Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

Higher housing prices mean suburbs are less affordable, Houston edition

New data suggests residents in the Houston region have fewer cheaper housing options in the suburbs:

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The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain…

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

This gets at three long-standing questions about suburban life:

  1. How far will people be willing to drive from the big city or other population centers in order to get a cheaper, bigger home? In some metro areas, this extends past 40 miles and multiple ring highways. If more people can work from home, more suburbanites might be willing to be further out.
  2. Even as suburbanites protect and celebrate rising housing prices, this also limits what others can purchase. Suburbanites have a long history of moving in and pulling up the gates behind them. But, even as suburban homeowners watch their personal wealth grow, others will not necessarily get the same opportunities.
  3. Is the primary plan for affordable housing in American metro regions to just keep the sprawl going? At some point, this may not be possible due to conditions – see the price jumps in construction cited above – or changing ideologies about where to live.

It would be interesting to compare this to other metropolitan areas across regions and price points.

Can new suburban developments be sustainable?

A long-proposed big suburban project north of Los Angeles aims to be sustainable:

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The company’s proposals promise a reprieve from California’s existential crisis about its way of life, suggesting that the environmental consequences of the state’s notorious sprawl can be reformed with rooftop solar panels, induction cooktops, electric cars, and careful bookkeeping. The threat of wildfires can be held at bay by stricter building codes. These proposals preserve the idea that, although the climate may be changing, the California dream of sunshine, a single-family home, and a two-car garage needn’t change at all.

But the debate it intense about whether the sustainable features of the development offsets what suburbia brings:

Cheap fossil fuels, the supremacy of private-property rights, and the maximization of shareholder value have, for decades, dictated the patterns of land use in America. People need homes, and, in Southern California and other growing metropolitan areas, those homes get built in areas far from the centers of cities. Disasters that follow this approach are attributed to natural causes or climate change, rather than to the avoidable flaws of poor planning. Consider the Marshall fire that burned a thousand homes last December, including all of a hundred and seventy-one properties in a nineteen-nineties-era subdivision built on the outskirts of Boulder County, Colorado—or the disappearance of water from exurbs constructed in the two-thousands in the Rio Verde Foothills, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. Even reasonable predictions on a twenty-year event horizon are seen as fussy impediments to construction…

California has a severe housing shortage; a recent state assessment called for more than a million new units in Southern California to meet demand. Barry Zoeller, an executive at the Tejon Ranch Company, told me, “That’s going to have to take, in our estimation, a combination of both infill development in urban areas and also new master-planned communities of sufficient scale that can also meet climate-change criteria.” But many environmentalists argue that the imbalance between jobs and housing in Los Angeles can not be solved by building houses that are a thirty-minute drive from the city’s outermost suburbs. “Aren’t there better places to build?” Pincetl asked. “Yes, but you don’t own the land, so no.” She added, “If we’re turning over the provision of housing and the land markets to private entities, their motivation is not to house people. Why are private-equity firms coming into the real-estate market? Tell me. Not to provide housing.”…

I used my phone to scan QR codes and open the self-entry locks on a handful of model homes by Lennar, KB Home, and Toll Brothers, among others. The houses were built close together. They were large and well appointed, with gray laminate floors, giant appliances, many bathrooms, and cold air-conditioning. Some stoves at Valencia were electric, but many were still gas ranges—the era of banning natural-gas hookups hadn’t arrived when this development was approved. Some of the planned homes were already sold out, and a steady stream of racially diverse prospective buyers in luxury cars made their way around the neighborhoods-to-be. It looked like every other subdivision I’ve ever been in: paved-over farmland with a few transplanted trees, an island in a landscape hostile to pedestrian life. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing it with new eyes. The wind blew hot and the sun beat over the newly built homes, and from far away came the faint screams of people riding the roller coasters at Magic Mountain.

This is a decades-long issue as suburbs, first found in the United States in the 1800s, exploded in popularity and policy in the 1900s. With the expansion of driving and highways, the postwar suburbs sprawled in all directions from big cities and have not stopped since. All of this comes at an environmental cost: all of the materials used, the pollution from all of the driving, the inefficiencies of single-family homes, and the loss of land and habitat.

There are numerous ways to make suburbs more sustainable. This includes the moves suggested above as well as increased suburban densities, mass transit options or walkability or other transit options so that driving is not the only options, and better locations nearer population centers and jobs and away from important land and habitats.

So, where exactly is the line where suburbs might be “sustainable enough”? The article above suggests this line is in flux as communities, states, and other interested actors negotiate and set regulations for new development. It is unlikely that all suburban development will be banned or limited and it is unlikely that all suburban development will just happen without any questions about the environmental costs. This line can also vary across contexts as the local concerns are different outside of Los Angeles than they might be outside Columbus, Ohio or Jacksonville, Florida.

