Even test-market suburbs get caught in the tidal wave of low-income housing.

With a constantly changing tenancy, it is no surprise that apartment complexes and renter-occupied housing age quickly—usually much faster than owner-occupied housing.  The disparity between these two fundamental housing contracts (renting and owning) owes a great deal to basic human psychology: we are more impelled to take care of property if it belongs to us and we perceive it as an investment.  But does this distinction alone explain why so many rental units from the 1960s and 1970s are in terrible condition, when the owner-occupied housing nearby—dating from the exact same time period—remains for the most part tidy and well-maintained?

The montage below shows the Westminster Apartments in metro Indianapolis, and it won’t take much narrative on my part to get my point across; the photos speak for themselves.  But keep reading anyway, because without the explanatory material I will include, it could easily seem as though I’m exploiting the poverty and substandard living conditions of the residents who still call this complex home.  That obviously isn’t my goal, but it is important to delineate what I have observed.

The architectural style for the Westminster is pretty standard for suburbs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the mansard roof and garden-level units.  Some landscaping would certainly help the appearance here, though it would also significantly impede sunlight to those garden apartments—an unappealing feature that later generations of apartment designers have conspicuously avoided.  Newer units rarely have garden apartments.

Yellowed newspaper substitutes for curtains in quite a few of the units, and the Venetian blinds are routinely mangled, as evident on the top floor windows.  More often than not, the fencing in the back yards is ready to tip over.

Gutters and various ornamentation on the upper levels is bent and sagging, as obvious on the upper left unit in the photo below:

Just a little bit further in that direction, the same unit has a deck in which the stability of the wooden floor appears significantly compromised, either through termites or simply wood that rots under the deteriorated finish:

None of these defects in isolation may seem like a serious concern, but discriminating buyers (or renters) are going to notice them and, with a wealth of other available apartment options in the area, will look elsewhere.  The result?  The Westminster Apartments cater to those who lack the ability to choose, whether due to lack of income or another limiting condition.  It is no longer a desirable place for middle-income households, and the apartment sags further under the weight of the stigma of being a place for social deviancy—for those who cannot or will not make a respectable living, even if this reputation is undeserved.  By no means am I implying that everyone at Westminster is a criminal, but the empirical evidence suggests that it might have more of a problem with behavior that the middle class generally finds unacceptable.  Take this fence, for example:

The white spray paint conceals was almost undoubtedly another layer of spray paint—an act of graffiti.  And there’s more:

And another subtler example, this time on one of the actual buildings:

(If you can’t see it in the photo above, check the slightly different paint color on the bricks just above the gas main and to the left of all those meters.  This time the property managers chose a more appropriate color of paint to hide the vandalism.)

It’s impossible to know what this graffiti signified, but anyone with a soupcon of urban savvy would infer that it could be a gang tag.  Even if it is nothing more than a budding Matisse testing out his or her incipient talents on the first available canvas, what middle class person is going to take a risk with this complex, when dozens of other complexes in the area don’t show any evidence of graffiti or gang tags?

I covered this topic years ago in one of my first essays, focusing on Berkley Commons, an apartment complex on the south side of Indianapolis.  Like the Westminster, it has shown its age and no longer attracts a middle class clientele.  This high-speed depreciation happens routinely in metropolitan areas large and small: a large proportion of apartments constructed during the Johnson or Nixon administration (or Ford or Carter) have already devolved to low-income housing.  Why?  In the older essay, I referenced how accounting and tax filing standards dictate that the standard depreciation schedules for multifamily apartments is 27.5 years.  These Westminster Apartments clearly outdate this duration, suggesting that, without a significant renovation, the structures would no longer remain in good enough condition to attract anything but renters who cannot afford anything better.  Presumably the cost of living at either Berkley Commons or Westminster is well below the median contract rent for the area, resulting in developments filled almost exclusively with low wage-earning households or those heavily dependent on government aid.

This downward spiral becomes the normal trajectory for apartment complexes in economically integrated municipalities, where the school districts might not boast as good of a reputation as the more homogenous outer suburbs.  Berkley Commons sits in the Indianapolis Metropolitan School District of Perry Township—not a terrible district by any means (certainly a better reputation than Indianapolis Public Schools), but still a middling one compared to the suburbs.  Young families with economic wherewithal would never choose Berkley Commons in Indianapolis, when they can easily find higher quality rental units in suburbs with good schools…or they can procure a mortgage in this persistently affordable metro area.

