Temple Terrace, FL: A Case Study for the New American Housing Dream

By Jesse Keenan, Managing Editor, Housing.com

With the manifestation of the modern American “Housing Dream” from 1949 to 2009, the mythology of the house has historically carried the weight of the populist aspirations of tangible and metaphysical ownership in society. This canvass has largely been painted on the fabric of suburbia under the color of subsidization and environmental degradation. To the contrary, while historic urban centers represented an agglomeration of productive capital, they were not able to equitably provide access to a broader demographic, as urban land banking had largely consolidated scaled development by the time of the late industrial revolution. In an earlier more critical period, this construct of ownership was founded on the inalienability of intellectual and real property as a bundle of rights embodied in the American political foundations. In order to attract capital and manpower in an emerging post-Colonial economy, this internalization of a particularly unique political theory was a necessary rhetorical marketing device to give prospective immigrant citizens a stake in the collective advancement of a new civil republican society based on land. After all, early American capital was vested in the vast land of the territories and not by and through the generation of revenue through taxes and tariffs. An America for-sale stood in contrast to the larger history of civilization’s adherence to the merger of the sovereign and the land.

This merger of the sovereign and the land would soon enough transform into a merger of land and the oligarchical mortgage investors who stood in as a proxy for the sovereign. In each successive generation of housing boom and bust cycles, the rhetoric of ownership was built upon a vastness of unimproved land—the one economic input with the lowest economic value relative to the capital necessary for the requisite construction and development of buildings and infrastructure. In social and environmental terms, the pattern growth of the American Dream was subsidized by cheap raw land, which today has largely run its course in terms of physical proximity to economic centers and scalability for subdivision development. In the most recent iteration of the housing cycle, the driver was not just the land alone but the relative proliferation of cheap mortgage capital pouring in from the four corners of the globe. It was this combination of diminishing land and risk adjusted finance, or lack thereof, that extinguished the American Housing Dream as we knew it. In the end, the mythology of the America dream was predicated on the fallacy of ownership which was subject to the sovereign notions of debt and capital markets, as much as it was historically to the arbitrariness and irresponsibility of a corrupt monarch.

Colorized photograph: 1922 Temple Terrace Master Plan (looking Northwest).

From the financiers of Wall Street to the outskirts of foreclosure nation—Tampa, Florida, Temple Terrace is a typical example of a suburban community which pioneered the development of a homeownership market some two decades before the pop culture standardization of the Levittown American Dream. What makes Temple Terrace unique is that it was founded as an exclusive seasonal residence which offered residents the opportunity to simultaneously buy into a land and an agricultural cooperative for the production of citrus crops. This sense of community ownership through shared appreciation of an undivided capitalization provides a powerful metaphor for the mitigation of the negative externalities of a community in the face of foreclosure. For this original cooperative, not unlike many suburban narratives, the speculative use value of housing eventually exceeded the underlying productivity of the agriculture. Except in this case, the cooperative homeowner investors were often granted freedom from the vestiges of sovereign debt, and so it was that the oranges gave way to the last harvest of houses in this hamlet of Tampa.

Consistent with the spatial segregation of much of suburbia, Temple Terrace has largely retained its exclusivity for several generations since. What emerged towards the late period of the Housing Dream was a spatial distribution of less fortunates on the periphery of this exclusive enclave—an edge city within an edge city. At the onset of the wave of foreclosures, it was this borderland between two distinct demographics that bore the burden of a precarious ownership in favor of a new category of land tenureship—the REO mortgagee. A statistical abstract of Temple Terrace mirrors the two faces of American housing policy. To this end, American housing policy has attempted to provide for an economically disadvantaged demographic (e.g., LIHTC) and the relatively well-off (e.g., mortgage interest deduction).

Despite these growing demographic divisions, Temple Terrace by the numbers seemingly appears to work. Foreclosures, at every stage of the process, make up less than two percent (2%) of the houses. A review of foreclosed mortgagors by surname suggests that foreclosures roughly parallel the proportionate population by race, ethnicity and income. A vast majority, inclusive of the mean, spend roughly thirty percent (30%) or less of their expenditures on housing, which otherwise falls within the broader policy guidelines for being cost-burdened. As a function of municipal operations, Temple Terrace per capita municipal debt at is just a fraction (i.e., 1/8th) of the Florida and national averages. This data begs the question: what is wrong with Temple Terrace if immediate foreclosures and cost-expenditures are otherwise in check?

