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The New Slums -- Coming Soon to Houston?

It's become a widespread meme as the subprime crisis has exploded and the housing bubble has imploded -- far-flung suburbs are going to become "the new slums."

Ever since Atlantic magazine wrote about it in March, communities and worried suburbanites have been wondering if they're going to wake up one day to find they're living next to a crack den. Or a lower-middle-income family without a Land Rover Range Rover.

The recipe goes like this: outrageously expensive SUV commutes cause some people to move closer to town; the shoddy, corner-cutting construction used during the housing boom means abandoned homes crumble faster; and, in Houston's case, many of these far-flung developments are barely patrolled by law enforcement unless local homeowners' associations pay up.

So how likely is it that the "new slum" phenomenon will hit Houston?

Depends who you ask.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute and the author of the Atlantic article, says it's not impossible.

"I cant help but think when you look at Houston, there could be those extremes -- down by Rice, certainly inside the Loop and particularly on the west side, those homes are probably pretty stable in price. But if you go out beyond your third beltway, I can't help but think there will be fringe developments that will be beginning to hurt if they are not close to commercial developments."

The other oft-quoted expert on all this, LA's Joel Kotkin, says Leinberger is full of it. (The Atlantic article, he says, "was a really stupid piece.")

Suburbs will adapt by attracting employment centers, restaurants and other amenities that will make moot the question of long commutes. He points to the Energy Corridor along Beltway 8, which is thriving with new restaurants and townhomes.

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The Houston area is particularly suited to adapt to the problem, he says, with its lack of restrictive zoning policies. That will give developers freedom to build the kind of satellite employment areas that will save the burbs.

So, depending on who you believe, your Cinco Ranch home will either be the next ghetto or a wonderful investment.

Hey, people always say life in the suburbs needs a little spicing up.

-- Richard Connelly

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