But there’s a clincher here: Berkley Commons, from the earlier article, might have been in a questionable Indianapolis school district.  The Westminster Apartments, however, are not.  They sit just south of County Line Road, in Greenwood, Indiana, part of a suburban public school system that, while not the best in the state, certainly ranks well above the average and boasts an overall strong reputation.  Greenwood Public Schools have enjoyed consistent growth over the years, while enrollment at Perry Township and Indianapolis Public Schools have flattened or declined.  School districts, in turn, are one of the most influential factors in determining the desirability of a certain area, as well as the cost of housing.  Given the strong reputation of the schools, why would the property managers of Westminster allow it to fall into such disrepair?  It looks as bad, if not worse, than quite a few of the apartments in Indianapolis city limits.  Berkley Commons, though in an inferior district (and thus less likely to command high rents), didn’t have sagging gutters or graffiti tags.  Why don’t the landlords at Westminster use the housing deposits they collect from tenants to keep the units in good running order so that they can continue to attract a wealthier demographic that is able to pay more?

My speculation two years ago was that rental deposits simply don’t cover enough to stave off depreciation.  Sure, they can pay for paint and shampoo for the carpet, but what about new kitchen appliances or bathroom sinks?  What about the fact that modern households tend to prefer expansive “great rooms” with minimal walls, while most old apartments still feature galley kitchens?  The attractiveness of rental housing deteriorates quickly, not just because of wear-and-tear caused by tenants, but the general aging of the entire package renders the unit less desirable as a consumer good.

Even still, Westminster’s management could easily justify shelling out a little more money for heavy renovations every fifteen years, to keep it desirable enough for the market-rate crowd, especially given the quality of schools in Greenwood.  But I suspect that a certain federal program serves quite unintentionally as a disincentive for restoring the apartments to market-rate quality.  The Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known to the public as Section 8, allows qualifying low-income tenants to receive a voucher that gives them a significantly reduced burden in rental payments.  Eligible Section 8 tenants receive the voucher, and after finding a rental unit that accepts Section 8 (meeting certain federal standards), the tenants pay their small share to the landlord, while the federal government covers the rest.  (MassResources provides a more detailed explanation within the context of this particular commonwealth’s laws.)  The program has been tremendously efficient at ensuring that low and moderate-income households can still access housing in areas where the market-rate prices might otherwise prevent it.  It also has proven a goldmine for landlords.  They often love Section 8 because essentially the federal government pays most of the rent, and HUD always pays on time.  The Section 8 contract forges a relationship between the landlord and tenant that rarely requires an eviction.  But it also embeds an excellent justification for the property managers to slack on maintenance and improvements of the facilities.  With Section 8, there’s no need for them to fix the units so that they stay market rate; instead, they can command just as good of rent (often paid more reliably) thanks to the federal government paying the lion’s share.

I’m not going to try to determine if Westminster has turned into a purely Section 8 housing complex, but most visual evidence would suggest it.  Why would market rate tenants want to live not just in an area where potential gangs are staking their territory through graffiti, but these Section 8 neighbors are paying a fraction of the official rent for the same units?  As a result of this unsavory disparity, many of these complexes continue to spiral downward, turning into derelict concentrated slums and potentially scaring away buyers from the heretofore-stable owner-occupied neighborhoods around them.  For all the virtues of Section 8, its tacit deficiencies all too often go ignored.

But there may be hope for Westminster after all: it appears to be undergoing some renovations.

To a certain extent, these improvements weaken my overall argument.  My initial conclusion, when I first discovered this apartment complex (and it showed no sign of renovation plans) was that even the stable, middle class suburbs like Greenwood are not immune to apartment decline.  We’ve come to expect this of older apartments in Indianapolis; after all, the school systems aren’t usually as good, and the pool of low-income students is high enough that Section 8 often seems like the easy solution.  In Indy, formerly stable auto-oriented complexes from the 1960s and 70s have devolved into some of the most impoverished and crime-ridden parts of town.  A few required city interventions because the conditions had gotten so poor; some have been shuttered and bulldozed.

But once I was ready to take photos, I discovered that this suburban complex is undergoing a large enough renovation that several buildings are completely unoccupied for the time being.  Notice the stickers in the windows from the one above.

It is surprising to witness an incremental restoration process, where some buildings remain occupied, while construction material sits outside on pallets, ripe for the pilfering.

If I am in the Indianapolis area within six months to a year, I hope to revisit Westminster to judge the thoroughness of these improvements.  The current owner, Van Rooy Properties, an established management company with a largely market-rate portfolio closer to the urban center, may very well invest enough to revert the units back to a market-rate status.  After all, the complex sits within walking distance of the eternally successful Greenwood Park Mall; location could serve as a major selling point.  Then again, most of the retail jobs at the mall pay moderate wages at best, so it may be advantageous to have affordable housing close by.  And the vast suburb of Greenwood still has enough shiny new complexes that only a complete gutting of the Westminster apartment units could allow them to compete.  It’s highly probable that Van Rooy will reserve at least a portion of the units as affordable, potentially even as Section 8, because of the program’s airtight reliability.  Regardless of the fate of Westminster, it provides solid evidence that apartment complexes are a beacon for decentralization: usually the first housing to decline in safety, they can in turn squander an entire district’s desirability if the management doesn’t implement regular improvements—or if the feds provide enough of an incentive to speed the depreciation along.

