24. The Slumming of the Suburbs

During the 1980’s, the homes, shops, recreation areas, transportation systems, and workplaces that make up New Jersey’s built environment will be changed substantially, by intent or omission, and the manmade landscape will become observably different.

Here are four factors that will influence what New Jersey will look like, and how well it will function, in the decade ahead . These forces will govern, for example, how fast a 1950’s tract house deteriorates and its neighborhood declines, or the extent of strip commercial blight along secondary highways.

• Who we are – in terms of individuals, households, and families- has changed dramatically over the past two decades, although public perception has not generally taken these shifts into account. A revolution of household size, numbers, and composition has occurred that is already shaping the size, type, and location of new homes and reinvestment decisions affecting existing homes. It is also affecting the rise and fall of retail centers, including many that are less than 20 years old.

• A new economic era is distorting traditional investment patterns, as well as curtailing redevelopment opportunities in older communities. Real incomes of households have declined in New Jersey over the past 12 years. Unemployment is expected to remain high. Purchasing power is constrained, with correspondingly severe consequences for retail floors and those who wish to sell or rent properties. Money costs rose to historic highs, further choking off demand for new construction and delaying investment in renovation and property improvement.

• The interplay of these demographic and economic changes, plus changing tastes, is demonstrably altering choices in housing type and size, and in land consumption trends.

• One newly recognized force will increasingly claim public and private resources. New Jersey is “wearing out” in the sense that under-maintained structures, ranging from railroad bridges to individual homes, are losing the fight with nature. Rust, rot, erosion, heat, and cold require constant intervention lest they return our buildings and arteries to the raw materials from which they were manufactured. Money as well as foresight is required for effective maintenance; considerably more money is required for renovation, rehabilitation, or replacement when maintenance has been inadequate. In the decades when the state, its businesses, and its people were richer, we invested in new construction, mortgaged ourselves to pay it off, and thought little about the long-term costs. Now that we are not so well off, we have an enormous capital plant that will require us to run much harder- simply to stand still.

Let’s examine each of these four forces more closely. First, the change in households. Households include single persons and unrelated persons living together as well as families. Today, the proportion of households composed of families is at an all-time low. Nevertheless, the number of households has been increasing at approximately twice the rate of growth of the population, producing an extraordinary demand for housing during a period of relatively low population growth.

A number of social and demographic changes led to this growth of households, especially small households: greater longevity ; the maturing of the baby boom (now in the critical household formation years); later marriages; increased divorces, separations, and widowed status; and the tendency both of young people to leave home earlier and of old people to live apart from their children.

Changes in the size of households are especially important. Today, more than one in every five households is composed of a single person living alone; more than half of all households are composed of only one or two persons. There has been a 75 percent growth in the number of single-person households in the past 30 years.

The composition of households has also changed. The new force in housing and community choice is the number and proportion of households without children. Almost two-thirds of all households have no children at all and almost three-quarters have no children of school age. Prospective renters and owners today are far freer than their parents were in · selecting locations, housing form, and lot size.

Age changes are important as well. The baby-boom generation is now between 25 and 34 years old, the time of life in which new households are typically formed and the first home purchases made. The gradual increase in the proportion of households with a member over 65 is also significant. The baby boom coming of age represents a positive force for home sales and resales, and for retail purchases. But the increase in the proportion of elderly residents, especially in .communities where more than a quarter of all households have members over 65, signals diminishing purchasing power, slack sales, store closings, and deferred home maintenance.

The second major influence on development will be the overall wealth of the state. Nationally, the proportion of households in poverty is growing. Most analysts see a long period of slow or no growth, marked by periods of high unemployment and declining real incomes. Retail and home sales will be obvious losers if that trend continues. Less real wealth also means less revenue to meet the essential state and community functions. Either government services will decline or higher proportions of income will be taxed. Both are bad for home and retail sales.

While the overall economic outlook is gloomy, Fortune magazine predicts that the proportion of households termed “upper income” will grow in real dollars from today’s 25 percent to 40 percent by 1990. In the relatively few communities where that wealth is concentrated, we may expect continued support for schools, road repairs, police protection, and other local services. Where there are few’ such residents, however, look for more towns which can’t sell their bonds, and others that will avoid bankruptcy only by cutting essential services below the point that they have any hope of retaining or attracting businesses and homeowners.

The third major force affecting development investment and reinvestment is the changing tastes of the American people. It remains true that most of those who want to buy a house prefer a large, detached, single-family home on a large lot. But what they actually buy remains a function not only of what they want, but of what they can afford and what is available. Given today’s costs and purchasing power, the 1970’s model home of 1,600 square feet, two full baths, and three or four bedrooms seems an unnecessary luxury to many households – especially the 52 percent composed of only one of two persons. Consequently, the homebuilding industry’s vision of “the American dream” is changing. The detached home on a suburban lot is being supplemented by other kinds of dwellings, especially attached homes (or “townhouses” as they are sometimes called) that reduce home responsibilities as well as costs.

