Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Back to our Housing Future: Will the old Suburbs become the new Urban Core?

A New Role for Older Community Associations?

By Tyler P. Berding

Have we reached the end of the move to the northern California suburbs that started after World War II? The gradual shift of the population from inner city San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose to the Peninsula, San Leandro, Walnut Creek, and Concord started about then, later followed by further shifts to Antioch, Brentwood, Morgan Hill, Fairfield and even Stockton and Modesto. Similar movements could be found in Sacramento as former residents of that city moved east into the foothills and south to the Central Valley. And of course, entire new cities were created in southern California as immigrants from Los Angeles and populations from other states migrated to Orange, Ventura, and San Bernardino Counties. As the middle classes moved out, the inner cities deteriorated, often followed by an increase in lower income population, the homeless and an increase in crime.

But no one really cared because gas was cheap and California had the best system of highways in the country. Also, the Interstate Highway system begun in the late fifties and early sixties created additional four lane freeways between jobs in the inner cities and the new single family housing in more distant suburbs. Prior to 1940, the bulk of California's population lived in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, the East Bay, and Sacramento. A lot of that housing was high density. Even single family homes were generally built close together on small lots. Everything outside of these cities was largely agricultural and rural. But when the population shift began, it was unstoppable and the new suburbs became the destinations of choice for the World War II generation and eventually their baby boomer children. Land and houses were relatively cheap, crime was low, and the lifestyle there fit their expectations and California's good weather.
Gradually, however, these commuters began to pay the price for their homes in the suburbs. Long drives to jobs in the cities, traffic tie-ups that made the trip even longer, and the cost of automobile maintenance and gasoline began to represent a higher percentage of a family's disposable income. Some jobs followed the population into the suburbs. Office parks in cities like San Ramon, Cupertino, and Walnut Creek offered the chance for companies to move where their workers lived, but commute traffic around northern (and southern) California remained heavy and one to two hour commutes from places like Stockton and Tracy or Morgan Hill, to jobs in the Bay Area were not unusual by the end of the last decade. While rapid transit, like Cal Train and BART helped to some degree, the central problem was that affordable housing was gradually getting farther and farther away from jobs.

Then came the new millennium and high oil prices and we began to see the cost of the commute rising above the average worker's ability to pay for the daily drive. Finally, the “California Golden Rule”—that housing prices would always rise—was broken last year, housing prices dropped for the first time in many years, and the wisdom of investing in homes 50 and 60 miles from a job was finally being seriously questioned.

The reason to re-develop the (old) suburbs...

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