Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What does 'End of the Suburbs' mean for Hernando?

Most of us already have heard that young people are waiting longer to marry and have children, if they decide to have them at all.

They don't seem as interested in owning homes and seem even less interested if these homes are in the suburbs — especially if they are in distant suburbs that require monster commutes.

We also know from our urban friends that although we in the outer-ring suburbs are still bogged down in post-recession gloom, cities are doing great.

Actually, we don't need to hear it from friends because this year's building statistics tell the same story.

Even though Pasco County is not exactly the big city, it's more urban than Hernando County and closer to Tampa, and, sure enough, by the most basic measure, its housing market is showing substantially more buzz.

Hernando issued 234 permits for single-family homes through mid December, while unincorporated Pasco, with about 2.5 times the population, issued more than six times as many permits: 1,427.

On the surface, it looks as if the number of permits issued in Hillsborough County — 3,973 — is no higher per capita than in Pasco. But this figure, which is the most recent available, is about a month older than the ones from the other counties, said Bill Ward, spokesman for the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office. And compared with Pasco and Hernando, a much larger percentage of Hillsborough's new housing is in multifamily projects, including several new condominium and apartment buildings going up in and near downtown Tampa.

The overall trend is clear, said Michael McElveen, president of Urban Economics, a Tampa real estate advisory firm. "The closer you are to the urban core, the more stable the prices have been, the more robust the recovery has been."

So, nothing in Leigh Gallagher's widely praised 2013 book, The End of the Suburbs, was exactly a surprise. It's just that I'd never seen more bad news for the Hernando real estate market crammed so tightly into one thoroughly researched, gracefully written package.

A decade ago, Hernando made a point of reaching out to families with working-age adults willing to commute to Tampa on the Suncoast Parkway.

But with more and more young people seeking walkable neighborhoods and access to mass transit, Gallagher writes, these buyers definitely aren't looking to buy in places like Hernando.

Neither are retirees, the traditional mainstay of our housing market, or at least not as many. Gallagher cites a survey showing that an increasing number of seniors, 90 percent, plan to stay in the houses where they currently live.

That's generally in the suburbs, she wrote. During a 10-year period when the U.S. population as a whole aged, it aged even faster in the suburbs, so that by 2010 a full 40 percent of suburban residents were older than 45.

And it's not fair to say that no young people move to the suburbs. These communities still attract lots of working-age adults who can't afford to live anywhere else.

"From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor in the suburbs of the nation's largest metro areas grew by 53 percent," Gallagher wrote.

With more old residents — and, I can't help but thinking, more poor ones — less money is available for one longtime draw of the suburbs, schools.

This, it turns out, is only one of many traditional features of suburban life that either is in decline or migrating to cities.

Gallagher writes about largely vacant shopping centers being used for call centers and farmers markets, and includes the stunning fact that only one indoor mall has opened in the United States since 2006.

Walmart, with its smaller Neighborhood Markets, is moving into urban areas. So is Toll Brothers, the builder formerly best known for suburban McMansions. And so, most significantly, are families, a population shift that is gathering momentum as cities get safer, and children can find more playmates, and parents can find more fellow parents in city centers once dominated by singles and childless couples.

In case the implications for places such as Hernando County aren't totally clear, Gallagher quotes author and longtime critic of suburbia James Howard Kunstler, who might as well be talking directly to the former high rollers in our development industry:

"The people who deliver suburbia . . . are kicking back waiting for, quote, 'the bottom' to kick in so they can resume doing what they were doing. It's a vain hope."

Gallagher's book was so comprehensive that about the only question it left me with was this:

What, if anything, can those of us out in the suburbs do about all this?

First of all, treasure downtown Brooksville, Gallagher said when I interviewed her; it's our biggest asset.

"You described it to me as pretty, and that tells me it's got some authentic bones and urban infrastructure," she said. "People want old downtowns. They crave them."

Don't give up on Spring Hill, she said, when I told her about the size of our biggest population center. A mixed-use development might be possible, she said. It has happened in other unlikely places, including Cleveland, she said.

"I think (Spring Hill) would be a good opportunity for a smart, forward-thinking developer," she said.

The county should be receptive to anything that shortens drives and mixes types of development, she said.

Attracting more companies and more jobs to the industrial park at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport would no doubt help. They might be more likely to come if the park included a commercial hub with some restaurants for all of the nearby workers, Gallagher said.

"You have to be open to developers who want to do something a little different," she said.

In other words, the end of the suburbs doesn't have to be the end of prosperity in Hernando.

But it just might be if we don't adapt.

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