation, etc., was Oz on earth.

Well of course it was never like that. But it was pretty cheap. Thirty years ago, $20,000 bought you a three-bedroom tract-house on the edge of Santa Barbara,an area where the median home price is over a million dollars today. The line was that environmental protection - a passion in Santa Barbara - drove up housing prices. But in places like San Bernadino and Riverside counties, in the hot flat orchard and desert land below the not-very-Misty Mountains like the San Gabriels and San Bernadinos, you could still get a house for pretty cheap, spread out a little, and plan your next move. For a while at least, sprawl was freedom for the medium budget. These folks elected mayors and county supervisors who thought that sprawl was good.

An article by Jean Guccione in the Los Angeles Times on Friday December 15th nicely sums up the decline of sprawl.
Once a haven for first-time homeowners priced out of the Los Angeles County and Orange County markets, the Inland Empire is itself fast becoming less affordable, according to a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments released Thursday.

The percentage of households able to afford a median-priced home in Riverside and San Bernardino counties dropped from 48% in 2001 to 18% last year, as the median price for an Inland Empire home increased from $157,000 to $374,000 during the same period, the study found.

Great. In exactly four years, sprawl became unaffordable in its last great stronghold in California. Where is everyone supposed to move now? What's the middle class Plan B?

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