Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Cul-de-Sac press release

This is the press release I sent out on Marketwire today. It went all over the world and was picked up on AOL, Reuters, Yahoo and a number of blogs. Good news travels fast, too.

Despite recent good news on housing prices and sales, something has got to give or the U.S. housing meltdown will worsen.

Millions owe more on their mortgage than what their home is worth. There may be more than 3 million foreclosures this year. What will it take to restore the American Dream?

In "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," the #1 book on suburbia on, author John Wasik takes a penetrating look at the housing crisis and is optimistic on how it can be resolved. As a result of his incisive research, Wasik can comment on which markets will recover and which won't and can tell you why he's optimistic about Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, Denver and Portland, Oregon.

In his controversial book, Wasik skewers the American dream and questions whether the typical suburban home is sustainable. He asserts that home prices were unaffordable even before the boom -- a factor that grossly inflated the bubble.

"Despite what's being reported, several housing markets will recover, while others -- like Las Vegas, Phoenix, South Florida and Central California -- may take a generation to come back," Wasik says in this groundbreaking book.

"The government has been like a blind ostrich in stopping foreclosures," Wasik adds. "Without a clear bottom, nobody will want to buy. Going forward, we'll also need more affordable housing -- and that means green building and development. Even as prices have dropped, homes are still unaffordable in most highly-populated areas."

The book examines what caused the meltdown, how sprawl and tax breaks contributed to unaffordability and how some of the country's great thinkers would solve the crisis.

Here's What Initial Reviewers Had to Say:

"John Wasik's 'The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome' offers enough to chew on for three sets of teeth, enough to digest for three stomachs, and the alerts the mind faster than an approaching siren." --Ralph Nader, Consumer advocate

"'Cul-de-Sac' is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to know how the housing boom went awry, get a sneak peek at solutions for the future, and especially anyone considering buying their first home, or their tenth. It's one of those rare books that is so enjoyable to read that you won't be aware it's teaching you more about history, science, economics, and real estate than you would ever learn in a semester long college course or from hours of listening to overpriced talking heads on CNBC." -- DailyKos

"Get ready for a totally original look at the American dream. Wasik delivers the first truly multidisciplinary examination -- using planning, law, architecture, and history to focus on working solutions that can keep the dream alive. This is a winner!" -- Paul B. Farrell, JD, PhD. Columnist, and author of "The Millionaire Code"

"This excellent book takes a ground-level look at the causes of our housing crisis and offers a myriad of ideas on reinventing the concepts of home and community." -- Ilyce R. Glink, syndicated real estate columnist, author of "100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask"

For more information on my book, see

Stay tuned for my next book, "The Audacity of Help: Obama's Economic Plan and the Remaking of America;" see

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Back to the Future: Moon Shots and the Imagination

How did you celebrate the 40th anniversary of men stepping on the moon for the first time?

I showed the New York Times from that day and described how special it was to my eight and 12-year-old daughters, the fact that a fellow Eagle Scout made that first step, the fact that the lunar module was called the Eagle. So many facts obscured by time, it seems like another lifetime.

We celebrated by watching the great Bob Zemeckis film "Contact." It still brings tears to my eyes, this totally human exploration of the imagination. How alone we are in the universe, yet we have each other, endlessly chasing down the question of faith and the promise of science. I love the scene where Jodie Foster is being questioned by a Congressional committee after she hurtles through time and space and there's no record of her voyage. No one, save for Matthew McConnaghy, believes her in official Washington. And he's the man of faith.

There was no moral to this story. Only that we can't stop dreaming and doing and cherishing our humanity. The beings who contacted Jodie Foster first sent an image of Hitler to make their first contact. Perhaps that was a reminder that with the hope comes horror as well. Our souls are so bifurcated by darkness and light.

Where have we come since we set foot on the moon and left our footprints and space junk for eternity?

The man who promised he would get us there was shot and killed, as was his brother. The man who said he had a dream was also murdered, followed by riots in every major city. We stopped a war and were attacked and are still fighting a war against largely unseen enemies.

We have phones that can tell us where we are, shoot pictures and entertain us. We have more computers in our homes than appliances. We have treatments for impotence, sagging skin, aging and joints that wear out.

We haven't cured cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's or diabetes yet, but know something of the blueprint of our biological roadmap.

We are still neglectful over the thousands of young people killed in cities or who end up in prison, which is the repository of more souls than any other civilized country.

Our banking system nearly blew up thanks to greed and it seems like we're rewarding the bankers still.

