Why Americans love suburbs #6: local government, local control

One of the unique features of the government of the United States is a federal system that distributes power between the federal government and more local bodies. Even if the federal government has grown dramatically in the last century, the suburbs offer residents a relatively small and responsive local government. Americans claim to prefer small town life and in such communities the distance between average resident and local leaders is reduced.

If the suburbs at their heart are about single-family homes and family life, a small local government can help protect the quality of life in the community. Local governments can exclude certain kinds of development. This then affects what kinds of residents can live in suburbs. See exclusionary zoning cases in DuPage County and Westchester County, two notoriously wealthy suburban counties, or more recent cases of religious groups facing opposition such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews in New Jersey. Homeowners can directly see and respond to how their tax dollars are spent. They may not like high property taxes (whether in the 1970s in southern California or more recently in northern Virginia) or decisions about TIF funds or but at least that money is spent in the community rather than shipped off to other centers of power. They may fight with each other about whether to raise local taxes for schools or fund regional transit initiatives or support affordable housing but at least they may know those they are arguing with and everyone does want their community to be attractive. Suburbanites are resistant to outsiders telling them what they should be doing, whether they are concerned about the federal government pushing denser housing (and perhaps even the UN) or state or court mandates about affordable housing (such as requirements passed in 2004 in Illinois or requirements in New Jersey due to the Mt. Laurel decisions).

While suburbanites may believe they have more access to suburban governments, these elected and appointed officials can have a significant impact on suburban development. The growth machine theory suggests local officials and business people push and pursue development because there is money to be made. Suburban growth is good because it can generate profits and it adds prestige. The growth has to end at some point (see cases like Naperville and Aurora) but officials, with some input from residents, can push suburbs in certain directions. Not all suburbs will make the same decisions about what to do with open land or with their downtowns but local leaders get to make these decisions that then influence residents decades later.

Local control then means that suburban communities can have distinct characters. While critics may suggest suburbia is an endless sprawling mass with very porous boundaries, local governments and development decisions alongside public involvement and civic projects can lead to long-standing and fiercely defended local understandings. The most typical image of an American suburb – bedroom community with postwar subdivisions filled with similar-looking homes – may not actually fit many suburbs in terms of appearance or perceived experience.

How exactly local decision-makers and suburban officials come into office can differ across locales. Voter turnout is low in many local elections so it may not take much effort to become a local official. On the other hand, local politics can sometimes turn very contentious because of particular significant issues or long-standing political factions. Americans tend to be more optimistic about their local conditions than about the country as a whole so suburban officials who do a decent job can retain their positions for a long time. Furthermore, suburbanites may be less interested in efficiencies across local governments, such as combining small police departments, compared to having their own local bodies.

Another aspect of this local control involves less democracy: the rise of homeowner’s associations. A good number of suburbanites are willing to turn over some decisions about their property and neighborhood to a board or management company that will ensure certain standards are upheld. Again, the distance between the average HOA homeowner and board is small; boards often need more people to volunteer to serve and neighborhood meetings allow homeowners to express concerns.

Of course, there are problems among suburban local government. They may not have the resources or expertise to deal with complicated issues (such as providing social services to address suburban poverty). There can be too many smaller units that have their own bureaucracies and abilities to tax residents (see Illinois as an example with numerous taxing bodies and debates about eliminating townships). Local officials can be corrupt (Cicero), incompetent (Harvey), or follow their own paths while remaining impervious to other opinions (Rosemont). Yet, many Americans might argue that even these problematic aspects of suburban governments are relatively easy to deal with compared to the behemoth in Washington.

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Ongoing Illinois debates about abolishing townships

Illinois is known as the state with the most taxing bodies and one way to reduce that figure would be to eliminate townships:

It’s prompted dueling Republican proposals for new state laws, one to make it easier to get rid of townships, the other to require a study to show financial savings before any township unit could be dissolved.

Illinois has 1,428 townships, helping to account for more units of government than any other state. It’s a layer of bureaucracy formed primarily to serve rural communities, but most states do without them…

“The real issue, and the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois, is because we have 7,000 units of government,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican who’s sponsoring the bill to make it easier to mount township abolition campaigns in McHenry County. “The only way we’re going to reduce property taxes is to consolidate local governments. Townships are just a start.”…

Townships have three basic functions: maintaining roads that aren’t handled by other units of government, assessing property for real estate taxes, and helping the poor through food banks and emergency aid. Townships also often provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as programs for senior citizens and youths….

Advocates of townships argue that they provide the most local, responsive service for the lowest price. In addition, several studies have found that expected expense reductions from government consolidation never materialized. A Rutgers University study concluded that “cost savings are not assured,” and that “most consolidations fail.”

Americans tend to prefer lower levels of government that they feel is more responsive to their daily needs. Taking the duties that townships do and pushing them up to a larger and more abstract county or state government can feel like ceding control to officials who do not know local conditions.

The article also makes it sound as if the research findings do not support claims that fewer bodies of local government would lead to cost savings. If that is not guaranteed, could a successful effort to abolish townships provide hope to some that government can be rolled back or reduced to some degree?

