Downward mobility in supposedly upscale suburbs


So you bought a nice 4 bdr house in the suburbs with a pool and 2-3 cars in the garage and you’re living the dream, right? Maybe. Or maybe you’re in downward mobility and don’t know it yet.

Granola Shotgun (“stories about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience”) runs the numbers, assuming the house costs $260,000 and is in Lancaster CA, a satellite suburb of Los Angeles representative of many other suburbs. Bottom line: if income isn’t over $100k, homeowners are probably living on the edge of financial disaster, even though the house is 2,500+ sq ft. Median income for the area is $52,000.

Take out $1,300 a month for the mortgage, upwards of $2,000 a month for three cars, property taxes, and utilities. That leaves about $1000 for everything else including food. A big car repair bill or worse, a medical problem, could blow a hole in the budget. If the homeowner makes $62,000, enough to qualify for a 20% down mortgage, it would leave $1,800 a month, which is better but still not much of a cushion.

If a family lives in Lancaster they probably have long commutes to jobs in other parts of L.A. County. Three cars would not be unusual nor would be steep car expenses. This leads to another perhaps unforeseen problem. That bigger house in the hinterlands of the suburbs is indeed cheaper than homes closer to the urban areas. However, per capita income in Lancaster is dropping. When an area starts to wobble, the better-off move out first, which leads to more decline, even though this may be hard for residents to see, because it happens slowly.

Residents in the area were upset a Walmart Neighborhood store opened. They wanted a Whole Foods because they thought they were more upscale than they actually were. Whole Foods and Walmart knew better. There’s a disconnect between the big houses and quarter acre lots and the reality of the area.

But when asked what they would want the land to be used for instead of a Walmart the nearby residents said they wanted a Whole Foods. Their primary concern wasn’t actually about traffic or loss of open space. It was really about status. Walmart is low class and reflects poorly on the “prestigious” homes in the area. A Whole Foods would have been in line with how the locals feel about themselves and their place in the social hierarchy. Unfortunately, both Whole Foods and Walmart ran the numbers on the site and the numbers made it very clear that these people are in fact a Walmart demographic.

And then, because perhaps the area is starting to decline, locals block public transit because they don’t want Those People coming in to their area. Thus, the area gets even more isolated and less likely to attract business.

Any attempt to make the suburbs easier to navigate without a car is equated with people who can’t afford private vehicles and was therefore discouraged. “Why would we want to attract that kind of population?” When county, state, and federal highway funding comes with strings attached suburbs reluctantly implemented half-assed bus systems as an afterthought, but these are always wildly inefficient in such dispersed environments. The more the suburbs decline the more adamant the insecure middle class becomes about eliminating the things that would make life easier for the poor.

But then the car breaks down and they can’t afford to fix it.

The end result is that many of the people who once relocated to suburbia thinking they were stepping up find themselves living in an environment that doesn’t support their basic needs. The hardest hit are the young, the elderly, and the infirm since they’re the groups that are the least able to pay for private transportation. Many of these folks probably never imagined they would end up without a car or the cash to support the America Dream. But there they are on the side of a busy eight lane arterial with their grocery bags wondering what went wrong.

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