Originally published here on May 8, 2007. Although the start of the "Great Recession" is usually dated from 2008, those who were paying attention knew by early 2007 that the housing-and-derivatives orgy was over, and the economy headed for deep kim chee.
On Sunday evening I took a drive through immense and rapidly-expanding Nation of Slurbia (suburban ready-made slums), which threatens to engulf the entirety of Southern California and many other large parts of the country.
Driving CA-79 through the eastern margin of what used to be the tiny town of Hemet, and then coasting down through Murietta, the casual tourist passes miles upon miles of closely-packed housing developments crammed behind noise walls, two-story "homes" which are badly built, egregiously overpriced, and utterly devoid of any sort of soul or persona.
These are truly the cities of the damned.
I was genuinely surprised to see most of these oversized vinyl-clad shelters being lived in. Why Slurbia continues to metastisize I can't really say. One would think that in the face of collaspsing real estate prices, the exploding default rate on so-called "sub-prime" housing loans, and record-high prices for gasoline and other petroleum products, building contractors would see the laser printing on the vinyl wall and abscond with their ill-gotten gains, leaving the Slurbian masses to ponder their fate, stuck with huge monthly payments on property which is declining in value, in a wasteland of monotonous and affectless beige developments flanked by strip malls stocked with plastic-and-glass boxes housing the "standard brands" -- Burger King, Pet Smart, Midas Muffler, Bank of America, etc. etc.
But the beginning of the end of Slurbia might not be far off. Writing on his once-weekly blog Clusterfuck Nation, Jim Kunstler noted a couple weeks ago that "The fiasco in real estate and mortgage lending seems finally to be breaking through the reality shield of the mainstream media. Last week, for example, NPR's nightly Marketplace show actually ran a segment saying that the production homebuilders were choking on unsold houses and that (as if NPR had just discovered this) the mortgage industry was rife with irregularities in lending standards!"
Kunstler has been the loudest, most pessemistic, most insistent, and most irrefutable Jeremiah of the apocalypse hidden in the modern American landscape, and he sees the carcinogenic growth of Slurbia as both the effect of a declining morality and regard for the future at the top of American society, and the cause of alienation and the fiscal disenfranchisement of the American public, or "the consumers" as we are sometimes insultingly designated by professional economists and the mainstream media.
I sometimes wonder if people stop to consider what they're actually getting for the typical $300,000 asking price they're asked pay back with varying rates of interest over a 35- or 40-year stretch. Not long ago these buyers assumed they were acquiring properties which could only appreciate in value, but that's certainly not true today.
Kunstler, who knows architecture, insists that they're chumps getting robbed. Commenting on current building practices, Kunstler says, "The design failures of (Slurbian housing) might be attributed to a loss of knowledge and a lack of attention to details, but I think a deeper explanation has to do with the diminishing returns of technology. We've never had more awesome power tools for workers in the building trades. We have compound miter saws, electric spline joiners, laser-guided tape measures, and many other nifty innovations, and we've never seen, in the aggregate, worse work done by so many carpenters. For most of them, apparently, getting a plain one-by-four door-surround to meet at a 45-degree miter without a quarter-inch gap is asking too much. In other words, we now have amazing tools and no skill. What you wonder is whether the latter is a function of the former. Is the work so bad because we expect the tools to have all the skill?
"Another issue is the choice of materials. As you march down the decades from the 1950s, the materials-of-choice for finishing the exterior are more and more materials not found in nature...After the 1980s, there is a distinct acceleration in the use of vinyl for practically everything. The vinyl clapboards, soffits, window-surrounds, et cetera, are often little more than stapled onto the house. And naturally they begin to sag and pull apart instantly. After twenty-odd years of that you end up with a house that looks like a birthday present wrapped by a five-year-old."
Current litigation is following the trajectory of rapid decline Kunstler chronicles. Currently, residents of a Desert Hot Springs slurb have formed a united front and brought a class-action suit against the builder of their project, because their "homes" are falling apart after two years of being lived in and subjected to the baking heat and gritty winds of a desert hilltop.
People tend to dismiss Kunstler because he's been predicting the decline and fall of Slurbia for years, during which time it has only continued to metastisize. But that decline and fall will come, and the rising costs of fuel will be the shot to the heart of this odious carcinogenic enterprise. Many residents of Hemet and Murietta commute to Los Angeles for work. As the price of gas reaches, then exceeds four dollars a gallon, the sustainability of more new suburbs, located further and further away from the center must certainly collapse, and the unfortunate residents of Slurbia will be forced to move to where the work is, and abandon the now nearly-worthless houses which they are still paying large mortgages for.
And what will be the ultimate fate of the beige subdivisions of Slurbia?