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Las Vegas is full of zombies. No, not bunches of half-alive people who want to eat your brains—zombie suburbs. Tracts of land that were readied for development, but abandoned when the housing bubble burst.
These zombie suburbs are a phenomenon of the American Southwest, the region of the US that grew astronomically during boom times and is now, by many estimations, losing population. Some say the Southwest is overbuilt by as many as 28 million homes.
Some say that nearly one million dirt lots in Central Arizona were in some stage for approval for new homes when the market crashed. In Las Vegas, the situation isn’t much better.
“People are leaving so that means all the houses all of the roads, and infrastructure that supports those houses—it doesn’t just disappear,” says Justin Hollander, a professor at Tufts University who studies urban planning. “If you don’t do a good job it further destabilizes the neighborhood. It further creates a cycle of disinvestment.”
These zombies are a problem because they tend to cause blight in surrounding areas, and put neighbors of the empty space in a bad situation. They also tend to increase the problems of dust if they aren’t taken care of.
In some cases these developments have been dormant for as many as six or seven years.
Hollander is a proponent of “smart decline”—the idea that cities have to change their planning methods based on if they’re growing or decreasing in population and housing demand.
“Our aims are to improve the quality of life for people who live there,” he says.
But Hollander’s concept of smart decline assumes that the Southwest is in decline at all. Others, including many economists at Arizona State University, feel that the Southwest’s economy will rebound and continue to grow, just as it always has.
Decline “goes totally contrary to who were are as developers as homebuilders as capitalists,” says developer Richard Plaster, owner of Plaster Development.
Peter O’Dowd, a reporter with Fronteras who originally reported this piece, says that the Southwest was built on affordable housing, and that that idea has been hard to shake during the Great Recession and housing crisis. “We rely in people to come here to grow our cities, to grow our economies,” he says.
“There is a predominant feeling that this market will eventually turn around.”
Former Clark County Manager Tom O’Reilly blames the original problem of zombie subdivisions on poor zoning laws during the boom times. Because it was easier and cheaper to build on the outer rim of the Las Vegas Valley, leap-frog development occurred. There were huge open spaces in the valley, even during the times of greatest growth.
Rampant foreclosure, he says, is also a major issue.
The solution could be to incentivize growth in those estimated 68,000 acres of fill-in areas if the boom times return, he says, and to rethink how we develop new, western cities.
Peter O'Dowd, reporter, Fronteras: The Changing Americas Desk, KJZZ Phoenix
Justin Hollander, Tufts University, and author, Sunburnt cities: The Great Recession, depopulation and urban planning in the American Sunbelt
Richard Plaster, developer, Plaster Development
Thom Reilly, former Clark County Manager, Exec Dir, Caesars Foundation