Is your suburb the next slum? (© Photo composite. (© Phillip Spears/Getty Images; Ron Elmy/age fotostock))

The nation's suburbs — once the symbol of the American dream — are well on their way to becoming tomorrow's slums, some experts say.

The one-two punch of a crippling recession and higher gas prices have quelled demand for many of the nation's fringe communities from Charlotte, N.C., to Sacramento, Calif., while at the same time demographic trends have begun pushing an aging population back to the nation's urban cores.

That's prompting some planners to predict a huge surplus of large-lot suburban properties in the years ahead — as many as 25 million homes by 2030, according to Arthur C. Nelson, presidential professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and director of its Metropolitan Research Center. (Bing: What's the current unsold-housing inventory?)

What's your home worth?

Not all of these homes will sit vacant, Nelson says. Many of them will be divided up into multifamily rental properties.

"You will have two or three households living in these large mansions in the suburbs," Nelson says, adding that this will bring property values down and put extra strain on public services.

Suburban ground zero
That's already happening in places such as Elk Grove, Calif., a community 15 minutes outside Sacramento. Here, builders rushed to build subdivision after subdivision — putting up 10,000 tract homes in just four years at the height of the boom — confident that buyers from all over the Bay Area would trade up to these larger homes.

They were wrong. When lending dried up and the economy soured, the bottom fell out of this market, even before all of the schools, parks and fire stations were built. Property values plummeted and many people walked away from homes they thought would never recover their value.

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Susan McDonald, founder of Elk Grove's Franklin Reserve Neighborhood Association, saw her old house in the neighborhood drop in value from about $550,000 at the peak to $230,000 when it sold again recently. (She bought again in the same area.)

Many of the houses still sit empty, or have been rented out as Section 8 housing. Many of the lawns are brown and weedy. Graffiti are starting to crop up on walls and signs throughout the area. Sheets, not curtains, are tacked up in some windows.

Read:  Jail time for dirty pools and dead lawns?

More alarming, property crimes in Elk Grove — such as burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — soared tenfold in the first six months of this year from the same period in 2007. Violent crime is on the rise, too, jumping 18% in that same period, according to reports by the Elk Grove Police Department.

Now, McDonald's group and a local church are spending weekends mowing yards and cleaning up what banks and builders will not. They tip off police about suspected pot-growing houses; 32 have been found since her association was formed a couple of years ago.

"We're not going to let our lawns go, let people park their cars all over the lawn and let kids hang out on the streets past (the town's) curfew," McDonald says. "We are going to preserve our quality of life."

The real cost of suburban life
The suburbs, experts say, are actually more costly than people realize, which means they’re not even a good option for most lower-income families looking for a better life.

As the price of gasoline has risen, commuting to the suburbs has taken a much greater share of take-home pay, says Ed McMahon, the Urban Land Institute's senior resident fellow on sustainable development — 25% of a household's income in an auto-dependent suburb, compared with 19% for the average in-city family.

"In some cases, they are spending close to 30%" if they have a spouse and teenage kids driving on their tab, he says. By contrast, he says, average Europeans spend 9% on transportation because of their access to rail and subways.

Building to suit no one
You can blame developers and lenders for getting us into this sprawling mess, says Christopher B. Leinberger, director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

For decades, most builders focused on the fringes, he says, where land is cheaper, zoning is easier and lenders were more willing to finance projects. Yet, for much of the past decade, surveys have found that this is not what a growing number of Americans want.

Almost 60% of 12,360 Americans surveyed in 2005 said they want to live in walkable communities, close to transportation and a town center with services, shops, churches and other amenities, according to last spring's Journal of the American Planning Association, which echoed similar findings by the National Association of Realtors in 2004.

Yet according to a recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency, redevelopment of our nation's urban main streets has lagged new suburban construction in all regions except one: New York.

The large majority of new construction — from Florida to Ohio to California — is in undeveloped areas, lacking a true town center or walkable core. That's forced residents to rely on strip malls and big-box centers such as Wal-Mart as central gathering places, something that most surveyed said they would prefer not to do.

The senior sell-off
This lack of convenient amenities and the related driving burden could be the undoing of the suburbs in coming years. Nelson predicts baby boomers will start selling off their McMansions in the suburbs at a rate of 5% a year, or 20 million to 30 million homes between 2010 and 2030.

"They are going to figure out that they don't want to maintain a large home on a larger lot in the suburbs," Nelson says.  "They will move into smaller homes … or attached homes or condos or town homes to simplify their lives" and be close to medical services and transportation.

This reverse migration is what Phoenix broker Greg Swann was betting on when he moved his real-estate firm, Bloodhound Realty, to a neighborhood closer to Phoenix. Although the whole Phoenix market is suffering due to a housing glut, he expects demand to pick up first in those communities closer in. "We anticipate that this is where people will downsize to," he says, as well as the active senior communities in the surrounding areas. 

Many communities farther outside of Phoenix — which has had the biggest drop in values in the entire U.S. — won't fare as well, Swann says. Areas such as Buckeye, Maricopa and Queen Creek, located an hour or more away from the city's core, are now littered with empty houses and weed-filled front yards, says Phoenix agent Francy Thompson, of Thompson Realty, as people have moved out or walked out on homes that have lost half or more of their value. "The outskirts really got hit hard and fast," Thompson says.

Indeed, says McMahon, "The collapse in housing prices has been most acute on the far edges on major metropolitan areas around the country.