Some people find suburban life pleasant. Many people my age have known no other way of life since they were born. Personally, I think of it in terms of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, in which the inhabitants of Hell continually expand the place by moving farther and farther away from one another.
Today's Washington Post includes a story on Section 8 low-income housing vouchers being used to rent suburban dwellings. The piece is sure to get a few letters to the editor because the reporter seems to have found a Section 8 renter who fits nearly every unflattering stereotype imaginable. A sample:
It was clear that Liza Jackson’s luck had changed when she drove her pearl-white Dodge sedan, the one with the huge pink plastic eyelashes over the headlights, into Pinebrook, an eight-year-old subdivision where residents tend to notice cars with huge pink eyelashes.
...She got out and looked around, a vaguely glamorous vision crossing the grass in a long, leopard-print dress. She peeked into the windows, making out what appeared to be vaulted ceilings. “Dang,” Jackson said approvingly.
This particular Section 8 renter seems like the extreme case. Her sources of household income, according to the piece, are unemployment insurance and her daughter's child support payments for her son. She has moved across America -- even shipping her car from Hawaii to North Carolina -- on what appears to be a whim, with no job lined up. Meanwhile, she's not settling for anything that doesn't have hardwood floors.
Decades ago, a mostly-white middle class rejected urbanity and moved to the 'burbs for a life with less fear and more space. But in seizing these advantages, they also accepted the disadvantages of this life: Long distances, homogeneity, less convenience, ugly, sprawling metro areas and less community life. The housing bust -- with underwater suburban mortgages and foreclosures plaguing planned communities for the rich -- is laying bare all of the shortcomings of suburban life at a time when money is flowing back into cities, and when the advantages of the suburbs are increasingly less obvious.
The bear market in housing is a great equalizer that promises to undo the inequalities government cannot and will not ever fix. It is creating opportunities for lower-income families, who are now well within reach of enjoying a devalued but still inherently valuable and enjoyable asset -- big houses with big yards.
This is one reason among many why government efforts to re-inflate the housing bubble and prop prices up are so deeply misguided. For all the criticism of laissez faire and its alleged lack of concern for the poor, the invisible hand of the market does at times reach out to the poor and help them at the expense of the well-to-do. We are seeing this right now. It would be a shame if government stepped interfered with some kind of misguided "housing policy."