All said, efforts in Illinois in recent years to eliminate or consolidate units of government has been slow. The state legislature banned the formation of new government bodies and DuPage County slowly is reducing the number.

Why suburban governments should consider merging

While Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville, and Woodridge appeared to have little interest in merging, the long saga does raise a possibility: should more suburban governments consider merging?

The primary reason not to is that many suburbs and their local officials want to maintain control over what happens in their community and near their homes. Larger communities may make decisions for the good of the larger community that do not necessarily benefit certain members of the community. A smaller government provides closer oversight as the individual votes of residents count more.

A second reason for not merging is that suburbs often see themselves as distinct communities. Even though an outsider might see it all as one amorphous blob of suburbanism, many suburbs have long histories and distinct characters. In this particular case, these suburbs may define themselves partly as not Naperville: we are still a small community with a distinct feel.

On the other side, there may be multiple reasons to merge: financial economies of scale through combining particular city services (for example, having one police department rather than four), increased visibility and status with a larger size (controlling more land as well as having a larger population), broadening a tax base, and some communities may have mutual interests due to similar demographics, locations, or like-minded leaders. Imagine an even larger Naperville that controls a lot of land along major highways (I-88 and I-355), has a diverse tax base (particularly due to a lot of office jobs), thas efficient city services over a broad area, and is clearly the largest suburb of Chicago (Aurora currently holds that distinction). In the long run, is it feasible to keep so many suburban governments going when budgets are ever tighter? Is it worth protecting local control and distinct characters at a higher cost?

The only way I could see suburbs seriously consider merging would involve difficult financial times looming on the horizon. Even then, many suburbs may not want to take on the communities that have a weaker financial standing or a lower status.

Getting established suburbs to build denser housing

A new study suggests higher levels of housing density in older suburbs could provide a lot of affordable housing:

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed…

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl…

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

“The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken,” Romem writes, “even modest gradual redevelopment—tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building—could grow the housing stock immensely.” Many of these suburbs are located relatively close to job centers or along major transit lines. They are the natural place to increase density.

While this may be true, I tried to think of the incentives for suburbs in between cities and the growing metropolitan edges to do this. Here is my quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  1. Population growth is often associated with progress or a higher status. More housing means more people.
  2. New residents could help provide a new energy, particularly if they are higher-income residents who can contribute monies to the community.

Cons:

  1. Changing the existing character of a suburb, particularly for denser housing, is often met with opposition by existing residents.
  2. New residents mean new demands for local services.
  3. Denser housing might mean cheaper housing and this means attracting fewer higher-income residents.
  4. Why should we build denser housing if other communities around us are not doing the same?

Based on my quick lists, I do not think too many individual established suburbs will be jumping on this bandwagon. Even higher-income suburbs that would build higher-end dense housing would face opposition from residents who prefer the exclusivity of single-family homes.

The main thing that could break this logjam would be pressure from above – think the federal or state government – or groups of suburbs making decisions together to build denser housing. Still, these efforts will have to overcome those who will want local governments to stay their own course.

Towns that restrict road access to app users only address the symptoms and not the bigger issue

The decision in a New Jersey suburb to fight back against drivers directed to their streets by apps raises all sorts of questions:

In mid-January, the borough’s police force will close 60 streets to all drivers aside from residents and people employed in the borough during the morning and afternoon rush periods, effectively taking most of the town out of circulation for the popular traffic apps — and for everyone else, for that matter…

But Leonia is not alone. From Medford, Mass. to Fremont, Calif., communities are grappling with the local gridlock caused by well-intentioned traffic apps like Waze, which was purchased by Google in 2013 for $1.15 billion.

Since Waze uses crowd sourcing to update its information, some people — frustrated at the influx of outside traffic — have taken to fabricating reports of traffic accidents in their communities to try to deter the app from sending motorists their way. One suburb of Tel Aviv has even sued Waze, which was developed by an Israeli company….

“It’s a slippery slope,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, the former traffic engineer for New York City known as Gridlock Sam, and the author of the early 1990s book “Shadow Traffic’s New York Shortcuts and Traffic Tips.” “Waze and other services are upsetting the apple cart in a lot of communities. But these are public streets, so where do you draw the line?”

See an earlier post about a Los Angeles neighborhood that raised similar objections.

I can see the reasoning by small communities: the roads are partly or mostly paid for through local tax dollars and thus they should primarily be reserved for the use of locals. These sorts of situations can become big deals in suburbs where residents are often resentful of ways that their local tax monies serve others.

At the same time, this hints at a larger issue: efforts like this by single communities could end up having deleterious effects on the region as a whole. What if every suburb or community employed such tactics? Traffic would only be worse. This then suggests a metropolitan approach is needed to tackle these congestion issues. This might be difficult to do considering how local residents like to hold onto their own monies but drivers across the region might be too mad at that point to care if there are no alternative routes. The best way to tackle this issue may be to lobby for more mass transit and decreased reliance on cars in the New Jersey suburbs.