Who owns a neighborhood? Or, who can make decisions to alter it?

A discussion of recent housing changes in Arlington, Virginia, an increasingly whiter and wealthier community, included this summary:

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Perhaps the opponents are beginning to accept that their community is not, has never been, exclusively their own domain.

Who owns a neighborhood? In many American communities, the people who live there might feel this way. They expect to provide input and exercise some oversight of what happens in their neighborhood. They want to exercise control over their own properties and those around them.

But, they do not do this on their own. They interact with other property owners and also engage with local governments. These local governments typically represent a broader community and have regulations about what can and cannot be done in neighborhoods.

In this particular case, the residents are single-family home owners and they have money and status. Thus, they really expect to be able to control their surroundings and they have means to back up their interests. Zoning in the United States often privileges protecting single-family homes.

In the end, however, local government has the task of considering the broader interests of a community. These may or may not align with the interests of a neighborhood. The neighborhood residents can respond by not voting for these local government officials and it is relatively easy in a smaller community to express discontent with local officials. But, action may already be underway that cannot be changed.

Or, here is another way to address the same questions: if every neighborhood will change over time, who gets to street this change and/or benefit from this change? Those with means and vested interests will have their own perspective and goals while a broader community might have another point of view.

Fighting for suburban voters ahead of 2024, Carmel, IN edition

A mayoral race in a well-regarded suburb hints at suburban voting patterns for 2024?

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Tuesday’s electoral results show in miniature the national Republicans’ weakening grip on the suburbs. Come November, the race will also be a key post-midterms bellwether for both parties. Democrats made big gains in suburbs nationally in 2018 and 2020.

Nowhere else is that more apparent than Carmel. Slowly, this city has become more diverse and seen an influx of younger, more moderate voters who flock here for its award-winning school system, public art, affordability and culture (it’s home to a $126 million concert hall drawing national acts like the singer and songwriter Jason Isbell, and boasts more than 138 roundabouts, more than any other city in the U.S.). Students of the public school system speak 65 languages from 55 countries. Though many of its communities are gated, it’s not been walled-off from social change: Black Lives Matter marches snaked down the Monon Trail in Carmel amid $1 million townhouses and an upscale steakhouse in the summer of 2020…

Now, the Indiana Democratic Party is eyeing Carmel as a potential pickup this November. Mike Schmuhl, Pete Buttigieg’s former campaign manager and the state party chairman, is targeting this suburb in hopes of flipping it blue.

“The city has changed a lot,” Schmuhl said over lunch today at Fat Dan’s Chicago Deli in Carmel. “This used to be a rock-ribbed, Republican, conservative area but the Republican Party has changed a lot, too. So what you have up in Carmel is a lot of development, a lot of families, educated voters, hard working people, and the Democratic Party’s values appeal to those people.”

As someone who studies suburbs, four things I would note about Carmel that are relevant for this story:

  1. It is regularly named a Best Place to Live in Money’s list.
  2. It is right outside the combined Indianapolis-Marion County unigov arrangement. While that move was intended to help the city capture some suburban growth, Carmel sits right outs Marion County in neighboring Hamilton County.
  3. The population growth since 1960 has been astounding as it had just less than 1,500 residents in the 1960 Census. The suburb has had more than 25% population growth every decade since then and now has just under 100,000 residents.
  4. It has plenty of white-collar jobs due to corporate headquarters and offices.

Carmel exemplifies complex suburbia where larger suburbs can be more diverse, have more economic activity, and experience rapid growth and change. This can include changing political patterns at the state and national level but within communities where many do not vote in local elections.

The number of suburbs – or communities overall – that look like Carmel is small. At the same time, these larger suburbs have a higher status ad get more attention. As the political parties continue to fight over suburban voters, pundits will continue to look to growing and changing suburbs to see which ways the winds are blowing.

Do all mayors feel this way: “We’re the envy of what most cities want to be”

The outgoing mayor of Naperville considered his legacy and summed up his community compared to others:

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Q: What will be your legacy as mayor of Naperville?