It is not so much Temple Terrace itself as it is the looming context in which the municipality resides. Crossing over the jurisdictional boundaries, the borderland devolves into a highly concentrated zone of foreclosures. At the same time, with a declining per capita household and an aging population which disproportionately is allocated the most amount of relatively unproductive land, the notions of obsolescence are perhaps an harbinger of Temple Terrace’s unchartered housing future. This obsolescence translates in both environmental and social terms. With an average household exceeding two thousand (2,000) square feet and narrowing in on two (2.0) persons per household, the environment efficiency (pp/sq.ft./btu/kwh) translates into a gross inefficiency on a monumental scale. In social terms, the excacerbated physical boundaries between the historic enclave and the borderland exacerbate social isolation by and between age, income and ethnic groups. Admittedly, notions of mixed income development largely fall short of the social outcomes engineered by ideologues; however, at its base social isolation of any one homogenous group has deleterious psychological and social impacts on the relationship between monocultures and space. In this sense, the space of Temple Terrace has for several decades run the risk of displacing its identity of place in favor of generic semiotic replications of corporate form bounded by endless parking lots.

To combat this deterioration of place, city officials have sold short the city’s resources to underleverage a redevelopment area on a major transportation corridor, on the borderland, for the development and creation of a place that never did exist—but for, in the minds of the new urbanist professionals bound by the ethos of clientelism. The intoxication of large scale redevelopment is often a gateway drug to unchecked public fiscal expenditures which are subject to the same predatory practices that struck their vulnerable populations in the last cycle in the first place. Redevelopment is often a key word for value creation that rightly or wrongly might serve as an incubator for proximate value creation. While admirable in their notions of environmental contextualism, performance efficiency and alternative forms of transportation, these measures mask the very same paradigm at the core of the diminishing return of place—embodied in the idea of two different parking lots for homeowners and for renters. The half-hearted material and design gestures of a mimicked vernacular create a space which is not so much timeless as an antecedent to sustainable quality as it is a fictional engineering of a theme park. Across the fields of biology, habitats are responsive spaces to environmental conditions which perpetuate the advancement of a biological host. To this end, performance and not the replication of pseudo classical form should be the sought after outcome as a matter of policy and the allocation of communal resources. Whether measured by the proximity to basic services and amenities or the equitable distribution of the resources of ethical and rational consumer civilians, performance in equal parts to aesthetics is superior to the back to the future fiction of a stuccoed new urbanism.

Where therefore is the foundation for looking forward with a measure of consistency under a unified collective vision? Perhaps the first step is in the nomenclature of increased performance through density as manifested, not in a new urbanism, but in “recent urbanism.” Recent urbanism transcends the tautological distinction of contemporary and modern to posit a collective psychological space that is adaptive, reactive and as heterogeneous in its translation, as it is unique in its urban form and performance. However, this collective vision can not rest on the existing self-regulation of land use and republican representation which has warped the built environment in favor of political interests, both of the majority and the minority, who give little thought beyond the here and now of the economics of development. What is needed a new form of self-regulation of the built environment which is objective and which vests a shared appreciation relative to a consumer financial participation which goes beyond the traditional ad valorem model. Whether this self-regulation is an imposition of an alternative form of land tenure or governance is yet to be determined. However, in this sense, perhaps the early investors in the agriculture and subdivision cooperative of Temple Terrace got it right.

Perhaps looking to the past to find the future is not such a bad idea, if the limitations of such an endeavor are contextualized to the outcome. Simply gaming one policy or subsidy against another is otherwise just a short term placebo which lacks the requisite vision for the necessity of a paradigm shift on the scale and order of the underlying problem. Therefore, to dissect the anatomy of what works from the pathology of what doesn’t work, it might be the prescription for necessity to reverse engineer the notions of housing separate and apart from that of suburbia. By giving value to existing uses relative to a modeled intensity consistent with scaled urban development, one could perhaps find parity in costs and returns between capacity for the necessity of immediate improvements and that of long-term infrastructure. In this sense, housing should be thought of not as an independent articulation of services and shelter but as a part of a larger integral infrastructure which serves successive generations which are varied by cyclical need, economic allocation and spiritual necessity for the ethical relationship between space, place and the broader natural and human environments. For in the next six decades of the second coming of the age of an American Housing Dream, it should not be the government through subsidization nor mortgagees through scaled economies of debt that dictate the hopes and aspirations of the masses, as it is the responsibility of a new form of civic culture which adheres to the uniquely American notions of civility, freedom, class mobility and equity as translated through the equality of one for all under one nation.

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