Suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city

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The suburbs may be getting cooler, but they will never, ever be as cool as the city.

You might assume they are based on real estate trends and survey results. Unfortunately, housing choices and urban vs. suburban development just aren’t that simple. If they were, urban planning would be a lot easier…and a lot less important.

[Previous Agenda story: Living in the city is cool, but are the suburbs cooler? I’m torn.]

Just because people are moving to the suburbs, it doesn’t mean they’re cool.

Guys, I’m here to tell you: I live in the suburbs and I think they’re boring as hell. I choose to live where I live because our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district has three A+ schools and if those districts change, we’ll still probably have all highly ranked schools.

I know there is an argument out there for neighborhood schools, charter schools, homeschools, etc. That is another article for another day – but when all is said and done there is no doubt that quality of schools (or perceived quality of schools) is driving the real estate market.

I also want to have a nice little tribe of kiddos – and they and my sanity need a little space. I am not alone. I have made the decision to sacrifice what I want for what I think is the most important for my children…because I can’t have it all.

If I could afford to live in the city and pay for my children to go to a school of my choosing I would stick my house on the market so fast your head would spin.

The uptick in sales in the suburbs post-2016 is a result of the economic recovery. All those millennials kept getting older, getting married, and having kids during the recession. Now that things are looking up, they have the ability to purchase property – and for the reason I just mentioned, a lot are headed further out of the city.

But not everyone has a choice in where they live.

Many people depend on the social support of their families and neighbors. They may live in the same neighborhood their whole lives and they need to stay there because their grandmother lives down the street and watches their children while they work the third shift or take night classes.

Moving is very expensive. Some people may never be able to afford to pack up their house and start over somewhere new. Finding another house they can afford while their house has been declining in value for decades might be impossible.

These are all very real scenarios that many Charlotteans face daily – and there are many more. We have to stop only thinking about the people who have choices and think about everyone in this city as it relates to housing.

Even if we could decipher the infinite reasons why people choose or have to live where they do (not necessarily where they want to), it is important to know that not all is fair in the war between city and suburbs.

An article in Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns takes a deep dive into federal financing’s effect on the housing market, but in summary here are a few facts to know (stay with me – these are important):

  • Since 1934, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) have insured mortgages for 34 million homes, only 7.4 million were in multi-family buildings.
  • Federal program guidelines make loans for mixed-use buildings very difficult so most banks won’t make them. They also cap the amount of non-residential space within buildings because outdated research shows single-family developments are less risky than mixed-use development. This encourages developers to shy away from “riskier” urban projects.

Developers like to make money, which is no surprise to anyone. And in order to build a product to sell, you have to be able to easily get financing. If developers can only get financing to build single-family neighborhoods, that’s exactly what they’ll build. When a young family comes along who has scraped their pennies together for a down payment, they really don’t have a lot of choice in their housing type. With a much larger supply of single-family surburban homes, they are often more affordable. When you only have a choice between suburbia and suburbia…you choose suburbia.

Because there are less urban, mixed-use, and walkable places being built (and when they are they are limited and also become unaffordable), the financing systems in place are reinforced because people continue to buy in suburban neighborhoods, creating a false demand in the market.

Not all suburbs are as cool as Davidson and Matthews.

And as we consider whether suburbs are cool, it’s worth keeping in mind that Davidson and Matthews are not really suburbs.

They don’t suffer from a lack of connected streets, architectural character, a mix of uses close to one another, or wide tree-lined sidewalks like typical suburbs around Charlotte do.  They have historic downtowns built in a 1800s, WAY before suburban growth hit America hard in the 1960s-2000s.

And we just don’t build them like we used to. All the towns mentioned in the article (Matthews, Davidson, Fort Mill, Belmont, Mooresville, Huntersville, Rock Hill, Weddington and Waxhaw) were in existence way before the automobile was invented or Charlotte was anywhere near. Charlotte kept growing and just ate them right up.

While they may be suburban by location, they are not suburban in character.

The suburbs might blend into a mega-city over time.

Time will tell, but I do think it’s very likely that Charlotte will continue to grow into a metropolitan area with a series of smaller cities with commuting and housing markets overlapped.

I believe it is human nature to get off our butt and walk outside, enjoy the breeze on a fall day, and be around other people and community. The traditional suburbs do not offer that, and that is why we have seen an increase in walkable activity centers like Ballantyne, Blakeney, Baxter Village, and Birkdale.

Because the centers of these activity centers exhibit the same characteristics of the city, they are also becoming more unaffordable and are experiencing their own scale of sprawl.

As we speak, our transit system is being redesigned to think about how to more directly connect these hubs of population and employment to each other directly without having to connect to Uptown. The network of smaller “towns” already exists, and as our Charlotte continues to see the growth of more than 50 people moving here daily, walkable activity centers will continue to be popular.

The argument of suburbia vs. city never has been and never will be simple.

I think we can all agree that no matter where we live, we all want a choice — which we really don’t have right now. Whether our hand is being forced by the disproportionate quality of schools in our public school system, the type of house we can afford, or if we can afford to move at all, we can all agree the sharing of diverse cultural resources and experiences that the city offers will always be cool.

Erin Chantry, a LEED AP ND, CNU-A Urban Designer and Planner in Charlotte, NC. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin writes at helmofthepublicrealm.com.

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