Adjustable-Rate Suburbs

Where more for less is becoming more for more

Remember the adjustable-rate mortgage? I was like THIS close to getting one when I bought my first place. It lured you in with the promise of lower payments now, but with the threat of a higher payment later. I almost did it. I’d surely sell my place before the rates jumped, I thought. This was in 2006. Five years later, I tried to sell my condo. It took me more than a year. Fortunately, I’d gone with the fixed-rate mortgage, a more expensive option at first, but one that saved me from a nasty surprise later.

What’s happening now in the suburbs of Charlotte feels like an adjustable-rate mortgage … adjusting. In Union County, property taxes are going up 15.4 percent next year. County commissioners there blame the school board, which sued them to get more money. The school board faced heat from parents earlier this year when there was talk that the district would need to add portable classrooms—the sort of thing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools once called “learning cottages”—to handle all of the new students.

North of Charlotte, there’s a different story. When the state expands Interstate 77, it plans to add toll lanes. The lanes will generate revenue, but they’re also meant to alleviate traffic that’s only getting worse. Planners want to encourage people to find other ways to get to Charlotte from places such as Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, and Mooresville, whether it be carpooling or buses. The alternative will be a much longer commute, or tolls that could cost $21, round-trip, during the rush hours. If you make that drive every day, that’s more than $400 a month—which, coincidentally, is about a car payment.

Suburbs have always been an escape, a cheap way to live out your fantasy, to be near everything a big city offers without having to live there and pay for it. But as more people move to the region, the towns become cities and people demand city things closer to them. Lately, the extreme growth in the suburbs around here is slowing down. Earlier this year, Brookings Institution demographer William Frey took a look at the 50 largest metro areas in the country from 2010 to 2013 and found that in 19 of them, the city was growing faster than its suburbs. Charlotte was one of those, growing by 2.4 percent compared to the suburbs’ 1.7 percent. Part of this has to be because Charlotte swallowed up open areas of Mecklenburg County like the Borg over the past few decades, which helped prevent the Balkanization that’s happened in places such as Atlanta. It’s easy to take a drive around town, especially in areas near the light-rail line in South End, and see apartments being built. People want to live in the city again.

And increasingly, in the suburbs, the bill is coming due. When people move out of Mecklenburg County, their top destination is Union County, and since 1984, the population there has nearly tripled, mostly along its western border. Weddington, Stallings, Marvin, Waxhaw, and Indian Trail went from sleepy little hamlets to boomtowns, but now they have to pay to keep up. It’s almost like watching a startup company move from the Wheee! We Have A Neat Office With A Ping Pong Table phase to the Oh, Wait, We’re A Real Company Now phase.

Real growing pains now face Char­lotte’s suburbs. Something has to happen to fix the daily traffic on I-77. Something has to happen to keep Union County’s schools from bursting. If you live there, it’s adjustment time. The solutions, it appears, will cost money—further proof that paying less now doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay more later.

Categories: Opinion, The Buzz