An Atlantic Ghost Story

Housing crash porn with no "there" there

The Atlantic runs a slideshow post by 24/7 Wall St.’s Douglas A. McIntyre with the click-me headline “The New American Ghost Towns”—a red flag that this piece may be oversold.

Here’s the lede:

There are several counties in America, each with more than 10,000 homes, which have vacancy rates above 55%. The rate is above 60% in several.

Hmmm. Sixty percent is awfully high. That’s another red flag. Where are these “new American ghost towns”… ahem… counties?

Click through the slideshow and you’ll find that No. 7 is Dukes County, Massachusetts. Is Dukes County some rusted-out former industrial area or something? Uh, no. It’s also known as Martha’s Vineyard. Forget the red flags. That’s a red siren.

You might know these other counties listed by their famous resort and vacation destinations:

No. 3: Summit County, Colorado aka Breckenridge.

No. 4: Worcester County, Maryland aka Ocean City.

No. 6: Dare County, N.C. aka the Outer Banks

Here’s what the Census Bureau had to say last month (emphasis mine):

We delivered counts of total housing units and counts of vacant housing units. However, the total vacant count includes units intended for rent or for sale, units intended for seasonal, recreational or occasional use, units for migratory workers (a very small number), and other vacant units that did not fit into these categories (usually held off the market for personal reasons of the owner). Seasonal, recreational, or occasional vacant houses were prevalent in April, 2010, especially in resort areas where there are cottages, condominia, and homes that are used only during the given tourist season.

Using the delivered total vacancy counts that include seasonal, recreational or occasional use vacant units can mislead a user who wants to measure the impact of the housing crisis in such an area.

Which is what The Atlantic effectively does here. It’s urging you to gander at the “New American Ghost Towns” to give it a bunch of pageviews. But these ghost towns are really just resort areas that were empty during low season in a snapshot taken in April of last year.

The Atlantic, at least, does concede that, though it drops it in the fourth of its six paragraphs, after setting it up with a “real estate disaster” line:

Data from states and large metropolitan areas do not tell the story of how much the real estate disaster has turned certain areas in the country into ghost towns. Some of the affected regions are tourist destinations, but much of that traffic has disappeared as the recession has caused people to sell or desert vacation homes and delay trips for leisure. This makes these areas particularly desolate when tourists are not around.

That’s not quite accurate, either. It turns out all of the top ten “ghost towns” are vacation destinations, not “some.”


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,