Houses of Cards 

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The first arrival from Short Pump is about to move onto my block. I don't call him "refugee" to his face, because he's an affable man who is good with tools — a shared skill that will stand us in good stead when, not if, the bottom falls out of the suburban housing market here, as it is doing nationally.

People staying put in homes that they cannot afford to sell will always need handymen. So few of us can make anything anymore, except bad economic decisions. Data released this month from the Virginia Association of Realtors, which shows strong home prices despite falling sales in October, troubles me.

Do our higher prices merely indicate that builders are putting up more $400,000 homes where once they built more modest ones? Even if that's not the case, and our growth is based on sustainable development and our area continues to thrive for a while, we won't be immune in the long run. The housing market, like cheap gasoline, foreign lenders and Chinese consumer goods, is an engine driving our national economy. Richmond is no longer just a cigarette town. Many of our leading employers are national or multinational companies. If they suffer, so will we.

My new neighbor, tired of traffic and high energy costs to heat and cool his enormous house, wants to downsize to the sort of home where, in the '50s, Americans raised large families in about half the square footage typical today. Everyone on our block — we all know each other, just as in June Cleaver's day — is thrilled to see another owner-occupant come to our neighborhood of modest postwar dream-houses.

Sadly, however, the new neighbor is also caught on the horns of an increasingly common dilemma. He cannot afford to sell the nearly new home he owns way out west. The price would not cover the loan he took out to buy it.

Granted, the exurbs of Richmond have a lot of glittering appeal, like quickly broken toys that appear anew each year under Christmas trees. And for many urbanites, especially snarky columnists, predicting a doomed future for America's 'burbs provides spectator sport. Yet it's a sick pastime because no matter where we dwell, we live, at least in theory, in a community. If the most cheaply made examples of overpriced suburban houses are cut up one day into multi-family tenements, it will be a tragedy for an entire region that did not plan for enough mixed-income housing and hedged its bets with high-profit mega-homes.

Why did it have to turn out that way? I find it hideous to fall into a facile cynicism that, to quote Oscar Wilde, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Unlike some other writers who see high-end, low-density suburban development as the worst possible way to use land, I actually do worry about the fate of those who own property in the overbuilt outer ramparts of the counties. My neighbor is not alone. Whatever statewide averages tell us, anecdotes from homeowners reveal that real suffering is taking place as both short-term prices and long-term value of existing homes fall. Homeowners often hold big loans on houses that were overpriced when the market began its retreat.

Now, for those still willing to hallucinate a future of continued cheap oil and long commutes, it can cost less to buy a newly built home just around the cul-de-sac from an existing home for sale by a laid-off or relocated owner. Such owners will take a bath selling a home and losing tens of thousands in equity, if they have equity at all. We now have interest-only loans, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) about to spike, and other funny money that no World War II GI would have touched when he and his missus built a Cape Cod or rancher out in the country near Willow Lawn.

And it's not only the affluent-on-credit who suffer; when rates on FHA loans balloon, low-income families holding them are suddenly unable to make mortgage payments. Today owners can be crushed as surely as 1929 investors were after a margin-call, while suburban developers, who would get a special place in any hell I'd design, get to chuckle at us chumps from the heated seats of their Lexuses.

How could the housing market, that great generator of personal wealth and the American Dream, be failing us?

Even if our current problems began with buyers who borrowed more for a house than was prudent, as a civil society we need to ask what can be done to prevent a wave of foreclosures and evictions in the troubled years ahead. The new and harsher bankruptcy laws do not encourage me any more than the whimpering cry of "regional cooperation" heard around here from time to time. The latter might ease some transit concerns to make it cheaper to get to and from our 'burbs, and more repopulation of Richmond's core might help us. But light rail and more condos downtown don't help those bankrupted by exhausted credit, home-equity loans maxed out, or jobs that disappear with every merger and company relocation.

When the next prolonged recession strikes, one that will beg us to consider overdue structural changes in how and where we live, we'll fight as a nation tooth-and-nail to keep suburbia vital. And today, unlike the 1930s, when foreclosures are occuring at a breakneck pace in our armed-and-angry nation, I would not want to be one of the fellows delivering the eviction orders. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. His Cape Cod costs way too much to heat, but he'll be in the crawl space insulating it during semester break.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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