Cities Against Suburbanization

Congress has been considering changing mortgage banking, reducing the role of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, the two federal superbanks that have been insuring and buying our mortgages for decades. Actually, the government should stop encouraging the suburbanization of America.

Our prized single family homes – my wife and I live in one too – are a large part of the global warming problem. To live in such homes we move further and further from our jobs, stores, schools and just about everything else. So we have to pave the earth with roads and drive ever further to get wherever we need to go, and do less and less walking and using our own muscles. The connection with roads was there from the beginning in the thirties – roads made the suburbs possible and helped hollow out the cities. And the car undoubtedly contributes to the obesity epidemic.

You may have done everything you could to live in an efficient single family home, insulated the roof and walls, installed solar panels, etc. But if you think about it, you are trying to get back some of the efficiencies that are part and parcel of apartment living in which you share walls in every direction. I grew up in apartments, although my wife, from a small town, did not. But we both remember fondly our seven room apartment in Brooklyn Heights – at half the then going rate and with a view of the harbor, although you had to look out at an angle to see it. It was a great apartment with great neighbors and friends we still hold dear.

We moved to Albany in 1979. The Empire State Plaza was finished one year earlier. What we confronted was a dying city. The department stores were closing. Downtown was like a ghost town. You couldn’t buy anything. All that remained were some restaurants and a few bars. State workers drove in and drove out. They didn’t stop to shop.

But to build the Plaza, some 9,000 residents were evicted along with the businesses that served them, from barber shops to stores and repair services. Downtown died because its clientele had been pushed out.

Mayors come and go but they all seem to respond by wanting to build convention centers. They want to build because that means property tax dollars – one of the few sources of revenue the city is allowed. But convention centers are a huge open pit in the center of the city, a parking nightmare when something is going on, and a scary empty space when it isn’t. And there is little evidence that the people who come in for events at convention centers bother to stop and shop while they’re here. Think boondoggle.

The life of a city is its people. To rejuvenate, cities like Albany need to reverse the process and bring housing back to the central city along with the businesses that serve it. And they need to make sure that they have the services that the people will need, including the busses, routes and schedules to serve people who give up the habit of taking their cars for everything they need. Sounds attractive to me plus great for the environment.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 18, 2014.

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