EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 4, 2013

Column: Owning a home may end up nothing but a dream

Taylor Armerding
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Remember the classic American dream of owning a home in the suburbs? Actually, it doesn’t take much to remember it, since millions of Americans – a good chunk of them Baby Boomers – are living a version of that dream right now.

That is in part because many of them bought into the government sales pitch decades ago that after working all your life to pay off your mortgage, your home can function as part of a retirement piggy bank. Either you sell it and sock a few hundred thousand into the bank as you downsize to an apartment, or you tap the equity with something like a reverse mortgage.

But if you are in that demographic and that is your plan, it might be a good idea to execute it sooner than later. Because changes, both cultural and political, may combine to turn the dream into a nightmare – a piggy bank worth less and more expensive to keep.

Start with the recent announcement that made official what most people in and around Detroit have known for years – the city is bankrupt.

Most sober, semi-objective analysts have had little trouble explaining it. The city is hopelessly corrupt, and it made promises to its unionized workforce that were lavish and unsustainable. As its dysfunction became more blatant and its lack of accountability more expensive – union and civil service rules made it practically impossible to fire anyone (as is the case in most cities controlled by municipal unions) – those who could get out did so, in droves.

The city’s population sank from 1.8 million to about 700,000, leading to a precipitous decline in property tax revenue. The city can’t provide basic municipal services and, according to most estimates, has an effective unemployment rate of 18 percent and about 80,000 derelict and abandoned buildings.

So, how do we solve a problem like Detroit? Former Clinton labor secretary and current professor, author and left-wing columnist Robert Reich has just the answer: Forget about reform, forget about reigning in unsustainable salaries and benefits. Just tap into the suburbs, where the money went. Force the people who left Detroit to become taxpayers for “greater Detroit.” Never mind that the bulk of their state taxes already go to support Detroit and low-income residents throughout the state.

Presto! Population-loss problem solved. Just force the residents of all those wealthier suburbs to pay for their own municipal services and for Detroit’s.

Reich’s dream is the political version of “Hotel California.” You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.

But a bankrupt city is not the only indicator that the value of your suburban home is likely to erode over the next decade or so, while its expenses increase. Another is what conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz calls President Obama’s “regionalist agenda.”

It is under way, he contends, with things like a July 19 order from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to force suburbs – even those with no record of housing discrimination – to build more public housing for ethnic and racial minorities.

The endgame, he writes, “is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars.”

An example is the San Francisco Bay area, where a regional blueprint will control development in the nine counties around the city, block development of any new suburbs and force all population growth over the next 30 years into urban areas close to public transportation.

It is only fair to acknowledge that this may be exactly what many Americans – especially younger ones – want. You have probably read nice features about “micro” apartments in cities, where a twentysomething is just fine with cramming a bed, bathroom, kitchen and desk into a space about the size of a large closet. No word on whether that preference might change with a marriage and a few kids.

Last month, the city of Boston decided it would no longer require developers to include enough parking spaces to accommodate all the residents of new housing facilities. An increasing number of people don’t want cars, officials said, brushing off a recent report that two parking spaces in the Back Bay neighborhood had just sold at auction for $560,000.

In many cities, a car is not only going to be more expensive to own, but also difficult to use, as bike lanes eat up a portion of heavily traveled streets. As a biker in the northeast, that seems fine to me in the summer. But I’d sort of like enough room for my car in the winter.

Add to that the reality that millions of Generation Y – the cohort that has entered the workforce since the start of this century – are burdened with so much student debt that they can’t even think about buying a house in the suburbs.

Beyond that, we are told it is a moral imperative to have jobs, housing and transportation all in the same place. It’s all about sustainable living. So what if it takes an override of local control to achieve that? It’s all for the greater good.

The Obama administration and virtually every Democrat alive profess fierce loyalty to “choice,” but apparently that only applies when you make the politically correct choice. Otherwise, government will choose for you.

Might be time to put that dream house on the market.

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net