The major shift in home choice, however, is being influenced by the high proportion of households with no children or no school-age children. These households are free from the two selection factors that long dominated residential markets – quality and location of schools, and large lots for play areas.

The strong new force in home purchase is the younger, single person. For many in this market, low-maintenance homes are being designed in new high-density tracts that offer “adult-oriented recreation amenities.” While personal and property security remains a consideration with all market segments, young householders without children are less fearful than most. Typically, they also lack equity in an existing home. These considerations are leading some to purchase and remodel 19th Century urban homes, both as an economy and as an outlet for individual expression. While this trend has not been as strong in New Jersey as in neighboring states, waterfront neighborhoods from Jersey City to Perth Amboy to Atlantic City should capture more of this market as eating places, shops, and remodeling become magnets for the young middle class.

Americans are breaking out of the old molds. Diverse households, changing economic circumstances, and differing tastes are producing the most varied market in our history.

The big new bill will be the cost of maintaining and repairing that vast network of facilities, now popularly referred to as “infrastructure” – roads, water and sewer systems, bridges, etc. Less obvious, but equally important, is the cost of maintaining privately owned homes, stores, and workplaces. In locations with concentrations of aging householders, high rates of unemployment, and greater-than-average loss of real incomes, retail sales will continue to decline, leaving less money for painting storefronts and maintaining individual homes and workplaces. In sum, continuation of the current economic conditions will mean not only more potholes and more closed bridges, but shabbier downtowns and expanding residential blight as well.

There will, of course, be winners and losers among communities. Some of the most important differences in the 80’s will be among suburban towns. Here, it is useful to distinguish among types. The “railroad suburbs” that grew at the turn of the century – Montclair, Ridgewood, Englewood, Haddonfteld, Westfteld, and others – include comfortable commuter homes and shops that retain their allure today.

Not so fortunate , however, will be the post-World War II, ‘ road-oriented suburbs. These were built for families with more modest incomes, although they sought through building and zoning codes to imitate the earlier, more affluent towns in their devotion to detached houses on individual lots. Land conversion from farms to tract homes swelled the population of the Woodbridges and Fair Lawns, especially between 1950 and 1960.

The most recent development is occurring in scattered locations, usually along major highways, at locations remote ·from New Jersey’s cities, and from Manhattan and Philadelphia. Potato fields and tract housing intersperse in communities like West Windsor and Cranbury, while Atlantic County spawns small projects in the Pine Barrens and ambitious ones like Smithville. New Jersey’s “Sunbelt” follows the two great arteries south from Middlesex and Monmouth counties – the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

A view of how changing demographic patterns and economic forces will affect New Jersey communities can be seen in a ‘ prototypical settlement described by Canadian planners. The highest population and the highest proportion’ of children in a new development occurs typically in the 15th year following construction. As the younger people mature and leave home, population drops, and the proportion of elderly increases. The share of persons under 18 is at an all-time low at Year 28. By Year 40, a second, smaller peak of children is in residence, about half as large as the first, and there is a modest population recovery as new families replace those who move or whose last members die. By Year 55, the share of children and the overall population drops again. Population stabilization occurs between Year 65 and Year 75.

Obviously, no New Jersey town has followed this pattern exactly. Nevertheless, the pattern is familiar. The postwar suburbs, overrun with children in the 1960’s, mortgaged themselves to the hilt to build schools that they had not even finished paying for when the tide of children moved on. The schools close. Where ‘ children once wore paths cutting across lawns, nothing stirs in neighborhoods that are now inhabited by widows who struggle with snow shovels, heating bills, home repairs, and taxes.

The postwar suburbs are now entering the period where household size is shrinking as the population is aging; home maintenance gets less attention as constrained household incomes struggle to pay for food and taxes. These postwar suburbs are beginning to evidence some of the pathology of decline long associated with the industrial cities. It is doubtful that these towns will attract income groups even as high as the original settlers.

In these towns, we may expect real estate prices to decline and persons with even more modest incomes, larger households, or dual households to rent or buy. Some of these towns are already marked by a new “underground” housing market; older men and women, lacking adequate incomes to maintain their standard of living, are illegally renting rooms to young men and women who cannot afford apartments, much less homes. These suburbs typically prohibit legal conversions from one family to two-family units because of the presumed adverse impact on property values. (In fact, however, it is the illegal rooming house alternative that tends to drag down values. Conversions that meet local codes increase the value of individual properties and, if carefully regulated, need have no adverse effects on neighborhoods.)

