From the Ground Up

by

Published: August 30,1999

Crime caused Bill and Linda to move from the city. Traffic congestion brought them back from the suburbs. These two influences — crime and traffic congestion — appear to becoming more important in the real estate decision.

Traditionally, homeowners moved “up.” That is to say, they moved to bigger houses on larger lots with more amenities. The move-up house was also more expensive. The move was influenced by the birth of a child, an increase in income or an upward movement in social class. The homeowners who moved up were usually replaced by new homeowners who were not as far along the upward mobility path. Eventually the children were grown, and the homeowners moved “down” to a smaller house on a smaller lot, but with more amenities. The baby boom generation is the model for this cycle.

So much for tradition. The new influences have arrived, and homeowners are now coping with them.

Bill and Linda are working professionals. They bought a house in an older, established part of the city 10 years ago, fully expecting it to be the only house they would ever live in. With interest low and incomes high early in their careers, they had the luxury of buying a large house early on. Their neighborhood was a pleasant mixture of retirees, young professionals and young, first-time owners in some of the smaller houses. Yards were established, trees were tall and the sidewalks were wide. Life was good.

After five years, it became obvious that some changes were occurring in the neighborhood. Stories were told of burglaries, auto thefts and even a robbery of a lady coming home from grocery shopping. Eventually, they became victims when Bill’s sports car was stolen and later recovered in a bad part of town stripped of seats and tires. Then their house was burglarized while they were away visiting their parents during the Thanksgiving holidays. Bill and Linda bought a security system for their home. They joined the newly formed neighborhood association, which hired a private security company to patrol on an irregular basis. They began to worry. More stories of robberies appeared in the newspapers. They discussed the prospect of moving to a safer part of town. The suburban communities seemed to have little or no crime. They found a new house in a new subdivision six miles north of the city limits. Their existing house sold in a short period of time, but not for as much as they hoped. Still, they had gotten away in time.

The first Monday that they drove to work was an unpleasant experience. They waited almost twenty minutes just to get on the interstate highway. Then the drive was bumper-to-bumper the last three miles into downtown. Bill was yelling expletives at drivers who cut into the space in front of his car.

Linda was yelling at Bill. Road rage was beginning to have meaning. They were late for work at their respective jobs. The afternoon drive home was not any better. This went on for six months until they finally decided that they had to have some relief.

They considered alternatives. Moving farther out had appeal at first, but the traffic would only be worse. Moving back into town was not appealing. Crime seemed to be getting worse in their old neighborhood. Neighbors even told them that they were lucky to have left when they did. A third alternative was to move back into town, but not quite as far back into town. Of course, another alternative was to do nothing. After several Sundays of driving around neighborhoods, Bill and Linda moved back into town into a neighborhood that was farther out, but not considered suburbia. It was the best compromise between crime and traffic congestion.

Bill and Linda’s story is true. It is also a story that is becoming more common. Crime and traffic congestion are now cited as major concerns in urban America. They influence where people live.

Some interesting reactions are occurring. One city is actually considering deconstructing a major freeway leading out of the city. The thought is that the multi-lane highways are facilitating flight from the city, and that reducing such opportunities will bring people back. Other cities are realizing that tackling crime is critical to the viability — even survivability — of the city, and are using different approaches. Richmond, Va., for example, used existing gun laws to target criminals who used or possessed guns during the commission of a crime. Known as Project Exile, it encourages prosecutors to strictly enforce federal gun laws. Homicide and robbery rates have fallen 30% each. Other cities, such as New York, are strictly enforcing so-called civility laws, with outstanding results.

Whichever method a community uses is not as important as reducing crime. A safe community, especially one with established, aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods, will draw residents. Traffic congestion will also decrease.

Residents should do whatever it takes to keep crime at a minimum in their neighborhoods. The payoff is stable neighborhoods and increasing property values.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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