I realized recently that my suburban home of nearly two years is 45 years old. While there are no major problems with the home, it made me think: how long could the house last? And, how much effort and money should be expended to keep it going?
The home has some nice features but I don’t think there is much that distinguishes it from millions of other suburban homes. Its architecture is bland if not McMansion like and the lot has a good location.
As the postwar housing stock ages, many homes like ours may face more issues and newer housing units in a variety of places provide new competition. Complicating matters is that many of these older suburban homes command a decent price. When located in more desirable communities, these dwellings will likely prove attractive for some time.
But, when will the tide turn? When will the repair costs become extensive? Are older suburban neighborhoods destined for teardowns or complete redevelopment, not just in the wealthiest areas? Will populations shift away from postwar suburban neighborhoods?
I have little idea of how many years I should predict my suburban home will stand. Twenty-five more years? Seventy-five? One hundred? The builders and developers of postwar suburbs probably spent little time considering what their neighborhoods of tract homes would look like in a century but we are not too far from that. Future generations will decide whether homes like mine are worth investing in or no longer the trouble.
Alana Semuels explores what happens when you rent a house from an institutional investor:
I wonder how much of these issues are due to overwhelming emphasis in the United States on homeownership rather than renting. Do large companies think they can do this to renters because the long-term goal is to sell the property for a large sum to a homeowner (or another investor)? Similarly, do renters put up with this for a longer period of time because they expect to leave the rental market? Or, perhaps in markets where renting is more common and more rental units are available, renters would leave these situations sooner and institutional investors would have to do more to keep renters?
I talked with tenants from 24 households who lived or still live in homes owned by single-family rental companies. I also reviewed 21 lawsuits against three such companies in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta devastated by the housing crash. The tenants claim that, far from bringing efficiency and ease to the rental market, their corporate landlords are focusing on short-term profits in order to please shareholders, at the expense of tenant happiness and even safety. Many of the families I spoke with feel stuck in homes they don’t own, while pleading with faraway companies to complete much-needed repairs—and wondering how they once again ended up on the losing end of a Wall Street real estate gamble…
As the industry started to grow, the major players all described their desire to standardize and improve the business of being a landlord. But even to the companies’ employees, the effort to become more efficient started to look more like craven attempts to squeeze tenants. “It shouldn’t be just about making money, but that’s what it turned into,” Shanell Hanson, who was a property administrator for Colony American Homes in an Atlanta suburb from 2014 to 2016, told me. Hanson said the company had six maintenance workers for 2,100 homes in the area she managed. Residents would frequently call with substantial problems: Sewage was overflowing, or the house was full of mold. But with such a small staff, Hanson could rarely deal with the problems quickly. And the law was on the corporations’ side: If tenants want to seek financial remedy for a landlord not keeping the property in adequate condition, under Georgia law, they have to take the landlord to court, a costly and lengthy process. “It’s almost impossible to do without an attorney,” Lindsey Siegel, an attorney at Atlanta Legal Aid who works on housing issues, told me…
Many other single-family landlord companies were cutting corners on maintenance and repairs. “As the corporation got bigger, it just got worse, in terms of what we had to work with and how we had to deal with problems,” a former Los Angeles leasing agent who worked for Waypoint between 2015 and 2017 told me. (She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in real estate.) Regional teams received bonuses for keeping costs low, she said, which incentivized them to skimp on spending. Instead of responding to tenants personally, supervisors would send calls for maintenance to out-of-town call centers—which would in turn assign maintenance workers dozens of repairs in a day, not realizing that Los Angeles traffic could mean that relatively short distances could take hours to traverse…
Tenants also say that rather than taking advantage of economies of scale, the rental companies are taking advantage of their clients, pumping them for fines and fees at every turn. This impression is backed up by the financial reports of the companies themselves. American Homes 4 Rent increased the amount of money it collected from “tenant charge-backs” (essentially billing tenants for repairs after they move out) by more than 1000 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to company earnings reports, though it only grew the number of homes it owned by 70 percent over that period. In some states, Invitation Homes keeps the utilities in its name, and charges tenants a monthly $10.99 “utility service fee,” which is in addition to the cost of water, gas, and electricity. The company increased its “other property income”—the amount it collected from resident reimbursement for utilities, service charges, and other fees—by 114 percent between the first nine months of 2017 and the first nine months of 2018, despite only growing the number of homes it owned by 71 percent. On an earnings call in 2017, Invitation Homes’ then-CEO John Bartling said that “automated charges to residents” drove profits in the quarter, leading to a 22 percent increase in “other income.”
