Ghosts of Herbert Hoover

American suburbs turning into ghost towns: How homeowners are ditching out of town areas to live in big cities

U.S. suburbs which saw huge population growth a decade ago are dwindling to record lows as cash-conscious Americans shun the country in favour of city living.

New census estimates show homeowners are favouring big cities in record numbers, as population growth in more built-up areas surpassed that in suburban areas for the first time in two decades.

Experts believe high gasoline prices are one of the main reasons behind the shift in population growth trends.

The changing face of the American population has seen construction of new schools and shopping malls in suburban areas scaled back, while increasing numbers of large houses and mansions built in anticipation of middle-class families are sitting empty.

Suburban regions are also said to be suffering increased poverty due to the decline in population growth.

‘The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,’ Yale University economist Robert J. Shiller said.

Shiller, co-creator of a Standard & Poor’s housing index, is perhaps best known for identifying the risks of a U.S. housing bubble before it actually burst in 2006-2007.

Examining the current market, Shiller believes America is now at a turning point, shifting away from faraway suburbs in the long term amid persistently high gasoline prices.

Demographic changes also play a role: They include young singles increasingly delaying marriage and childbirth and thus more apt to rent and a graying population that in its golden years may prefer closer-in, walkable urban centers.

‘Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime,’ Shiller said, calling the development of suburbs since 1950 ‘unusual’ and enabled only by the rise of the automobile and the nation’s highway system. 

The signs of longer-term bust are evident in places such as Kendall County, Ill., an outlying suburb of 116,000 people located about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.

The nation’s No. 1 fastest-growing county from 2000 to 2010, Kendall was part of an exurban wave that more than doubled Kendall’s population and helped lift GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush to victory in 2004, offering Republicans the hope of a new era of conservative voters sprouting on the rural-urban edge.

About 10.6 million Americans reside in the nation’s exurbs, just 5 percent of the number in large metropolitan areas. That number represents annual growth of just 0.4 percent from 2010, smaller than the 0.8 percent growth rate for cities and their surrounding urban areas. It also represents the largest one-year growth drop for exurbs in at least 20 years.

By comparison, in 2006 exurban communities grew at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, compared with a population loss of 0.2 percent for inner cities.

In all, 99 of the 100 fastest-growing exurbs and outer suburbs saw slower or no growth in 2011 compared with the mid-decade housing peak – the exception being Spotsylvania County, Va., located on the outskirts of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, which has boomed even in the downturn.

Nearly three-fourths of the top 100 outer suburban areas also saw slower growth compared with 2010, hurt by $3-a-gallon gasoline last year that has since climbed $1 higher.

Other areas showing big slowdowns are Pinal County outside Phoenix; Barrow, Paulding and Pike counties near Atlanta; Union and York counties outside Charlotte, N.C.; and Sandoval County near Albuquerque, N.M.

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