We elected an intelligent, articulate man president to fix the mess whose father was African and whose mother was from Kansas.

More than 70 million are uninsured or underinsured and could lose everything over medical bills.

We keep building bombs, pumping oil from the ground and poison into our air and water.

So maybe we shouldn't be trying to go back to the moon. Perhaps we should be building space pods for refugees randomly selected to perpetuate the species at some dire point in the future.

The only conviction I have is that we shouldn't stop dreaming and believing that we can change things. The cosmos is with us on this.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 on the Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

Kelly Hart is guest blogging today. He has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built (but is now mostly living in Mexico) and consults about sustainable building design.

He was kind enough to review my new book The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, the #1 book on suburbia on Here's what he had to say:

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream is a timely book that analyzes the origins and eventual failure of what has been known as the "American Dream." John F. Wasik, the author of this very well researched and written book is a finance columnist for Bloomberg News, so he has his finger on the pulse of American finance and folly. Published in 2009, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is full of insight about how the dream has become a nightmare and ways that we need to proceed so that we may sleep contentedly again.

Europeans began settling in the Americas with the dream of establishing private domains that would provide wealth and security. Thomas Jefferson popularized and manifested the "pursuit of happiness" through land ownership with establishing his grand Monticello in Virginia. He believed that all free men should have the opportunity to follow his lead and he imagined a huge grid of towns and farms extending across the continent. There would be lots of open space between individual homesteads, and each domain would be more or less autonomous.

If you fast forward to the twentieth century, you can see how Jefferson's dream became manifest in the movement of people out of cities' central districts to establish their own little Monticellos in the suburbs. Homeownership became a way of building and preserving wealth. Everybody could have, and was entitled to, his own little kingdom. The cul-de-sac syndrome was born.

Wasik outlines the history of how this simple impulse for a better life became a real estate mania, where leveraged debt became a tool for creating wealth through homeownership. The belief that real estate values only appreciate fueled a speculative frenzy that created one of the largest bubbles of overvalued commodities ever: homes. Tempted by mortgage companies with easily accessible loans, even people who obviously could not afford homes jumped on the bandwagon.

As we are so painfully aware now, the bubble suddenly burst in 2008, and the fallout from this will be felt for years. The author uses case histories of real people to demonstrate just how difficult these post-bubble times have been.

John Wasik doesn't stop the narrative with his description of how unsustainable the real estate bubble was. He discusses what is probably even more important: how unsustainable the homes themselves are in terms of design, placement within the infrastructure, and energy consumption. He shows how these factors are adding to the misery of homeowners who cannot afford to pay to heat and cool their mini mansions, nor can they afford the necessary commute to work. The cost of these energy inputs (largely from fossil fuels) is stifling both the consumer and the earth's biosphere.

In general the infrastructure that supports suburban development is not borne directly by the inhabitants or the contractors who built them; these costs are passed on to government agencies. So this is another way that such sprawl is economically unsustainable.

The cul-de-sac syndrome is negatively affecting our health, productivity, and family life. All of those hours spent driving is lost time that could have been spent walking or getting exercise, doing productive work, or having a good time with the family.

As an antidote to all of this malaise, the author outlines a variety of strategies. He describes how houses can be built to heat and cool themselves through passive solar design and how they can even produce their own electricity. Water can be conserved in many ways. And often these greener homes are healthier to live in because attention is given to possibly toxic materials.

Wasik sees green manufactured housing as a strong component of sustainable development, and he gives examples of these. He points out that factory-built homes generally waste less material, can be constructed faster, and are designed with proven efficiency.

One aspect of home building that I feel is largely neglected in this book, and in much of the "green" building trade, is any discussion of the embodied energy inherent in both conventional and manufactured housing. From an environmental standpoint this is a significant factor, in that all of the energy that goes into manufacturing industrial products for home construction, and transporting them to the site is a form of pollution. I would like to see greater recognition that natural building techniques and materials, such as adobe, rammed earth, cordwood, strawbale, and earthbag building have an important place in designing a sustainable future.

A major thrust of any movement toward a sustainable residential complex is the recognition that inner city, urban dwelling is considerably greener than living in the suburbs outside the city's core. Wasik shows that not only are people finding that they save money by being able to walk or take mass transit, but they are healthier and more productive because they are not spending that time commuting. It is a high priority for cities to examine their zoning and building codes to accommodate more dense urban and greener residential development.

