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Friday, July 10, 2009

Our Poor American Suburbs

The other day I was reading metropolitan policy briefings on the Brookings Institution site (It's OK, you can say it: "Wow, David. You are a huge nerd.") when I stumbled on this dinner party fun fact: more Americans who live below the poverty line live in suburbs than in cities.

Fascinating, right? Here’s the troubling part. The article goes on to say:

"America can't ensure its leading place in the global economy unless we grapple with the problems and opportunities of our suburbs. Nonprofits, long focused on inner cities, need to reach out to poor families and immigrants in the suburbs. The federal government should support the production and preservation of affordable housing there." (my emphasis added)

I respect the research the Brookings Institution conducts more than almost any other source out there, but they are dead wrong on this one.

Our public policy from approximately the end of WWII through now-ish encouraged suburban development. To say that it was the will of the people that drove suburbanization is to ignore how large of a role our public policies played in encouraging that notion.

Federally subsidized home loans allowed young families to live the “American Dream” (whatever that means…look for a post on that very topic sometime down the road). We the taxpayers funded the infrastructure that made living in the suburbs possible – the roads and highways, schools and sewers, water lines, power lines, garbage collection, police and fire protection, new parks, city halls, local government employees…all these things cost money.

'Suburbia' by David Shankbone

When people spread out over a large area, the cost to implement and sustain all new versions of these tax-backed services skyrockets. Furthermore, in many cases they become redundant. As has been said somewhere else, it costs the same to plow a street whether 10 people live on it or 100 people do. The only difference is the number of people paying into the system that pays for the maintenance of that road – the more people paying in, the less expensive per tax-payer. Multiply that same scenario out for everything else our taxes pay for, and well, you can see how expensive sprawl can be.

Nevertheless, for the past 60 years or so, our public policy has made it easy to move out of the scary, dangerous city into the prosperous, safe, “good life” in the suburbs because we the taxpayer have funded the infrastructure necessary to do so.

I agree with the Brookings writers’ assertion that the social services to support those who have fallen on desperate times ought to be available in the suburbs, but it’s a mentality that’s like treating a gunshot wound with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid – it might make you feel better momentarily, but you’re probably still gonna die.

Brookings’ solution to six decades of bad public policy that incentivizes living in an inefficient and unsustainable way is to … um … bolster the public policy that incentivizes living in an inefficient and unsustainable way. Throwing money and social services at this problem will help those who need it temporarily, but, we need to look at how our policies encourage and discourage where people live.

Instead of incentivizing sprawl, our local, state, and federal governments need to incentivize filling in the existing beautiful housing stock we have here already. We need to find ways to incentivize healthy density and strong neighborhoods with a local focus. When we do, the development that occurs as a result will grow the tax base. The new-found efficiencies will allow us to provide the same or better services, but with less money. Doing more with less – that’s what will reverse our economic downturn.

So how do we do incentivize density? Tax incentives to those who revamp existing housing within a particular radius of downtown, maybe? A reexamination of our existing federal subsidies for first-time home buyers? Build the Cincinnati Streetcar? Reexamining zoning laws to allow or encourage higher density mixed-use buildings in areas? I’m all ears.


Living in Gin said...

I'm not disagreeing with anything said in this article, but I think it needs to be pointed out that not all suburbs are created equal. Inner-ring "streetcar suburbs" like Covington, Newport, and my hometown of Fort Thomas have population densities that aren't much different than many city neighborhoods, and should be distinguished from sprawling exurbs like Sharonville or Florence.

Likewise, some American cities have areas technically within the city limits where land use patterns are just as unsustainable as any sprawling exurb.

Venkman said...

Despite the ever increasing anti-suburb mentality, there is already a huge amount of investment and built infrastructure that cannot be forgotten. We do not want to repeat mistakes and allow the same abandoned blight that has led to the detriment of urban areas take over suburbs.

The solution is going to be different in each locality. "Interboro" has done some interesting work in this regard, like this example for Detroit's inner ring suburbs, where the solution is actually lower density.

Randy Simes said...

This is an interesting topic. I would think that issues like this are probably solved on a local level with no uniform solution for everyone, but I don't see the need to preserve infrastructure and built environment that is built to fail due to its lack of economic and environmental unsustainability.

Where the poor people are located has always been reflective of where those with money and resources don't want to be. So if the trends towards urban living continue, then you may very well see a dramatic shift of the poor living in inner-city neighborhoods to suburban communities that will be chopped up.

Jeff said...

When it comes down to it, it's easier to raise a family in the suburbs than urban areas in America

Even in Europe families tend to live in lower density regions....oddly, lower density areas in Europe are sometimes more centrally located in cities than high density housing projects at the edge of a city.

I know that Ben scoffs at safety issues in high density areas in Cincy. But they are real.

And the safer, higher density areas (Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Oakley, etc...) are unaffordable to most who live in this region.

Unknown said...