Hot rental market in Phoenix and supplying enough housing

In an article about a large and expanding encampment of the homeless in Phoenix, here are some details about how rental prices in the city have shot up:

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“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”

Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic

While much of the rest of the article focuses on addressing housing for the homeless, this sounds like a bigger issue. This is an area with a growing population: Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the US and had a little over 100,000 residents in 1950 before experiencing double-digit percentage population growth in all but one decade since. Housing opportunities, particularly in rentals, have not kept up. American sprawl often produces a lot of single-family homes but necessarily cheaper houses or multi-family units for those who cannot secure a sizable mortgage.

What can Phoenix and surrounding communities do? Addressing housing in the United States is a difficult task. It will take concerted effort across communities for years. It may not be popular. But, it is essential for ensuring housing for all who need it.

It would be great to have an example of a city and region in the Sun Belt – roughly Virginia to southern California – that has successfully addressed this even as they have experienced significant growth in recent decades. I do not know if there is a great example, outside of some places not becoming too popular such that it raises demand and housing prices.

Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

The multiple NIMBYs in the way of “electrify everything”

A new book suggests a climate change answer is “electrify everything” but the author describes some NIMBY roadblocks to this idea:

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Griffith: There is no easy answer. There are different NIMBYs at play. There are “No wind turbines off my coastline!” NIMBYs. There are “No gas line running through my backyard!” NIMBYs. There are “I don’t like the look of solar cells!” NIMBYs. For those complaining about the view, I would remind them that a huge amount of land is already taken up by our energy-transmission systems. Millions of miles of dedicated coal rail lines and natural-gas pipelines are already strewn across the landscape. They only seem invisible because they’ve blended in over the past century.

Thompson: Okay, if there’s no easy answer, what’s the hard answer?

Griffith: I’m going to give you an answer that I’ve only been thinking about for a few weeks. I think the argument will be won on local economics. If you take a suburb with a thousand homes in it, those families might spend $3.5 million a year on gasoline. When those families fill their car with gas, the money immediately leaves the community and goes to Texas or Saudi Arabia. But if the cars are run on electricity that comes from their own rooftops and houses, then no money is leaving the community. You can take that $3.5 million and build new classrooms. That’s really exciting to me…

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

This does seem to be the trick: how to convince the majority of Americans that green energy benefits their daily lives. And if they actually gain money for their own households or for goods they want in their community, this would help. If individual homeowners do not want to take more responsibility for generating electricity (solar panels on the roof), it could devolve into arguing which less fortunate suburb should be home to the solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

Thinking bigger, what if green energy enables suburban life to continue, as opposed to a vision where people need to live in denser concentrations in order to use less energy? I wonder about this externality of more electric vehicles: if pollution via driving and the need for gas are reduced, can sprawl even expand?

The role of suburbs in “a nearly natureless world”

An MIT professor describes our current world as “nearly natureless”:

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Many of us invest hours each day staring at the screens of our televisions and computers and smartphones. Seldom do we go outside on a clear night, away from the lights of the city, and gaze at the dark starry sky, or take walks in the woods unaccompanied by our digital devices. Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.

Much is made here of how recent technology like smartphones, computers, and television has cut our connection to nature. But, I wonder about the role of urbanization and, more specifically, the suburbs that supposedly connect people to nature even as they enjoy the conveniences of the modern world.

From the beginning of suburbs in the United States, part of their definition and appeal was a closer connection to nature. As cities rapidly urbanized and this coincided with a host of changes (industrialization, immigration, much higher densities, new social relationships), the suburbs offered a private home in nature (a “cottage in the woods”). Suburban homes became associated with trees, lawns, and open space.

Of course, the kind of nature found in suburbia was a particular kind. As suburbs expanded, the natural elements disappeared or became more planned. Humans leveled land, constructed roads and buildings, and whizzed by the landscape at speeds relatively unknown in nature. The nature of suburbia was suited to and used for human purposes.

Granted, humans have interacted with and shaped nature for a long time. Yet, the suburbs are relatively new in human history. Even as they promised a connection to nature, they offered a truncated version of nature with relatively little regard for the organisms and ecosystems already present. Might the suburbanites of today be closer to nature if they did not have a smartphone in one hand and a 60-inch TV in front of them? Maybe – but the natureless world of suburbia has been here for a while already.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

The ten fastest growing American communities are all suburbs, all in South or West

Growth in the United States continues to occur in suburbs in two regions of the country:

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The 2020 Census listed Meridian as one of the 10 fastest-growing large cities in the country. All the cities on the list grew at rates of more than 44 percent. They are all in the South and the West. And they are all suburbs…

Meridian and the nine other cities represent a trend, according to U.S. Census Bureau officials. As the country’s biggest cities grow and become increasingly unaffordable to many, their suburbs have ballooned, taking on their own identities…

The Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas have had suburbs on this list every decade, he said. “Sizable amounts of empty land for construction of housing” encourages this population growth, and that land is more commonly available in the West and South. Now, people are often going farther and farther from city centers to search for empty lots, especially in cities that have been growing for the past half-century, Perry said…

Meridian and suburbs like it, Perry said, are “a reminder that there are still some pockets of rapid population growth in certain areas of the country,” despite the past 10 years being the second slowest growing decade for the U.S. population. What the Census data makes clear is that many suburbs are taking on a life of their own.