[NOTE: As promised, I wrote a follow-up to this article, about 10 months after this one.  This subsequent visit revealed that Westminster did undergo a comprehensive rebranding and renovation, countering the widely held notion that suburban-style apartment complexes must endure an astonishingly brief life cycle of about 25 years.  The refurbished Westminster Apartments are visible at the blog article here.  While it is heartening to see that the complex has re-emerged, it goes without saying that, for apartments built during its time of the 1970s, this may still be the exception rather than the norm.]

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4 thoughts on “Even test-market suburbs get caught in the tidal wave of low-income housing.

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I think there’s two things going on here above and beyond the factors you’re mentioning. Namely, this specific period in time coincides with the emergence of the large apartment complex, as well as the use of the cheap building techniques and materials we’re familiar with today. Both of these factors conspire to make these troublesome developments.

    There’s a lot of these apartment buildings from the 60s and 70s here in Cincinnati as well, and there’s no doubt they were built on the cheap. I honestly can’t think of many apartment buildings being constructed in the 1950s, but everything before that was relatively substantial construction-wise. These are the colonial revival and art deco 4-plex apartments, the tudor courtyard apartments, and other similar buildings. They use solid masonry construction, real plaster, hardwood floors, paneled doors and nice trim, and they have some built-ins and architectural flourishes like arched doorways, nice bathroom tile, and maybe even a fireplace.

    The buildings from the 60s and 70s are the start of the plastic fantastic era of cheap brick veneer, drafty sliding windows, hollow core doors, asphalt shingles, drywall, and exhaust fans in lieu of windows in the bathroom and kitchen. These materials don’t age well and aren’t really durable enough for a tenant situation. The main thing though, at least to me, is that these buildings have all the problems of old apartments like drafty windows, poor insulation, outdated appliances, small bathrooms and kitchens, and none of the benefits like nice woodwork, durable materials, and actual architecture. Why settle for cheap and old when you can get cheap and new? It’s the same problem with many of the early suburban houses, the capes from the 40s, the ranches from the 50s and 60s, and the split-levels from the 70s. They have none of the character and durability of the stuff from before WWII, but they share many of the same problems, so why bother?

    The other issue I mentioned is the emergence of the apartment complex. While older apartment buildings might have been part of larger developments (especially during the art deco 4-plex period), they were not kept under single ownership after construction was finished. Each building, or maybe just two or three small buildings, had a different landlord. In the 60s and 70s you start getting these large complexes, usually built in a suburban pod type situation, requiring a whole management company to operate it. The trouble here is that any single complex is a large number of units and square feet, and it all ages and decays at the same time. So unlike the individual building owner who lives in one apartment and rents out the other three, or the neighborhood landlord who may own several different buildings of varying types and ages, the owner of the apartment complex can’t spread around the renovation costs, it all depreciates at once and needs overhaul at the same time. So unless they do some very important planning, they get faced with the whole complex going completely down the toilet all at once, or a huge capital outlay that may require shutting the whole place down for a period of time anyway. There’s a lack of resiliency due to a lack of diversity in age.

  2. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for your comment, Jeffrey–nice hearing from you again. I wasn’t aware of the evolving system of tenancy, but you raised an excellent point in terms of the large suburban complexes that emerged in the 1960s and 70s–they generally go downhill at the same time, so it’s impossible to overhaul individual units when they all need serious work. This is exactly what’s happening to Westminster in the blog article: I’d guess that it is only about 30% occupied right now, which surely results in a huge loss of revenue for Van Rooy, a management company with a solid reputation in Indianapolis.

    As for the building materials used, you are probably dead-on there as well. It sounds like you know better than I do, but it’s hard not to contrast hardwood floors and plaster with drywall and linoleum from the 1970s-era apartment buildings. I cant help but think that much of this disparity is simply caused by an increasingly mobile post-WWII urban constituency, as well as significantly higher homeownership rates. Apartment buildings from the 1920s were higher quality because it was far more likely that middle and upper-middle income households were renters, whereas today those groups are most likely owners. Apartment buildings don’t need to be as high quality these days (with some exceptions) because they generally don’t attract a high-income population who is willing to pay more for architectural details anyway. Renters are also incredibly transient. Incidentally, high income renters (a small demographic) more often than not choose the urban settings–in slightly refurbished buildings from the 1910s and 20s that, due to their higher construction quality, can command high rents.