With regards to the first commenter's post, I wouldn't consider the core NKY cities as inner-ring suburbs. For all intents and purposes, they are part of the central city of Cincinnati. If it weren't for the arbitrary political boundary of the Ohio River, I suspect that Covington and Newport (et al.) would've been annexed by Cincinnati. Anyways, the point is I don't think that the author was meaning to include those as suburbs of any type.

To address the issues of crime which were brought up by Laser, I think those too can be attributed to the public policies which we have in place. It is a well-established fact that crime levels are directly correlated with economic conditions (primarily economic inequity). Poverty and growing economic disparity is exacerbated by our federal housing policies as well, which focus more on home ownership rather than renting. Additionally, those home ownership incentives greatly benefit the wealthy more than they do the poor.

Unknown said...

Oh, and that picture makes me want to vomit by the way...hahaha.

David Ben said...

I should preface this comment by saying that I intentionally didn't define 'suburb' in my post because 1. I'm not sure there IS a succinct definition and 2. I wanted to spark this type of debate.

@ Laser - When you say it is easier to raise a family in the suburbs, how do you mean? The suburbs whith which I am most familiar spread the useful portions of our society over a large area. As busy a parents are, do you think its 'easy' for parents to taxi their children from one corner of suburbia to another? Cities put those useful places closer together, making driving easier from one to the other easier, or unnecessary alltogether. Walkable and bikeable cities eliminate the need to drive in some cases, making rasing a family easier, I'd presume. Not sure though - I don't have kids.
Also, my last name is Ben, but my first name is David. Thanks.

@ Randy - I spent a month in Paris last summer, and had a great discussion with a woman with a background in international journalism. She told me that she didn't understand America from her perspective, it looked like our wealthy people tend to choose to love outside of cities, and our cities tend to house the poor. In much of the world, she said, Paris included, its just the opposite. Prime realistate exists in the city because that is the area that has the most resources, and it is the most desireable place to live.

@tpertross - Excellent point about crime. Couldn't have said it better myself. And yes, that picture is disgusting. haha

Jeff said...

The more I think about the more I understand the point of this post.

I'm sure there are many suburban dwellers who would love living in a closer knit, more walkable area.

And it's 100% true that gas is under taxed. The mortgage deduction makes no sense. And building large expressways to nowhere out in the countryside is unhelpful.

In my comment, I made it sound like high density areas are inherently unsafe, which isn't true.

I do think that on the whole, families tend to live in lower density areas than single people (and that's even true in Europe). But of course, US Federal policy has pushed Americans into even lower density communities. Which is bad.

theargylist said...

I disagree with many of the items in this post. The taxpayer funds that pay for suburban development are borne primarily by the residents of suburbs. In Ohio, police, fire, schools, parks, and governmental buildings are all funded by local levees or earnings taxes. Roads are paid on the federal, state, and local level. Complaining about paying for suburban roads is like complaining about improving an interstate in Nevada or a state highway in Cleveland. Water, sewer, and wastewater services are usually paid for on a regional or local level.

I don't see how "we" are paying for suburban development. The people who move out to the suburbs are paying for the bulk of their lifestyle.

As for home buyer subsidies, how do these threaten urban growth? The same subsidies that support exurban growth can support purchasing condos or homes in inner suburbs. Americans do not need to be renters to live in cities.

Finally, on lifestyle issues, I'm surprised that no one raised the issues of public schools. Schools are probably the number-one reason why people move to the suburbs. Urbanists should focus on improving city schools if they want to attract people to the city.

David Ben said...

@theagrylist - I'd like to clarify because I think you may have misread parts of my post. In a sentence, my point is that the suburban lifestyle is inefficient, and that the suburbanization of the US was created, or at least accelerated, by public policy, not just the whims of individuals.

If when I said that “We the taxpayers funded the infrastructure that made living in the suburbs possible,” I did not mean to imply that it was only the city dwellers who paid for this. I have no illusions that suburbanites pay for at least a portion of the services they use. My point was that generating the infrastructure to make suburban life possible cost us hell of a lot of money, money that came from (all) taxpayers. And without the influx of suburbanization, much of that infrastructure would not have been needed. Therefore, expanding to the suburbs at the incredible rate that we did was an expensive process that created more versions of the same services – inefficient.

You are absolutely right on about schools. No argument from me there. We do need to look at improving schools, and not just the ones within cities. Maybe one place to start would be to reexamine the public policy of how schools are funded. Linking the quality (or at least the funding) of our schools to the price of our homes is probably not the best way to go. An area with lower home values doesn'ought not be forces to spend less on education. And as the collective American society has just learned, home prices fluctuate, so tying the funding of our most critical asset, education, to something that we’ve proven to be so unstable might not be the best idea for our collective American future.

David Ben said...

Oops. I wrote "An area with lower home values doesn'ought not be forces to spend less on education." I meant "An area with lower home values doesn't need to spend any less on education." (in fact, in come cases, they ought to be spending more...)
Sorry about that.

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