I would also be interested in more information on the profitability of such companies. How lucrative is it to purchase thousands of homes? While Americans historically are opposed to government involvement in housing (unless it is subsidizing suburban single-family homes), stories like these seem like they could be used to justify more government intervention in regulating housing. But, what if regulations cut into profits? The housing industry is a large and profitable one.
Another angle to take here would be to examine how these institutional investors do or do not contribute to local communities. One justification of homeownership in the United States was that it gave owners a stake in their local community and government. Yet, much capital in the world today is global and real estate decisions made thousands of miles away could heavily influence smaller communities that look like – they are full of single-family homes – they are constructed to emphasize local control.
In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:
- Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
- The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
- The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
- The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.
Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.
The single-family home may be the bedrock of the American suburbs and Joel Kotkin suggests both political parties ignore this at their own peril:
However much they might detest Trump , suburbanites are not likely to rally long-term to a party that seeks to wipe out their way of life. The assault on suburbia, both from the ultra-capitalist right and socialist-minded left, neglects the very reasons—space and privacy—people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Just as Republicans can ignore the unintended consequences of ultra-free market policies, Democrats ignore the aspirations of their own voters.
More important still, the anti-single-family campaign undermines the foundation of our democracy. The essence of American civilization has been the pursuit of a better life for oneself and one’s family. Take away the ability to own one’s home and we are well on our road to a neo-feudal society where the masses will need to rely on the state not only for housing but, without meaningful assets, to finance their retirement.
The clamor to restrict single-family homes and thus push the American dream further out of many Americans’ reach, represents an assault on what both parties once espoused. An America without widespread homeownership is no longer an aspirational country, but a place where people remain imprisoned by their class and unable to pursue what they perceive as a better quality of life.
Kotkin’s argument seems to go like this:
- The suburbs are the way they are because the American people wanted to live in suburbia. Both political parties supported this mission for much of the 20th century through monies and programs.
- Unless Democrats and Republicans cater to suburban voters, they will have a difficult future as political parties.
But, this seems to assume that this suburban way of life based around a home and emphasis on family will always continue this way. To some degree, Americans did desire land and privacy from the beginning yet the suburban experience was really made available to the masses first around the turn of the twentieth century and then even more so after World War II. Younger or future Americans could decide they would prefer cities and denser areas or even rural areas and the political parties could help lead them in that direction.
All that to say, I think Kotkin is right in that a majority of Americans continue to profess interest in living in suburbia. At the same time, this could change in the future and one or both of the political parties could start leading in that direction. Not all Americans want to be suburbanites so there is political room to suggest alternatives.
Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:
- People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
- The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
- A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
- The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
- There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
- The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.
On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.
On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?
Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?
Reflecting on yesterday’s post on the dissonance of watching Marie Kondo in a McMansion, I wondered: where are the television shows that prioritize finding a home based on the social and psychological needs of the owners and their long-term health rather than emphasizing running up against the budget and maximizing the size of the home?
The easy answer is that these are not the homes or stories that Americans want to see. People want to get as much as they can within their budget. The overall price of the home and the size makes for interesting viewing across different locales.
Yet, I imagine there is some sort of viewership market for those who would rather emphasize how a home would fit their lifestyle. This occasionally comes through on HGTV but tends to be subsumed under concerns about budget and the size. Where are the people buying smaller homes and or cheaper homes because they appreciate the aesthetics of a particular home or because a smaller home is easier to clean and maintain or that cheaper and smaller home is near friends and family which are more important than their private home? Or, perhaps there could be a show about how relatively normal people purchase homes and then tweak them to fit their particular needs or interests.
If more homeowners are truly interested in long-term well-being, evidenced by interest in decluttering or options like the Not So Big House, it may be a while before they see this reflected on TV. Too many current shows are limited by budget and square feet to truly consider the well-being of the owners.
While recently working on a research project, I found 1930s pictures of the place where my in-laws live. Later the home to a master-planned suburban community, the picture presents quite an alternative vision:
Having such images could help give current suburbanites a better sense of what came before their home as well as some insight into how their home fits into an altered landscape. There would be some continuity between then and now – similar natural elements including wildlife, foliage, and topography – and notable differences such as the presence of modern roads and buildings.
Tracking down these images is often not easy. Many communities have historical societies or museums that keep such images. To see them, a community member or researcher would have to go ask for them. (And there is no guarantee they have pictures of every property; they are likely to have pictures of the more famous buildings in town.) Searching online can reveal some old maps and images of places but much of the material of local historical groups is not kept online.