Popping the Sprawl-nomics Bubble

There are very few places in Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County that suburban-style development hasn't touched. Like other growing cities, Albuquerque’s regional suburban development is ubiquitous. It envelops the inner valley, east and west mesas, Tijeras Canyon, and the eastern slope of the Sandias. Big homes, by historic standards, on uniformly sized lots along snaking cul-de-sacs. They look remarkably similar. They tend to be expensive. And not one of them is purchased with cash.

This is the dominant national development paradigm. Defenders claim that single family sprawl is the natural market response to buyer demand. The same defenders contend that the financing sector required to build and buy is only in a temporary decline.

You want fair? Join the circus!

The Fair Housing Act is 40 years old and April is Fair Housing Month. (For resources regarding Fair Housing in New Mexico go to the NM Fair Housing Center ). But this anniversary comes in the context of a popping housing market bubble. This month also witnessed the US Senate’s passage of a package of “housing rescue” measures that has been dubbed the Builder Bailout Bill.

The $15 million bill provides some tax credits and deductions for buyers, an increase in mortgage revenue bonds and $6 million in builder tax breaks. Critics say it rewards builders and mortgage bankers for the very misjudgments that created the bubble in the first place.

In Albuquerque, economic development schemes are based on construction, so it is safe to assume that if housing needs rescuing, so will our local economy. Yet the State is already involved in record loan production with NMFA public bond funding, as well as record- breaking tax increment financing give-aways to developers like SunCal and Forest Covington.

Our State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, demonstrating a willful disregard for the opinion of the Attorney General on the matter, is doing deals with a Las Cruces developer for, you guessed it, more construction. When the New Mexico Independent asked his office for information about the land leases, they were told to take a hike - but not on State Land because that would be trespassing.

Are we overbuilding our auto-dependent suburbs on the sands of the most reckless financial environment in recent history?

Views: 11

Comment by jim on April 20, 2008 at 8:31am
I suspect that students will be reading about how badly we screwed up in textbooks for years to come.
Comment by Neonnoodle on April 20, 2008 at 9:33am
Unbelievable that in light of all the ominous signs about the state of our economy (one, two, three), they continue to push onward. Yup, I agree with jim... history will not be kind. As a wise man once said, "Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of ...."
Comment by Adelita on April 20, 2008 at 9:53am
Comment by Lauren on April 20, 2008 at 12:40pm
Not ONE purchased with cash? I disagree. I paid cash for my house, seller was in a bind and it's a nice, small house for very little money, Abq house-wise. I don't believe in carrying large amounts of debt. People don't believe in things like saving or emergency funds anymore and I probably sound heartless, but I don't understand how anyone could possibly take an adjustable rate mortgage out. You're just asking for trouble. THAT is financial recklessness. As for suburbs, well....rather in a 'burb than in the middle of downtown or anything "high density". When I come home at night the last thing I want to do is hear any neighbors upstairs or downstairs or even next door. I also don't want to be near a lot of traffic. I don't want to see, hear, or smell traffic. I go home at night and weekends and stay there. I know...I'm boring. If the growth of a city can support new housing and someone wants to build it, then build it (taking into account zoning, etc.). Where are people supposed to live, anyway?
Comment by brendisimo on April 20, 2008 at 6:13pm
thanks Coco, for the great post. And Sarah, I couldn't agree more, although I envision more affordable "infill" housing going up in Albuquerque...hopefully enticing people away from the burbs.
Lauren, the growth of this city CAN'T support growth, at least not in a sustainable and responsible way, hence the "housing rescue" measures now being taken. That was the point of Coco's post. And I know not everyone wants to live in an apartment, but just so you know, I don't hear my neighbors and I also didn't turn my heat on once this winter. Just a perk of high density living!
Comment by Benny the Icepick on April 20, 2008 at 8:05pm
Coco, I don't mean to ignore your post, but I have to address an element of Lauren's comment that is getting under my skin:

I also don't want to be near a lot of traffic. I don't want to see, hear, or smell traffic.

Does she not realize that suburbia is the root cause of all this traffic? By spreading out into the McMansions (which, in the newer developments, isn't spreading out at all, as the houses are all built on top of each other anyways) you effectively preclude any hope of walkability or effective alternative transportation.

The commercial sector required to support this new growth then becomes the big box stores and office parks, both with the oceans of parking lots and congested roads leading to them. It's an inherently unsustainable strategy.

Coco, thanks again for your attention to economics and history. The best I can do is offer an appeal to emotion based on my limited understanding of city planning.
Comment by Izquierdo on April 20, 2008 at 10:26pm
Opps, I didn't click on Adelita's ticky-tacky song post (very good, Adelita), so I guess my writing down a few lyrics was redundant, ando I eliminated them. But the song says it all -- aren't we humans a nutty species?
Comment by Joan on April 21, 2008 at 10:56am
Unfortunately many people equate high density living with noise, crime, poverty and dirt. Hasn't anyone here visited Europe? How about Greenwich Village in New York City? Well developed and maintained urban residential areas are remarkably quiet and have a lot of amenities, such as parks, community centers, libraries, easy transportation, and good coffee within a few steps from your front door. High density does not correlate with crime, either, if you consider the number of crimes per person or per housing unit. Unfortunately, land values in urban areas are notoriously high and that makes housing development more costly. Relatively speaking, suburban housing is incredibly cheap to build and that is what many people can "afford." The mortgage process doesn't include transportation costs in figuring affordability. Some people will always want to live "out on the land," but in the long run it is healthier physically and emotionally for most people to live in a well-planned, well-financed and well-managed urban area.
Comment by John Hardy on April 24, 2008 at 10:46pm
This radio story sums up one key problem of sprawl in the time of rising energy costs. When you add up the cost of the house and the cost of the commute, only the rich can afford to live on the edge.



Home Prices Drop Most in Areas with Long Commute

by Kathleen Schalch
Morning Edition, April 21, 2008 · Economists say home prices are Nowhere near hitting bottom. But even in regions that have taken a beating, some neighborhoods remain practically unscathed. And a pattern is emerging as to which neighborhoods those are.

The ones with short commutes are faring better than places with long drives into the city. Some analysts see a pause in what has long been inexorable —urban sprawl.

. . .


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