A: It has to be the financial impact on the city. Eight years seems like a long time, but it’s not when you’re trying to turn a ship like that. To turn over the city with tons of cash, not to mention federal money we didn’t touch, they’re going to be able to do a lot. And that’s my gift, to make sure the city was on the right trajectory. We’re the envy of what most cities want to be.

One of the jobs of a mayor is to champion their community. They are often the chief booster. In many American communities, professional staff – a city manager and others – address day-to-day concerns while mayors work with a council and act as cheerleader. The outgoing mayor earlier in the interview described the suburb’s success in planning, development, and revenues. Yet, always highlighting the best of the community is key and Naperville has a precedent: former mayor George Pradel did this for decades. I assume mayors will say their community is great.

Yet, it can be interesting when mayors make statements that involve other communities, implied or otherwise. It is one thing to say your community is great; it is another to say that it compares well to other communities. Some communities can be leaders or models for others. In the United States, this might involve growth or a high quality of life or economic opportunities or tackling particular issues.

Do most cities want to be Naperville or like Naperville? This might be hard to answer, particularly if leaders elsewhere will tend to focus on the good things in their own communities.

Long Island resistance to a denser suburbia

Plans from New York’s governor to bring more housing to the suburbs is not being greeted with joy by some Long Island leaders and residents:

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In New York, one such proposal from Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has run into howls of opposition in one of the birthplaces of the American suburb. Critics on Long Island, a sprawling expanse of communities home to 2.9 million people, are denouncing provisions that would set growth targets, drive denser development near train stations and sometimes let state officials override local zoning decisions.

“Her plan would flood YOUR neighborhood with THOUSANDS of new apartments” reads one opposition mailing. Others warn Long Island would become New York City’s “sixth borough.” Critics, many of them Republican officials, claim it would strip away local control…

If municipalities don’t meet targets, developers could pursue a process in which the state could allow projects to go forward. Another provision would require localities to rezone areas within a half-mile of commuter rail stations unless the area already meets density requirements…

A counter proposal from the Senate’s Democratic conference included a more incentive-heavy housing plan that excludes mandatory requirements and overrides of local zoning.

Hochul and legislative Democrats were trying to resolve their differences in negotiations over the budget, which was due April 1. That deadline has been extended into at least next week. The governor has described housing costs as a “core issue” that needs to be addressed.

Affordable housing is badly needed in the New York City region, as well as many metropolitan regions throughout the United States. How to encourage or mandate housing construction is under consideration in multiple states. When suburbanites move to the suburbs in part because of local government and control, how much can a state override local zoning and land use decisions?

Even without state level mandates, there is at least some interest in denser suburbs. Some want “surban” places that combine suburban and city life. Thriving suburban downtowns can bring in money and boost a community’s status.

So what really is at threat here is the sanctity of the single-family home neighborhood and its housing values. This might be the most sacred of suburban settings.

Take Levittown as one example. If Levittown’s density significantly increases, it will mark another stage in the evolution of the paradigmatic suburb. It started with the mass construction of a limited number of floor plans, the community changed over time as residents added to and changed the residences, and the homes became more valuable. Could the Levittown of 50 years from now be marked by significant amounts of multifamily housing?

Suburbanites like local government…but do not like voting in local elections?

One reason Americans like suburbs is that they are closer to local government, meaning they have more say in local matters and more access to local officials. They feel can make their voice and tax dollars heard.

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Yet, when given the option in the Chicago suburbs to elect local officials, not many people do. In recent years, local turnout has been under 20% in some elections (earlier posts here and here). There are likely lots of reasons for this.

However, the local control suburbanites like – the ability to influence what happens around their property, the oversight of local schools, pursuing community issues they care about, where their tax money goes – depends on community members voting. How do people get into office? By votes. How are people appointed to boards and commissions? Often by those voted into office. Who decides how to spend local tax dollars? Local officials. And so on.

There is still lots of time to vote today. There are plenty of candidates running in the Chicago region. There is a lot of information available about their platforms and goals. May voters turn out and contribute to the local government and control they say they value.

