Jennifer Lee-Sethi and her husband are successful lawyers, financially capable of buying a home pretty much anywhere they want to. So when they decided to move a year ago, did they choose upmarket Southlake, with its groundbreaking town center? Or did they prefer one of Frisco’s pricey gated communities? Or did they consider the Park Cities, which have been attracting well-to-do homebuyers as long as the Park Cities have been around?

Actually, they didn’t much care for any of those. They much preferred a home on Goliad between Skillman and Abrams in Lakewood Heights.

“We were familiar with the area, we liked the fact we don’t have to drive more than 10 to 15 minutes to get anywhere, and most of our friends live around here,” Lee-Sethi says.

“We liked the mixed bag kind of neighborhood, and we didn’t want a place with cookie-cutter houses. So why would we want to live anywhere else?”

That sort of sentiment is nothing new to long-time residents, who have been singing our neighborhood’s praises for years. What is new is that 30-somethings such as Lee-Sethi and husband Akash Sethi are willing to pay a substantial premium for those benefits — something that Realtors and residents say hasn’t happened here in years.

Equally important is that these newcomers aren’t buying 1,500-square-foot starter homes in Lower Greenville neighborhoods, but bigger and more expensive houses (as well as teardowns) in Lakewood and the M Streets. Areas such as Lakewood Heights, Little Forest Hills on the other side of White Rock Lake, and Ridgewood Park near Lovers and Abrams — once mostly home to widows and widowers, rent houses, and working class families — are being transformed as these younger and more affluent residents move in.

The newcomers have helped push real estate prices significantly higher, perhaps double over the past 10 years. This is such a change that it raises all sorts of questions about the future of our neighborhood, about its character and appeal, and even its reason for being. Can a neighborhood with $200,000 starter homes be the same kind of place it was when people needed a lot less money to live here?

Says Paul Geisel, an urban affairs specialist who teaches at the University of Texas-Arlington: “What you have is rich people moving into these neighborhoods because they like the diversity, and pretty soon, the neighborhoods have become so expensive that only rich people can afford them, and then they aren’t very diverse anymore.”

By the numbers

Much of our neighborhood has always been solidly middle class, with pockets of wealth around Swiss Avenue, Lakewood Boulevard and Forest Hills. But those pockets of wealth have been spreading throughout the neighborhood, especially in the last 10 years.

Just consider these figures:

• The U.S. census reported that in 1990, in the 75214 ZIP code, 1 out of 10 households had incomes of more than $100,000. In the 2000 census, that proportion was 1 out of 7.

• In 1990, according to census data, the median household income in 75214 was $33,815. In 2000, it was $43,532 — a 29 percent increase and a couple of points higher than the national number.

• The number of households earning less than $15,000 a year dropped by almost half – from 21 percent to 12 percent.

• A 1,200-square-foot starter home, with two bedrooms and one bath, cost as little as $60,000 in the early 1990s. Today, that same house costs between $180,000 and $200,000. Says Coldwell Banker’s Ron Burch, who has sold real estate in the area since 1978: “If someone wants to buy a house in East Dallas for less than $200,000, I tell them they have to look in Mesquite.”

There are many reasons for this growth, experts say. The slam-bang economy in the ’90s certainly helped, but even as the economy has slowed over the past couple of years, home prices in our neighborhood have remained steady.

Rather, says John McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, it may be as simple as supply and demand. After three decades of losing residents, more than a dozen U.S. cities, including Dallas, got some of them back in the 2000 census. But since inner city areas in places such as Dallas already had been built out, there was little or no room to add housing. Hence, higher prices.

Everyone has a favorite story about the new, high prices, be it the house down the street that went on the market after its owner died and sold for three times what everyone else paid for theirs, or the townhouses that keep being constructed on what little vacant land is available and that somehow sell in the mid-six figures when everyone believes they’re really worth a fraction of that.

The statistics bear those impressions out. Homes in Lakewood proper sell for $200 a square foot, comparable to prices in the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. Homes in Lower Greenville neighborhoods such as Vickery Place and Edgemont Park are selling for $100 a square foot, something Burch says he never thought he would see. And few expect prices to soften any time soon, unless something drastic happens to the U.S. economy to reduce demand.

The people buying these homes, McIlwain says, generally come from one of two groups. Either they’re Baby Boomers whose children have left home, or they are their children, the leading edge of the so-called Echo Boomers. The latter have been especially influential here, say several Realtors, since they’re generally well-educated professionals with two upper middle-class incomes who don’t mind spending it on their new homes.

Why demand has increased also has been well documented. Crime, the scourge of the early ’90s, hasn’t returned. Meanwhile, the new residents are tired of long commutes, bored with suburban sameness, and attracted to urban amenities, nightlife, restaurants and White Rock Lake.

Ted Thompson of Virginia Cook Realtors says retail and shopping developments such as the West Village and Mockingbird Station are huge selling points, especially among his younger clients.

“They see East Dallas as hip and cool, and they want to be part of it,” he says.

Understand the changes

But how many long-time residents think the neighborhood is hip and cool because of Mockingbird Station?

This is a cultural divide that worries many people.

“That’s a question I think about a lot,” says Jim Clarke, who was raised in Casa Linda and moved back to his parent’s home in 1990.

“I don’t mind new blood, and I don’t mind change. What I don’t like is seeing people move in who don’t appreciate what we have here, who want to make radical change in the neighborhood without regard for the feelings of everyone else.”

The most obvious manifestation of that attitude has been teardowns, but Geisel says it can go much deeper.

There is no guarantee that someone who buys a house is going to be any more committed to the neighborhood than someone who does a teardown. Instead, are new residents attracted by the neighborhood or the marketing? Do they want to live in an area because they like it, or because they’re supposed to like it?

Geisel points to the Park Cities as the ultimate example of what happens when marketing drives value.
Twenty and 30 years ago, most residents saw it as a community, as a place to raise a family that wasn’t all that different from Lakewood and East Dallas. Today, the perception is far different, that of a suburb that exists for its schools, its high property values, and its elitist appeal. But what else can be expected of a place with $500,000 starter homes?

“Clearly, there are social and cultural implications of these kinds of changes over the long term,” Geisel says. “They can affect the schools, the churches, all sorts of neighborhood institutions. If you have people moving in who aren’t interested in the neighborhood, what happens to the local schools and the local churches?

There is no guarantee that anything will happen, but there is always the possibility, and I think that’s what worries so many people.”

It’s even a possibility that new residents such as Lee-Sethi have considered.

“Yes, I’ve thought, ‘Now I have my house, everyone else should stay away,’” she says with a laugh. “There is a fear that this will turn into University Park or Highland Park, and that’s not what I want.

“I want to live in East Dallas because I like it. I don’t want people who are here to turn over the house, make their money and move away.”

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