Too many houses, not enough people

by Brian Clarey

It’s a well-known fact of marriage — at least, of my marriage and those of many of my friends — that, as the years roll on, your spouse’s opinion carries less and less weight. Case in point: My wife, especially before she became my wife, used to ask my opinion on all kinds of things: clothing, social situations, career advice, legal matters and more. She would then incorporate my counsel into her handling of the situation.

She still asks my advice, even in our eighth year of marriage. But it doesn’t carry the same weight it once did. “You need new brake pads,” I’ll tell her. Then she’ll come home after an oil change and say, “The guy says I need new brake pads.” Yep. These days, my wife ranks my opinions and expertise somewhere below those of television commentators and strangers on the street, but above children and the visibly intoxicated. And it’s not just her: I fear I’ve become the same way. Last week I saw someone on television explain how cell-phone chargers, when they’re plugged in, suck electricity even when they’re not engaged with the devices. So I went around and unplugged all the chargers, fully two months after my wife laid the exact same information on me. Also, I should add, she is a holistic health care practitioner and I smoke about a pack of cigarettes a day — but that is a subject for another column. The point is that I have more or less made my peace with being disregarded out of hand… at least in my own home. But when it happens in the community at large, well that’s another story. I’ve been following the goings-on politically, culturally and socially in the Triad since I moved here in 2000, and have been following things in earnest since 2004, when I was given a larger megaphone with the advent of YES! Weekly. As a journalist, editor and opinion columnist it is my job to keep up with the news and trends, and use this information to give insight on policy or call out shortsightedness when I think it could affect us all in the future. Here’s something I’ve been saying for years: As The Triad’s economy shifted away from its manufacturing base, real estate picked up much of the slack. Over the last five years, construction, sales and loans for new homes (and office buildings and apartment complexes and strip malls) began to sop up much of the able-bodied workforce, and ancillary businesses like landscaping, home maintenance and interior design thrived in the boom. Sure, we’ve made some progress in strengthening our position as a transit hub, but even that follows the same dictum as real estate: location, location, location. This is not news. But I wondered: Who, exactly, is buying all these new homes? Taking Greensboro as an example, Census figures show that 78 percent of residents of the Gate City lived in the same home from 2005-2007, and only 9 percent of residents came to town from outside Guilford County during those years. And more data shows that Guilford County is losing people in the 25-34 demographic, prime years for first-time homebuyers. It doesn’t much help matters that our municipal governments are stacked with real estate professionals and interests, many of whom have myopic perspectives on the importance of their industry as it pertains to the big picture. When your only tool is a hammer, they say, every problem looks like a nail. And now, of course, “for sale” signs are a ubiquitous fixture in the Triad’s landscape — drive around town some time and count them, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at the figure. I’ve been writing about this and talking up my ideas, Cassandra-like, for years now, and generally I’ve been met with the kind of tongue-clucking usually reserved for mentally challenged relations who make up for their intellectual shortcomings with smiles and brio. “Bless your heart,” they might as well say. But this was before Forbes magazine came out this week with its list of the emptiest cities in the nation, girded by vacancy rates and population figures. The Greensboro/High Point area ranked No. 4, preceded by the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Detroit and Las Vegas. And while I do get some satisfaction from saying, “I told you so” — because I did; I did tell you so — I would much prefer that somebody, anybody would have listened to what I’ve been saying, tighten up on the new construction and work towards more sustainable industries in the Piedmont Triad. And for anyone who’s still listening, I’ll say this: People go where the jobs are. If we can line up a few thousand more positions here, ones that don’t require massive incentives to get established, then maybe we can inspire a true population surge as the workforce fleshes out. And then perhaps we can move some of these houses.