Do big bureaucracies or democracies have customer-service problems?

Americans can find it difficult to find accountability with government or businesses:

Democracy’s ideal is built on a foundation of accountability. In the past, many, if not most, of the decisions that mattered to our lives were taken by people and businesses that felt close to us. That’s not the case anymore. Now all roads seem to lead to bad hold music.

Whenever we encounter a problem we didn’t create—like my outrageous electricity charge, or vacations ruined by an incompetent airline, or hospital-billing errors, or a mix-up at the IRS—all we can really do is go online for a customer-service number and cross our fingers that, by some miracle, the call won’t consume the entire day, or worse. When a person coping with cancer treatment spends hours on the phone with her insurance company or Medicaid, she may wonder why her society is so cruel, or so incompetent, or both. And she may start to see the appeal of a demagogue who promises to deliver simple solutions: the “I alone can fix it” candidate…

In the European Union, if an airline causes a flight delay of more than three hours, it has to pay you 250 to 600 euros, depending on the length of the flight. In the U.K., when a train is more than 15 minutes late, I can go to a website and, in a few minutes, demand financial compensation.

For the most part in America, when you screw up, you pay, but when corporations or governments screw up, nobody pays. Even when protections do exist, they’re difficult to navigate, or are unknown to most citizens. Other democracies have made clear it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not rocket science to solve such maddening everyday problems, and American democracy would be better off if the government devoted more effort to it.

Government could indeed be more on the side of residents rather than the side of corporations and itself.

But, I wonder if a good number of Americans would see this as an inevitable function of the size of government or business. When these actors become large, it can be harder for decisions to be made and mistakes righted. Big government and big business become caught up in trying to achieve their own goals rather than caring about the little people.

There is a long history of this thinking in the United States. How much should the federal or state government control? Do the best ideas come from established entities or from startups and more nimble organizations? It is also part of the appeal of suburbs to many where residents can have more access to and more participation in local government and decisions. One perception is that local governments have to make things work for everyday life to go on.

As sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucracies can be efficient and necessary in the modern era but they can also lead to an iron cage. Can governments that clearly work for the people reduce this feeling of the iron cage?

“Anybody can be suburban. It just takes money…” misses the intersection of class, race, and local control

As some states pursue affordable housing guidelines for communities, one critic argues it just requires money to live in the suburbs:

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Racial discrimination is abhorrent and should be prosecuted. But as a Brookings Institution analysis of the 2020 census shows, race isn’t a barrier to suburban living. Blacks are moving to the suburbs at a faster pace than whites. Anybody can be suburban. It just takes money — especially in Connecticut. In 2017, developer Arnold Karp purchased a colonial house on tree-lined Weed St. in small, ultra-wealthy New Canaan. There are no commercial or multifamily buildings on the street. He now wants to build a five-story, 102-unit apartment complex with 30% set aside for affordable housing.

The data does suggest people in all racial and ethnic groups are moving to suburbs. Here is what William Frey concluded from 2020 Census data:

This analysis of suburban and primary city portions of the nation’s major metropolitan areas shows that these big suburbs are more racially diverse than the country as a whole. Moreover, in contrast to how white flight fueled growth there in the past, most big suburbs have shown declines in their white populations over the 2010-20 decade. Their greatest growth came from Latino or Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, persons identifying as two or more races, as well as Black Americans—continuing the “Black flight” to the suburbs that was already evident the 2000-10 decade. 

Today, a majority of major metro area residents in each race and ethnic group now lives in the suburbs. And for the first time, a majority of youth (under age 18) in these combined suburban areas is comprised of people of color.

But, as a sociologist of suburbs, here is what is missing from the critics’ analysis: people of different racial and ethnic groups are not evenly distributed across suburbs and not all racial and ethnic groups have the same wealth, income, and resources to obtain suburban homeownership.

In other words, because social race and race and ethnicity in the United States are connected, it is not just about money in reaching the suburbs.

