Slowly, change is occurring in the suburbs. Inertia in the public sector has always hampered schemes for housing, zoning and local government reforms, such as those proposed by Richard Babcock Jr. and William H. Whyte Jr. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to use conditional grants in-aid to encourage the creation of accessory apartment units failed to win much political support.
The rise of telecommuting and Covid have exposed the need to make drastic changes in suburbia. The pandemic caused drastic changes in work habits. Fewer people commute and more people work from home. This has led to increased demand for shops and restaurants. Innovation will not come from politicians but land developers if it is to happen. They can have their way in areas where academic reformers are not, thanks to the legalized bribery for campaign contributions.
Federal mortgage regulations have facilitated a significant shift in American land development since the Second World War. This has led to a shift towards multi-unit development, which was prompted by post-war demands from veterans returning home and people fleeing troubled areas. Residents of established municipalities resisted the idea and were concerned about traffic patterns. In 1960, federal standards prohibited grid-patterned roads from being built and residential community associations were created with land assessment powers. Today, more than a quarter of the country’s housing stock is in RCA jurisdiction. In some areas, as high as 70%, RCAs control maintenance of road, water and sewer infrastructure. The management companies that they employ are also not innovative.
Innovation in the suburbs is only possible if original developers are able to launch, construct or obtain permits for new activities and facilities. They can pass on the facilities they have built to the local RCA for use with user fees or assessments. The necessary experience of developers is required to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. Offering new amenities can give them a competitive edge in the market, especially where permits are needed rather than physical construction.
RCAs will need to be partners in suburban innovations. Major social developments since the 1960s have made it necessary for RCAs to expand their responsibilities and rethink old positions. RCAs should be able to permit homeowners and landlords to subdivide or create new units to accommodate the growing number of small families due to dramatic changes in the family structure. RCAs should also be flexible to accommodate the increasing age of the elderly and aging population. They should allow homeowners and landlords physical adaptations to their units. Covid and Zoom have accelerated remote work growth and increased the presence in residential neighborhoods of primary breadwinners during the daytime hours. RCAs should therefore be open to new restaurants and convenience shops. Developers will be able to be more innovative and unlock their potential for innovation by accepting these concessions.
Developers have the ability to offer many amenities to residents that will meet their needs and improve suburban life according to current social trends. Here are a few examples. To combat rising crime, developers might install small police stations based on the Japanese Koban model. Developers could also build day-care centers as part of the development. This would allow a local nonprofit to staff the center, and many states have RCAs that permit it. To meet remote worker’s needs, they could convert one unit or the gate house of the development into a restaurant or dining room. With RCA permission, they could allow the creation of separate apartments or permits for accessory apartments.
These ideas would be frowned upon and cause a lot of controversy. Although it would be counterproductive for the law to require such facilities, municipal barriers should be kept to a minimum. These and other suggestions would be distributed in a handbook for developers, along with lists of suppliers of relevant goods or services. This would increase the likelihood of such provisions being adopted. This handbook could be useful, regardless of whether it was created by the government (as in the HUD handbooks from the 1960s), or privately.
Developers and RCAs must work together in order for real change in the suburbs. Developers may be able to succeed where politicians failed. Developers would be able to call themselves heroes and confirm the value of private business.