I remember visiting ghost towns when I was a kid, in California or Nevada.  Those eerie places seemingly abandoned in their entirety, clothes still in the closet and dishes in the cupboard.  We would whisper as we walked inside the vacant houses, as if we were spying on peoples’ lives.  And as kids we could never figure out why everybody just left.

In my mind, ghost towns are relics of the past, the product of a specific time and place in the story of the American frontier.  But in this day of the resurgence of the city, as technology is severing our reliance on place, I see ghost towns looming. 

Wyoming’s population, at 544,000, is technically too small for it to officially be a state.   Detroit’s population, at 900,000, is half of what it was 60 years ago.  Tiny Midwestern towns are languishing to single digit populations.  Outside of Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix, thousands of brand new houses with pretty fences, sprinkler lines and sewer hookups are sitting empty as folks pour into the cities’ sprouting high-rises and townhomes.  And I heard recently on NPR that we have enough vacant housing stock in the US right now to absorb the country’s growth for the next 6 years. 

So why are we still building? 

A lot of money and resources have already been pumped into the suburbs and small towns of this country, and the planning profession is ignoring them.  Urbanism, or new urbanism, is the sexy thing in planning today.  We are taught to decry those short-sighted planners and developers who subdivided in the middle of nowhere, running freeways this way and that with no regional plan or sensitivity to the environment.  But that was all about growth, and as much as we hate to admit it, planners exist because cities expect their populations to grow.  In mid-sized cities like Portland, half of the new population comes from other parts of the United States.  That means that hundreds of thousands of people have vacated their rural homes over the past decade, and now as foreclosure rates rise on the suburban fringe we planners are standing on our soapboxes, urging people to shed the burden of low-density and come to the city to really live.  How is this any different from the culture, money and policy that abandoned the urban cores of this country 60 years ago? 

We have an affordable housing crisis in this country, with about 10 percent of the population either living in substandard or inadequate housing, or paying more that 50% of their income for housing.  And according to one study, half of the lowest income families in the US are at risk of homelessness.  And yet there are rows upon rows of empty houses, and main streets serving no one.  Ghost towns.  The only people who seem to have noticed are the squatters taking up residence.

We need to disentangle ourselves from the concept of housing production.  GDP is tied to it, people’s income and retirement is tied to it, our public education is tied to it.  Housing needs to be about shelter, about “home.”  Somehow, in commodifying housing, the least “socialist” of the world’s industrialized counties looks an awful lot like the most socialist industrialized countries.  Scratch the surface of our suburban developments, and you will see conditions reminiscent of Ceausescu’s Romania or China’s empty cities.

– Allison Moe

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