When the McCloskeys of St. Louis spoke at the Republican National Convention about their fears that suburbs would be abolished, what they said specifically would change in suburbs continues a long-standing argument:
They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.
What is so important about single-family homes and keeping out apartments? Here are at least three reasons why wealthier suburbs look to avoid most apartments:
- A change in aesthetics and character. Single-family homes are emblematic of people who have made it or successful suburbanites. The bigger and nicer the homes, the better off or the higher status the community. Single-family homes are also more spread out while apartments lend themselves to more density. Bigger lots equals higher status.
- The contrast between homeowners and apartment dwellers is thought to be stark. Homeowners care about their property and their community. Because their property values are at stake, they will put effort and money into their home and land. In contrast, apartment residents are thought to transient, not interested in the community, and less invested in their property.
- Exclusion. Apartments are not just an eyesore and problems for building community; they attract different kinds of residents than wealthy homeowners. In particular, they are connected to lower-income residents, non-white residents, and/or criminal elements. And if a suburb avoids building apartments (or only ends up with more expensive apartments or rental units), certain groups of people are excluded.
Two quick historical examples come to mind.
-My research on the suburban development of Naperville, West Chicago, and Wheaton showed that the subject of apartments was an important one. In my 2013 article “Not All Suburbs are the Same,” I provide some details of fights over apartments in Naperville and Wheaton. In both well-off suburbs, the communities decided not to pursue apartment growth.
–The Mount Laurel case in suburban New Jersey involved efforts by long-time black residents to relocate to apartments. The denial of the apartments from the municipality led to a long court battle.
In sum, the argument from the McCloskeys is not just about a change in density; it is also about local control and the ability to keep (stereotyped) apartment dwellers out.
(Update: I have read other commentary that analyzes the coded language used by the McCloskeys. My primary focus in this post is about the mention of apartments: this is a common form of development that wealthier communities often look to limit because they view them as gateways to particular people in a community.)