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Empty nests


When the real estate market went bananas in the middle of the last decade, Teton County, Idaho, couldn't approve new subdivisions fast enough. In fact, the Idaho valley, which is located just over the pass from pricey Jackson, Wyo., was named one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. But when the housing market plummeted in 2008, the boom's extravagance became painfully apparent, reports The number of vacant lots in Teton County -- 7,791 -- was almost equal to the county's population of 8,800. In a recent talk at a Denver land-use conference, Anna Trentadue, an attorney in Teton County for Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, recalled that the rush to develop land was so reckless that "thousands of lots were platted in the far nether regions of the valley with no real long-term vision for how the county would be able to provide basic services to these areas." Trentadue was initially surprised when the audience began to laugh during her presentation; then she realized that "they were just incredulous."


In Nevada, of course, developers didn't just plat far-flung suburban subdivisions and Las Vegas condos; they actually built them during the real estate bubble, and did so at a rapid clip. Last year, the number of empty homes in Nevada rose to 167,564, according to U.S. Census data. That's the equivalent of one out of every seven houses, which helps explain why, this past January, Nevada enjoyed the dubious distinction of having the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. On the up side, if you can call it that, bargains galore can be found throughout the Silver State because prices of many houses and apartments have dropped by more than half. "Save over $460,000" on a new house on the Strip is now a typical headline on the Top Ten Las Vegas Home Deals website. But the West's housing boom and bust can't compare to the spectacular scale of nonstop overbuilding in China. To keep its economy humming, China has built and continues to build entire cities, though few of its citizens can afford to live in the high-rise apartments or shop in the sprawling new malls, reports the television show Dateline Australia. The startling 99 percent vacancy rate for one mega-city built for 22 million people in the Pearl Delta is typical; what's even more appalling is the country's total number of empty apartments -- 64 million.

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From my Alaska trip: I flew into a small town that is not reachable by road, then hopped on a motorboat and drove across lakes and rivers for 2.5 hours to reach the scientists' camp way out in the boondocks -- out there they have a few rough cabins and a generator that makes electricity only in the evening and two outhouses -- and lo and behold, for reading material in the outhouses they have issues of the Economist magazines and HCN -- amazing to discover HCN readers way out there!

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