Financing suburban architecture

By Felix Salmon
March 14, 2012

[youtube width="560" height="315"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG-5l5dAxr0#![/youtube]

I have a review in Architect magazine of the Foreclosed show at MoMA — the exhibition which seeks architectural solutions to the suburban foreclosure crisis; I also talked to a couple of the architects involved in the exhibition at the press preview in February.

My main beef with the show is that it’s far too utopian and impractical. That’s par for the course when it comes to museum architecture shows, but I was hoping for more realistic proposals in this particular case, just because the foreclosure crisis is so real and urgent.

Anybody who visits the exhibit can see that nothing remotely along the lines of the buildings being proposed is ever going to be realized — Orange, New Jersey, for instance, is not going to replace its roads with long strips of narrow housing. But what’s less obvious is the way in which all of these projects are also a huge financial stretch. They were charged with coming up with innovative forms of home finance, but all those innovative solutions tend to boil down to the same basic idea: get the local municipal government to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars and then spend that money on a massive housing development which will, somehow, generate the income needed to service the debt.

Such ideas have a tendency to work much better in theory than they do in practice; they’re fragile things, at risk from dozens of different directions at the same time, and if I were a local bank, I’d stay well away from funding them. And I certainly would never advise small and unsophisticated suburbs like these ones to get into bed with the sharks peddling municipal bonds and associated interest-rate derivatives.

Michael Bell, in the video above, makes the very good point that architecture and architects are largely absent from the suburbs. But I guess that I was really looking for something much lower-cost than the mega projects that the teams in the MoMA show came up with. Certainly lower in up-front cost, anyway. The foreclosure crisis was caused by people borrowing enormous sums of money and then finding themselves unable to pay it back. The last thing we want to do is risk repeating that all over again.

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