The Urbanification of the Suburbs

When I drive though this Northwest corner of Jersey, it looks much the same as when my family moved here in the late 70s. Nestled between the cliffs of the Palisades and the foothills of the Pocono mountains are vanilla midcentury homes — Cape Cods, Bilevels, Split-levels — sprinkled with old Dutch farmhouses and Victorians with sweeping porches. Militant town and councils planning boards stand guard over property values and the local schools, so change does not happen quickly here.

The two-bedroom Cape cod where my parents raised three kids — finally the perfect size for my folks — is still there, though it’s the last of its kind on the block. Whenever someone moves out, the bulldozers arrive and squeeze a mini-mansion in its place. My folks’ house is like the last babytooth in the mouth of a ten-year old. My folks aren’t even bothering to do any repairs, because they know when they move out, the house will get ‘dozed, too.

Beyond the glacial pace of individual home replacements and upgrades, these towns seemed impervious to change. Until recently.

Two years ago, developers finally got approval to build new apartment buildings in our town. It was a huge political battle with allegations of favors and money exchanged under the table. These units were put into abandoned lots – former auto dealerships – near the train tracks in town. Some feared that these new apartments would lower their property value and raise local taxes. On anti-apartment Facebook pages, they conjured up images of the invasion of multi-generational families with prolific children needing expensive services.

“Just imagine what happens to your taxes if a family with an autistic kid moves into town, and we have to pay for his education! Disaster!” (Yes, they actually said similar things.) And, of course, there was a racist flavor to their remarks, too.

Somehow, the developers won, and the apartments went up. But they look nothing like the Nervous Nellies predicted. They are super posh and expensive. Rent is around $5,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment that is located right next to a working railroad. No view, lots of noise.

It’s hard to understand why someone would pay $5,000 to rent an apartment in a suburb, where you can buy a house with half the mortgage and taxes. But these rental units offer a fun lifestyle, zero lawn issues, and a one-year commitment. They appeal to all the people who are still running out of New York City.

Those apartments, with their fabulous common areas and exercise rooms, are similar to the fabulous apartments going up in former industrial space along the Hudson. After visiting a friend in one of those units this weekend, I was ready to move.

Local real estate agents tell me that property values are still going strong here. Agents are in a quiet period right now, but are gearing up for a busy spring. They tell me that people are still fleeing the city because of crime and bad schools. (I’m hearing stories about people not bothering to stop for red lights in areas of the Bronx, because the cops have stopped arresting people. One local kid at Fordham was held up by 12-year olds with guns last week.)

While local residents initially fought against the rise of apartment buildings in their “villages,” I hear no more complaints. Because change didn’t really happen. These apartments cleaned up some unused space and brought in a whole bunch of rich people. Suburbanites don’t really care if their towns increase in density, as long as it is the right kind of density.

16 thoughts on “The Urbanification of the Suburbs

  1. I wonder if the Brooklyn young families who are moving out here, while the young singles are staying in Manhattan. My niece and Jonah’s friends are moving to the jersey city, Hoboken, Weehawken area, because it’s more affordable than Manhattan.


    1. Definitely the families are moving out here. I wonder how realistic the real estate agents expectations are for a hot summer next year are though. A lot of people moved already, and among them are many families that would probably have moved sometime in the next 5 years anyway. Seems like a significant amount of demand got pulled forward to 2020-2021, and maybe won’t materialize as usual in the next couple years.


  2. Fascinating to hear the takes on the ground, both before and after the building. We are in city, but in the part of the city that the joke maps label as “suburbs, but in the city”, post war construction, on a formerly forested ridge. The houses aren’t cookie cutter, and there are also a variety of sizes, from the 2 bedroom, daylight basement plan that used to be our house before the reno to 3-4 bedroom houses. I’d say originally the neighborhood was folks raising 3-4 kids in houses w/ 2-3 bedrooms. Now, builders are knocking them down; you can tell which ones were built by developers and which built by people planning to live there. The developers have won, arguing that we need more housing, but by building 3-4 million dollar houses — a selling point, self contained units in the daylight basements that can be rented.

