From the International Herald Tribune:
ELIZABETH, Colorado: Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the outer edges of metropolitan areas.
Just off Singing Hills Road, in one of hundreds of two-story homes dotting a former cattle ranch beyond the southern fringes of Denver, Phil Boyle and his family openly wonder if they will have to move close to town to get some relief.
They still revel in the space and quiet that has drawn a steady exodus from U.S. cities toward places like this for more than half a century. Their living room ceiling soars two stories high. A swing-set sways in the breeze in their backyard. Their wrap-around porch looks out over the flat scrub of the high plains to the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
But life on the distant fringes of suburbia is beginning to feel untenable. Boyle and his wife must drive nearly an hour to their jobs in the high-tech corridor of southern Denver. With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, Boyle recently paid $121 to fill his pickup truck with diesel. The price of propane to heat their spacious house has more than doubled in recent years.
Though Boyle finds city life unappealing, it's now up for reconsideration.
"Living closer in, in a smaller space, where you don't have that commute," he said. "It's definitely something we talk about. Before it was, 'We spend too much time driving.' Now, it's, 'We spend too much time and money driving."'
As the realization takes hold that rising energy prices are less a momentary blip than a restructuring with lasting consequences, the high cost of fuel is threatening to slow the decades-old migration away from cities, while exacerbating the housing downturn by diminishing the appeal of larger homes set far from urban jobs.
In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to analysis by Moody's Economy.com.
In Denver, housing prices in the urban core rose steadily from 2003 until late last year compared with previous years, before dipping nearly 5 percent in the past three months of last year, according to Economy.com. But house prices in the suburbs began falling earlier, in the middle of 2006, and then accelerated, dropping by 7 percent the past three months of the year.
More than three-fourths of prospective homebuyers are more inclined to live in an urban area because of fuel prices, according to a recent survey of 903 real estate agents with Coldwell Banker, a national brokerage.
Some proclaim the unfolding demise of suburbia.
"Many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and '70s - slums characterized by poverty, crime and decay," said Christopher Leinberger, an urban land use expert, in a recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly.
Basic household arithmetic appears to be furthering the trend: In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April of this year - when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon - the same household was buying gas at a rate of $3,196 a year, more than doubling consumption in dollar terms in less than five years.
In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease. It was the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.
For others, though, new math is altering the choice of where to live. Houses are sitting on the market longer than years past. "The pool of buyers is diminishing," said Jace Glick, a realtor with Re/Max Alliance in Parker, next to Elizabeth.
Juanita Johnson and her husband, both retired Denver school teachers, moved here last August, after three decades in the city and a few years in the mountains. They bought a four-bedroom house for $415,000.
Last winter, they spent $3,000 just on propane to heat the place, she said. Suddenly, this seems like a place to flee.
"We'd sell if we could, but we'd lose our shirt," Johnson said. On a recent walk, she counted 15 "For Sale" signs. A similar home nearby is listed below $400,000.
"I was so glad to get out of the city, the pollution the traffic, the crime," she said. Now, the suburbs seem mean. "I wouldn't do this again."