The paradox of the housing boom and bust

  • Paul Larmer

 

For the past several years, I have marveled at a basketball court planted in the middle of an empty field on the outskirts of Delta, Colo., a town of 9,000 people in rural western Colorado. It's a good-looking court with a smooth cement surface and nets on the rims. But I never see anyone playing on it, or even driving on the curvy road that leads to it.

The court is deserted because the field around it was never developed as planned. It's just one of many partially built subdivisions halted by the great housing bust of 2008. Though streets, park and fire hydrants have all been installed, people aren't buying the lots or building homes. Just one new house -- probably the model home -- sits several hundred yards away from the court.

This is a common sight in many Western communities these days, not only in large metropolises like Phoenix and Las Vegas, but also in rural areas, such as Teton County, Idaho, where writer Allen Best reports this issue's cover story.

In the early 2000s, Teton Valley, a gorgeous agricultural area just over the pass from Jackson, Wyo., was one of the West's hottest second-home markets, and developers flooded its small towns and county offices with proposals for rural subdivisions. Many people made money on Teton County's land rush -- everyone from the farmers and real estate agents who sold property to the hard-working construction crews and ambitious developers -- even as a political rift widened between green-leaning newcomers and the conservative Mormon community that had long run the show. But, as Best writes, the good times ended abruptly with the bust. Today, many of the people who came for the boom have left, and the financially strapped local governments are struggling to figure out what to do with the unfinished "zombie" subdivisions.

If we could script an ending for this story, it would be about how a profound economic bust has brought the community together to create a new vision for Teton Valley, one that balances environmental protection and smart growth. But, alas, that would be fiction. Planning remains a political hot potato in Teton County and other Western communities, and a bust can be just as divisive as a boom: Where one group sees the downturn as proof of the need for well-balanced planning, another sees it as a sign that it's time to reduce regulations and create even sweeter deals for developers -- anything to get the good times rolling again.

That's a catch-22 the West has yet to escape.

I may yet see kids dribbling and shooting on the zombie basketball court near Delta, their voices mingling with the sounds of nail guns, hammers and saws. But it seems more likely that I'll just watch the court slowly melt back into the field from which it sprang.

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