    I’m pretty frustrated being called a nmby (though I am when it comes to my views, which are my delight) when the developers, as in your town, are building $5000/2 bedrooms and aligning with the urbanists who want higher density and pretending they are going to address the affordable housing problem.


  3. Laura wrote, “While local residents initially fought against the rise of apartment buildings in their “villages,” I hear no more complaints. Because change didn’t really happen. These apartments cleaned up some unused space and brought in a whole bunch of rich people. Suburbanites don’t really care if their towns increase in density, as long as it is the right kind of density.”

    We had an underused downtown (!) due to a major natural disaster some decades ago. Lots and lots and lots of parking.

    Anyway, there’s been a lot of downtown construction and at the moment, there’s an enormous amount of multi-story building going on. I’m not sure which are apartments, condos, or hotels, but there are a lot of units going up, including on downtown lots that were empty or industrial just a year or two ago.

    I appreciate it, given that I’ve been seeing the steady increase of obvious airbnbs in the low-income neighborhoods near downtown, and I was concerned that we were losing a lot of affordable housing to the tourist trade.


  4. There’s an empty lot a block or two from our house. I don’t know what the plans are for that lot, but our neighborhood and the college generally would benefit a lot from having a grocery store. It would undoubtedly produce a lot of noise and traffic and garbage–but at the same time, there is no real grocery store closer than 3 miles away. (There used to be one, but it was small and old and got consolidated into the one 3 miles away and now there’s a high-rise student apartment where it used to be.) Hometown U. has several little convenience stores on campus but a) they’re really small and b) they’re never open when you want them to be open.

    This is technically in a city, but it’s not a big city.

    I’m assuming that Hometown U. is planning on putting some gargantuan building or parking garage on the lot, as per usual


  5. The FAST Act (2015) supports transit-oriented development (TOD).

    The Act includes a number of items that strengthen workforce training and improve regional planning. These include allocating slightly more formula funds to local decision makers and providing planners with additional design flexibilities. Notably, FAST makes Transit Oriented Development (TOD) expenses eligible for funding under highway and rail credit programs. TOD promotes dense commercial and residential development near transit hubs in an effort to shore up transit ridership and promote walkable, sustainable land use.


  6. A friend of my sister’s made an offer for a post-divorce condo in this state. She offered 10% over the asking price. Her offer was the 9th lowest.


  7. I’m kind of existentially depressed over the 5K for 2 bedroom apartments at all. The apartments Laura linked to show no availability. who is living there? Roommates? young couples? The (probably wrong) idea that you spend no more than 30% of your income on rent, would mean 200K income to afford the place. With a roommate or a 2-earner couple, that’s 100K each. Is that who lives there? In our neck of the woods, that would be two junior tech employees, presumably and we have lots of them and of 5000K apartments.

    BTW, those windows probably constitute a “view” in the modern urban style and it could be noise is not a problem because the apartments are sealed.

    We’ve seen 4 separate 3 million + houses go up within a block of the house and there’s a sitting advert for a lot + a builder with plans to build a house, Another, pending million dollar townhouse, with pictures that I think are renderings (and pictures of the neighborhood).

    I feel like I’m seeing the income inequality in action. I really didn’t plan on an expensive life, but the idea that a couple of bedrooms and a place to grow up would require >200K income per year makes me dizzy and sad.


      1. Yes, exactly!

        I never taught my kids to be accustomed to the life that we fell into. I think they believe me, that not everyone needs to go to private schools or Hawaii every year, not the least because they have role models in our circle who live happily, in smaller houses, with different vacations, and attending good public schools. I’m committed to the politics of trying to make a comfortable life accessible for everyone.

        On darker days, though, I do think of the family compound solution — found myself looking at trusts the other day, thinking, I want my kids to find meaningful work but also live safe, joyful, if frugal lives and does that mean guaranteeing them a personal UBC?


      2. Laura said, “I’m rapidly turning into a Universal basic income person.”

        Haven’t we been experimenting with it over 2020-2021?


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