Let's take a random walk through the "news from home." Much rejoicing must have come to the Real Estate Industrial Complex from the recent BusinessWeek story headlined, "A Phoenix housing boom forms in hint of U.S. recovery." Maybe it's even real and Homey was wrong when he predicted that the old growth machine — with championship golf! — isn't coming back. If so, a new housing boom would be the worst possible event in the long run. Any chance to learn the lessons of the crash will be lost, along with the opportunity to reset for a more sustainable future.
I suspect the bluster of a "boom" cloaks a recovery from a very deep bottom, so naturally the percentage gains will look impressive. In addition, we don't have the research to indicate the subdivisions that are being abandoned to "investors" — or just abandoned — as qualified buyers snap up the new stuff from the likes of Pulte. Population has increased, but not at the rates of the 1990s and 2000s. Also, the labor force for the metropolitan area is only slightly larger than it was in 2006, hardly the spectacular growth seen in the previous decades.
Some macro realities will not go away: most Americans are much poorer after the recession; wages are stagnant and have been falling on average for years; unemployment remains high and many may never find work again; "consumers" are still carrying more debt than historic norms; changing tastes and demographics, with talented young people and many boomers preferring real cities, not Sun City; Phoenix still has a low-wage economy. All these factors will be headwinds against the triumphal return of the Growth Machine.
In any event, the same dreary pattern continues: Single-family house sprawl ever farther into the desert. Like the Bourbons, the Real Estate Industrial Complex has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Two-thousand square miles and spreading out. Near total car dependence. Any serious discussion of water supplies, environmental degradation, carrying capacity or the affects of climate change is forbidden in the public square, and the occasional horrified outsider's take is quickly shot down by the local-yokel propaganda machine and even often sensible people.
There's no Plan B. No innovative approaches. In Fountain Hills, created as a low-density bedroom community (by bulldozing one of the most enchanting saguaro forests in the state), the council wants to attract employers and add to its population. Just like Goodyear and Maricopa and Prescott Valley. There's only one plan, the same old real-estate hustle. And, as is to be expected when you attract such a narrow slice of the Big Sort, even a trails plan brings out worries of "one-world government." The only one-world government are the land grifters profaning the desert.
And there is a market for Phoenix. I heard from a former Seattle-area resident who moved to there and wrote:
It is not that I’m 'entranced' with Metro Phoenix… But I would say I do love the Southwest and for better or worse Phoenix is where there are jobs here. But having lived here now for a couple of years (and having traveled here at every opportunity for 20 years) I like it much better than I ever would have imagined. It’s an easy and enjoyable place to live. I don’t have the bias of what used to be, and honestly even if there was something in downtown Phoenix I wouldn’t go there just as I avoided downtown Seattle at all costs…
If one doesn't have urban values to begin with, the asteroid belt of the newer parts of Phoenix can indeed be pleasant. (My correspondent also wanted me to take on Seattle's smugness, an irony when I consider the smugness of north Scottsdale, et al). I write the journalism and literature of exile and estrangement. If you're happy in a new subdivision of a "master planned community," if you think the finest achievement of a civilization is more freeways, you won't get it. I avoid the white-right apartheid suburbs at all costs.
Unfortunately, my interest in "what used to be" remains, partly as a historian but as important for what is says about the region's continuing missteps and challenges. And I am a central Phoenix Phoenician. So it's interesting to see these jobs announcements trumpeted by the governor and local officials — and they are invariably in the suburbs. Chandler gives GM an incentive to bring an innovation center. A "digital health-care service" for Scottsdale. Union Bank opens a mortgage operations center in Tempe. Few of these will change the basic, low-quality jobs mix or even provide jobs outside the housing sector to support population growth.
I do wonder about the city of Phoenix. A report came in about a distribution center going in at 75th Avenue and Buckeye (that's taking advantage of light rail!...WBIYB), but that's about it. The Labor Department statistics I've seen don't drill down historically to the city level on employment. But I wonder, as power and wealth is sucked out to Scottsdale, Chandler and Gilbert, if the city is actually losing employment? The Central Corridor suffered serious job losses in the 2000s, but nobody wanted to talk about it or track it. And even an answer here doesn't get to the issue of whether Phoenix is losing, gaining or retaining well-paying jobs. If not, then the donut hole Mexican Detroit theory gains traction, no matter how many new restaurants have opened in the core. Meanwhile, most arts organizations are in serious trouble, no matter what is said publicly. Unemployment remains high. The economy is astonishingly limited for such a populous state. And it's not just per-capita income that's underperforming. In the Census Bureau's three-year tracking of median household income Arizona is below the U.S. average ($48,319 vs. $51,027) for 2009-2011, but the state's median household income has been falling since 1999-2001. This is a place far from recovery and even in the 2000s boom, the economy was troubled beneath the real-estate froth.
The Phoenix City Council has lost the cohesion it had in the 2000s, indeed through most of the city's history. As a result, Phoenix is unable to address its challenges or reach for greatness. Greg Stanton was not wrong during his mayoral campaign to say Phoenix was at the most profound turning point in its history. But that turn won't be avoided by developments in Desert Ridge or building the South Mountain Freeway. Meanwhile, the madness at the Legislature continues. Little of it is home grown. Look deeper into any crazy initiative and you'll find the fingerprints or ALEC or the NRA. So pay attention to North Carolina, where Republicans have gained control of the Legislature and are moving to take Charlotte-Douglas International Airport away from the city. The Kookocracy would love to get its hands on Sky Harbor.
In everything I read and hear from sources is Arizona's continued parochialism. Is Phoenix attracting the world's attention like Austin? No, only to the extent that Arizona's reputation for intolerance and craziness rubs off. Even Joel Kotkin, the most widely published apologist for Sun Belt car-dependent sprawl is reduced to using Houston as his model. But Houston is an alpha city with major headquarters and oil. And even here, the metric is merely population growth, not quality. The world keeps changing. Massive disruptions are coming. They're already here. But the hands-over-ears "never is heard a discouraging word" denial continues. It won't turn out well, no matter how many crapola stucco houses are built.