    That said, this might be the only point where I disagree with you, and even then only slightly. I’m not fully convinced that construction standards have uniformly declined over the last century. Plenty of slipshod houses were built at the turn of the 20th century (possibly many of them informally), and many of them are derelict these days or have long since been demolished. Construction quality always meets the demand and income bracket of its demographic, and plenty of custom homes are well-built up to this day, while the smaller ranches from the 40s, 50s and 60s ranged from the Cape Cods (a more moderate income population that often equate to distressed inner ring suburbs these days) to the brick ranches (a middle and upper middle income population, and a housing stock that remains pretty stable to this day). The “character” of housing is simply where it falls in the orbit of cultural taste–nobody would have claimed that Indy’s sizable collection of mid-century modern houses was that appealing in 1985, but these days people are gobbling them up. The same could happen with split-levels in another 20 years when they start seeming “vintage”–though, of course, that would depend on how well constructed they were. Meanwhile, I’m not holding my breath that the vinyl villages of the Adjustable Rate, Zero-Money-Down era (1990s and 2000s) will survive long enough to cultivate retro chic…though I’d love to be proven wrong. Thanks so much for your post.

  3. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I don’t disagree with your notion that construction standards haven’t necessarily gotten worse, I’d say it’s more of a shifting of priorities. Nowadays we seem to have all the structural issues resolved, so you don’t see sagging porch roofs, cracked foundations, and bowed walls like you used to. Building codes have also progressively improved standards for electric wiring, plumbing, and insulation, not to mention fire safety. When you factor all the costs in of doing that stuff right, on top of the desire to outfit the house with some nice interior finishes and appliances, there’s not much money left for the exterior. That’s how the McMansion can have the granite counter tops, plasma TVs in every room, gold-plated plumbing fixtures, and stainless steel kitchen appliances, but at the same time it’s saddled with vinyl siding and windows, fiberglass shingles, or fake styrofoam stucco.

    One other thing to consider is just how reusable and durable the materials that make up buildings today are. In the old house or apartment you have copper or other metal pipes, board sheathing and subfloors, paneled wood doors, real wood cabinets, slate or wood shingled roofs, real wood siding, and plaster. Those are all at least recyclable if not reclaimable and reusable materials. Today though you’d have plastic piping, plywood or OSB sheathing and subfloors, cardboard doors, particle board laminate cabinets, fiberglass shingles, vinyl siding, and drywall. They’re not salvageable and reusable, and many of them don’t hold up for long in the elements. About the only common and durable materials through the ages are brick and concrete.

    Of course it can still be done well, and I’ve designed and seen built several projects where quality, durability, and aesthetics were paramount. I think overall though, the mass market is about quantity over quality, and quality only counts where it can be seen. Rather than pay for all 2×6 walls and good insulation, well-designed built-ins and quality materials, the general market prefers those resources be allocated to more square footage, the extra bedroom and bath, the large foyer, the generous breakfast room, and to the fixtures and surfaces that adorn those spaces and look good in the real estate brochures.

  4. AmericanDirt

    You hit the nail on the head with the reference to shifting priorities in terms of the gestalt of housing considerations, so to speak. The cultural shift owes a great deal to the availability of homeownership to a much broader range of incomes than a century ago, to the point that top-tier construction standards carry a whiff of elitism these days. And, yes, people value big houses over well-built ones, as manifested perfectly in the abundance of vinyl villages that emerged in the 1990s, where blue-collar people were closing on adjustable rate, zero-money-down mortgages for 2000 s.f. houses–something that would have been unthinkable as recently as 1970. (And it turns out, as we learned in 2008, it really WAS unthinkable and unattainable.)

    I can think of one other crucial factor that explains Americans’ willingness to use cheaper materials for housing: we crave the ability to customize, alter, and personalize our housing. Few other developed countries would ever adapt balloon-frame housing construction styles, which are still commonplace here. Conversely, Americans typically sneer at concrete construction, which is widespread in Europe and Latin America. An old instructor of mine, John Stilgoe, pointed out in his book “Common Landscape of America” that Americans will always favor wooden houses, not only because of the abundance of replenishing forests (something Europe visibly lacks), but Americans value big homes that they can modify much more than they value permanence. We’re also more mobile than Europeans, so there’s less likelihood that homes will form a huge part of an inheritance, since kids often don’t live close to Mom and Dad. And we have considerably more natural disasters than Europe; 75% of the world’s tornadoes take place in North America. Since not even the highest construction standards could withstand F4 or F5 winds, it may often seem pointless to Americans to build to that level of quality.


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