This is a continuation of several longer trends. The population growth in the United States has generally shifted to the South and West and away from the Northeast and Midwest. Certain suburban communities continue to grow rapidly, driven by expanding metropolitan areas, a quest for cheaper land, and the celebration of sprawl and single-family homes. Many big cities are still growing but they are no longer the fastest-growing places.

At the same time, these ongoing patterns might be surprising for several reasons. First, the suburbs have endured critiques for decades yet the same pattern seems to keep repeating: small towns outside hot metro areas balloon in size and population over the course of several decades. As the article notes, this can bring a lot of change that is not universally liked by the residents there before sprawl or even some of the residents who join the sprawl. The rapidly-growing suburbs are no longer places like Naperville but the descriptions of what is happening are very similar. What have Americans learned in the seven-plus decades of postwar suburban growth?

Second, are these growth patterns sustainable in areas with water and other environmental concerns? Communities in the West are reconsidering growth amid water shortages. Is the land converted to subdivisions stable and have good drainage? Does the emphasis on driving contribute to smog and the use of land that was once more open?

Third, population increases are often accompanied by a gain in status. Larger communities are better-known, have more business activity, and become destinations. Will these rapidly-growing suburbs suddenly be put on the map (also suggesting that other places decrease in status)?

Put together, will there be cheap enough open land outside attractive cities for explosive suburban growth? Or, because there will always be some suburban land somewhere cheaper than properties in the most expensive markets, think New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there might always be a market for sprawl.

Naperville: large suburb built through decades of suburban sprawl now wants to be a leader in sustainability

The Naperville City Council recently approved several plans from the report from a sustainability task force that made a number of recommendations:

Aerial view of Naperville, Illinois

Highlights include transitioning to clean and renewable energy, incentivizing energy efficiency, developing a plan for electric vehicle infrastructure, increasing public transportation use and recycling efforts, and focusing on the maintenance of natural resources.

Other objectives include a 4% annual reduction in waste, energy use and vehicle miles driven in conjunction with an increase in tree planting to help decrease greenhouse gases by 4% each year.

One of the recent steps taken by the city was hiring Ben Mjolsness as Naperville’s first sustainability coordinator. Mjolsness on Tuesday talked about the many options and incentives residents have with energy efficiency and recycling.

Councilman Patrick Kelly said he looked forward to showcasing Naperville as a front-runner in sustainability.

Many communities will be pursuing such plans in coming years. But, the particular context of Naperville is interesting to consider for multiple reasons:

  1. It is a large and wealthy suburb. It has the resources to pursue this.
  2. Naperville likes to be a leader among suburbs and this may help further this status in coming years.
  3. Sixty years ago or even forty years ago, Naperville was much smaller in population and had a smaller footprint in land use. Today, it has nearly 150,000 people and roughly 39 square miles of land with much of this involving single-family homes.

In one sense, the growth patterns that helped make the Naperville of today possible – explosive growth in the postwar era built around homes and driving – also make pursuing sustainability more difficult. Take the reducing the miles driven goal from above. Some residents of Naperville could do this but many are in subdivisions whose roads then feed to large arterial roads. This does not work as well for biking (and the weather in the area may not help). Additionally, the sprawl makes mass transit more difficult. In the past, Naperville has tried buses in the community but they do not get much use (even as the train stations are some of the busiest with commuters going toward Chicago). The best way for Naperville to achieve this goal may be to encourage local businesses to allow employees to work from home, thus limiting commuting needs.

Not mentioned in the news article above (it could be in the report) is the density of the community. One way to improve sustainability in the long run is to have denser housing, particularly near locations where other forms of transportation other than driving are possible. This could be in and around the downtown. It could be in different nodes around the community where there are jobs or where it would be possible to pursue transit-oriented development. As a bonus, denser housing might also provide more opportunities for affordable housing. Naperville has thought about these options in the past but they are not always popular given the single-family home character of the community.

As Naperville pursues sustainability, some actions will be relatively painless given what the community can do. Other conversations about long-term changes or how to address sprawl might take much longer for a consensus to emerge.