As the resident populations of the state and individual communities change, it is important to recognize the implications of those changes in order to consider how best to cope with the resulting effects. The next 10 years will be extremely difficult for many communities. Cities will be most severely affected by obsolete facilities, shrinking commercial and industrial tax rolls, and the continuing tendency of the poor to concentrate there. But the postwar suburbs will also see their resident income bases decline, producing a wider circle of municipalities that exist from one annual budget crisis to the next. That shrinking wealth can already be seen in the empty stores along the retail strips that grew in the 50’s and 60’s to serve the young, growing local populations of that era.

The old railroad suburbs – where governments, businesses, and households have had the money to fix the roofs and repair the waste treatments systems – will continue to attract investment and affluent households. The most recent residential developments will consume less land per structure, but will continue to seek lower-cost land at ever more remote sites along the new highways.

Despite some prosperous exceptions, the overall outlook is not favorable. Near-blighted tract housing and commercial strips, approaching 35 years of age, lack the drama and the federal financial interest that led to substantial redevelopment in some cities. Moreover, it is difficult to contemplate a redevelopment program that encompasses a mile or more of partially abandoned, highway-strip, commercial buildings and 150 shabby, two-bedroom houses Quilt at eight to the acre.

We lack public recognition of the new blight. And even if we recognized it, government in these low-density suburbs lacks the resources to rehabilitate the salvageable structures or to clear abandoned or dilapidated structures. Local tax policies and regulations typically discourage property improvement.

In short, we can look forward to a decade marked by the slumming of the suburbs.

Efforts to attract new corporate centers to the state will be further deterred by an increasingly unacceptable community image. With business leaders placing increased emphasis on the need to attract (or retain) a high quality workforce, the attractiveness of communities to employees and their families has become a strong influence, on corporate location decisions. If a place is not worth living in, it is increasingly regarded as not worth investing in. It is hardly surprising; therefore, that Squibb picked the Princeton-Lawrenceville area.

But there are relatively few Princeton-and Basking Ridge-type environments. Moreover” promoting such locations is questionable when compared with the needs of the financially desperate cities and towns that have lost many of their major plants and most of their wage earners. This move to the “exurban” fringe is not only a flight from the cities; it is also a jump over the postwar suburbs to locations where each corporation can escape the junk and jumble of roadside New Jersey and the monotony of its middle-aged suburbs.

Low-density suburban blight, propelled by demographic and economic forces of considerable momentum, pose different and perhaps even more serious problems for New Jersey than the high-density city blight with which we are sadly familiar. The mix of remedies, too, will be unusual, calling for more action by the state and county governments than in the past.

The best remedy, of course, would be prosperity – real income gains, more jobs, and increased retail sales – a little more wealth to shorten the paint cycle and replace the leaking pipes. While such gains are not likely in the short term, there is reason to be encouraged by the state’s gradual shift from manufacturing, the long-term losing sector, to office employment, offering jobs for tomorrow’s workforce and relative tax stability.

Unfortunately, however, prosperity is not a remedy that the state can switch on. Indeed, the anticipated decline in the postwar suburbs is likely to make economic development more difficult to achieve here.

Therefore, it may be time to consider a new approach to economic development policy: Job creation will increasingly require that the state offer better places to live, play, and shop. Promotion of New Jersey’s existing living advantages is one possible response. Given little more than dry climate and endless desert, what is now one of the fastest-growing states began by advertising its environment, in part through the high-quality magazine, Arizona Highways.

But more is needed. A “community policy” for New Jersey should seek to improve community conditions and attractiveness of both older cities and newly declining suburbs. State financial assistance for housing should capitalize on ~me of the state’s biggest potential assets – one which also threatens to become one of its greatest liabilities. Remodeling existing homes and apartment houses is the single most widespread need of our communities. State aid for this purpose should be expanded as an economic development investment.

State authorization is also needed to save older commercial areas through creation of special improvement districts and of downtown management systems. How a town appears will be as important to restoring a balanced tax base as the condition of its plumbing. Even when sewage treatment systems are crumbling, we should also plant street trees in old towns. The postwar suburbs in particular should lessen the tax penalty for home improvement by adopting already authorized abatement procedures. The counties and the state government will have tough agendas, struggling with the infrastructure maintenance and repair responsibilities and orchestrating inter-municipal attacks on highway and residential blight.

Whether the public’s concern and commitment will prove equal to the slow, strong tides of expanding blight is anyone’s guess. Far more certain, however, is the effect of the economic and demographic forces; Ol’ Man Slum is moving to the suburbs.

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