Suburban Poverty: Hiding in Plain Sight

Image from Google Maps.  Explore this location further .

Image from Google Maps. Explore this location further.

There is arguably no place where half a century of suburban growth has more resembled a giant Ponzi scheme than in Florida. The state of Florida went all-in on the suburban experiment in a way that few other places did. For reasons that may have more than a little to do with the advent of air conditioning, the state's population did not begin to grow rapidly until the post-WWII era, when the economic and public policy forces driving suburbanization were at their peak. Add a state economy driven by land speculation and lax-to-nonexistent development regulations, and you've got yourself a perfect storm.

Florida soon became the poster child for disastrously unsustainable development—both fiscally and environmentally. Unsurprisingly, boom-and-bust cycles tend to hit the state hard. The suburban experiment has been most ruinous in precisely the places that were first to embrace it, and that embraced it with the most reckless abandon.

Narrative accounts of the fallout of Florida land scams and ill-conceived development are legion. But if you haven't been to this part of the country, you may not know what the fallout looks like. "Suburbia will be the new slums" may be something you've heard or read in urbanist circles but not yet encountered a preview of on the ground, because there's really nothing comparable in the Midwest or Northeast. In 2016, fringe exurban communities around Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I grew up, are still affluent and exclusive places, while poverty is growing fastest in inner-ring suburbs. Not true in the boom-and-bust Sunbelt.

Let's take a field trip to Southwest Florida, which was hit as hard as anywhere in the U.S. by real-estate market collapse and foreclosure crisis that began in 2006. If you Google "foreclosure ground zero" and scan the first few pages of results, you'll find many claimants to the (dis)honor, but Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral are two names that show up again and again...

Read the rest of this story.