So the new American Dream may take awhile to realize, but once we begin to attain it we will become more secure with a smaller carbon footprint, we will become healthier, and we will lead happier, more fulfilling lives. This new dream is less about each person having his own fiefdom and more about all of us coming together to realize a common dream of living in balance with nature on earth.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shakespeare Rocks at APT!

Just got back from Spring Green, Wisconsin, home of American Players Theatre. The opening play was Winter's Tale, which was one of the bard's last works. The first half is a bitter tragedy and the second half something of a comedy of redemption. It's a real tough first act that never quite squares with the last act with pieces of Othello, Macbeth and Twelfth Night thrown in.

Yesterday we saw A Comedy of Errors, complete with big band music and Marx Brothers slapstick.

Don't miss it!!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sierra Club’s Favorite Consumerism Book

This is a review of one of the Sierra Club’s favorite books on consumerism, courtesy of their Greenlife blog:

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream (by John Wasik, $25, Bloomberg Press, June 2009): While a large suburban home might be the stereotypical American dream, Wasik argues that it’s a destructive one and explains how moving away from urban centers in pursuit of “as much house as possible” produced not just a housing crisis, but an unsustainable way of life.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The American Dream Can Be Restored

Restoring the American Dream

This is from Helen Gallagher at

What lies beneath the current housing crisis is the American Dream.

People happily living the cul-de-sac life may not feel the need to pick up this book, but they should. It has value for all of us. With The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, we gain a better understanding of the American housing crisis as author John F. Wasik takes a thoughtful look at the tradeoffs in the American way of life.

Far from the days of the “real estate is the best investment” mentality we learned from our parents, today we’re faced with collateral damage from a boom gone bust. Investment brokerages went broke. The U.S. government seized Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, deeming them too big to fail. The troubled assets relief program, TARP, propped up the nation’s financial system in desperation, while job losses, store closings, and foreclosures grew across America.

Fully explaining the cause and effect of this spiral, Wasik, a finance columnist for Bloomburg News, shares frightening statistics to back up his thesis on how and why this cyclone of circumstances occurred.

Much has to do with housing, and the sprawling urban areas Wasik dubs “spurbs.” In The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, he explores a combination of many financial and cultural ailments that led us to a dead-end in private American housing, from planning and city development to business and history.

“The craving for upward mobility through home ownership escalated even as families on the verge of ‘making it’ were falling behind economically,” says Wasik. As their finances eroded, and people lost access to health insurance, we now have more than three million homes in danger of facing foreclosure in 2009.

During the boom years, people pulled money out of their homes for spending, lifestyle upgrades, college and vacations, nearly $600 billion in 2004 and 2005 alone, he says. Americans who never lived through a major downturn didn’t think they needed to save. They continued to reduce the value of their homes through mounting debt; unaware the market could, and would, turn sharply.

In time, upgrading lifestyles led to the McMansion scene across America, where “bigger and better” never seemed to stop. “Why go to a bank to see a grandiose marble floor when it could be in your very own bathroom or grand entrance,” says Wasik.

One of the most interesting sections of The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is the “Origins of a Dream” chapter, providing valuable reading for anyone looking at the foundation of American life, starting with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a country of farms and towns connected by commerce.

There is a fascinating snapshot of American history here, and Wasik’s research goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase land grab to capture control of the Mississippi Basin for America, not for France.

As the country grew, planned communities sprung up, such as those in New Jersey and Illinois in the mid-1800s. Wasik uses Chicago to illustrate the move to suburbs as cities grew and became taller with the advance of steel-making. Suburban expansion was the answer, providing affordable housing and an escape from the overcrowded city in early 1880s.

As growth forged ahead, homes became more elaborate and expensive. By 2006 an average of 37 percent of monthly income went to housing expenses. The realities of “house lust” meant people were no longer keeping up with their parents’ lifestyles, and no longer able to stop the debt spiral.

Wasik explores options for restoring the concept of home and community with a solid foundation. As he works his way through to the answer, “Build Smart,” we are enlightened and encouraged to recognize the importance of personal values as we attempt to come back from the brink. Jefferson’s ideas of sufficiency were lost somewhere along the way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t turn back. Maybe we can go home again.

The way out is complex but Wasik argues it begins by unlocking property taxes from school funding and local development, by prioritizing transportation funding, updating building codes for the 21st century and opening the way for green jobs and private incentives for affordable housing.

Before you think the housing problems in American won’t reach you, or haven’t yet, check the author’s “Watch List” of troubled towns and bright spots on the landscape. It may surprise you. Either way, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome will enlighten you.