What is really at stake? From the critic:

Local control will be obliterated. Albany will call the shots on what your town looks like, how much traffic there is and ultimately what your home is worth…

Ensuring a supply of affordable housing within a region is more reasonable than demanding every town alter its character.

Suburbanites like local control and local government. These arrangements allow leaders and residents means by which to decide who can live in their community. This is often done through housing values and prices; ensure the land and homes or rental units expensive enough and the community can be exclusive.

Additionally, one of the problems of affordable housing – and other land uses less desired by suburban homeowners (including drug treatment centers and waste transfer facilities) – is that few suburban communities want it. Communities with means and political voices will keep affordable housing out. This means affordable housing is not plentiful often and is often clustered in particular locations. One reason states are pursuing this at a metropolitan level is that there is not enough affordable housing in the current system that prioritizes local decision making over what is good for the region.

Suburban residents may not like the idea of affordable housing arriving in their community. However, the legacy of housing in the United States is often one of exclusion and restriction, not about communities and residents coming together to provide housing for all.

State of Illinois has grant money to help develop megasites of 200+ acres, including suburban locations

A new grant from the state of Illinois makes money available to develop “megasites”:

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday announced the creation of a $40 million grant program to help businesses find and build on large development-ready areas known as “megasites” across the state, including several in the suburbs.

Megasites are large swaths of land intended for businesses such as factories, warehouses and distribution centers. Pritzker said developing these sites will help make Illinois more competitive, especially as sectors including clean energy and manufacturing are rapidly expanding in the U.S…

Intersect Illinois, an independent economic development nonprofit working with the state on the program, lists among 151 megasites two in Hoffman Estates, one in West Chicago, four in Lake County and five in the Fox Valley. Several more are in South and Southwest suburbs, and more than two dozen are southwest of Joliet around Minooka, Channahon and Morris…

The program is open to private entities, nonprofits and local governments, and the application portal is open through April 6. Those receiving the grant must match each dollar granted by the state with other private or local funding.

This is a good example of how governments and private interests work together in the United States to develop land. The state government provides money in concert with more local funding in order to help spur development. Without the government money, the development may not happen.

This money is marked to help with large projects. Is the assumption that it is difficult to entice companies to such sites in Illinois or that local governments do not have enough resources to address needs for properties this large?

If these properties are not developed as megasites (versus being developed in parts), how much is lost?

This will be worth checking on in a decade or two to see what exactly emerges on these megasites.

How much time it could take to get the municipal funding to redevelop a shopping mall

As shopping malls decline, finding the money to redevelop the property could prove difficult. Here is the experience of one Chicago area suburb:

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When West Dundee trustees approved a special taxing district in 2016, they were hopeful it would breathe new life into Spring Hill Mall.

The mall showed some signs of hope when a new theater opened in late 2016. Overall, however, the mall stagnated and key anchors closed shop. By 2021, the village saw the property value of its share of the mall drop from a base value of $7.6 million in 2016 when trustees created a tax increment financing district for the mall to $2.5 million in 2021.

Now trustees are considering scrapping the 2016 TIF district and creating a new — and larger — one. The new TIF district would extend to Huntley Road to the north, Route 31 to the east and Route 72 to the south and would take in a Jewel grocery store to the west. And much like in 2016, officials are hopeful a new TIF with larger borders and a lower base property value would help transform the mall…

Despite the failure of the first TIF district, developers have indicated to village officials the money a TIF district could bring for redevelopment would be key to any transformation of the mall area, West Dundee Village President Chris Nelson said.

A successful TIF can help a municipality capture property tax revenues to put toward redevelopment, often in the form of infrastructure. This means that a developer does not need to pay for some of the necessary improvements – and presumably could profit more.

But, how much time and money is enough to entice a develop to go through with a significant redevelopment? At this point, the first TIF has existed for roughly six years. It did not work as intended; property values fell so there was not tax revenue to capture. Will expanding the district create enough revenue?

TIFs have timelines built into them; they are not intended to last forever. Should a suburb commit to decades for a TIF? At what point does a community throw in the towel in efforts to raise revenue or a commitment to a particular tax structure?

Many communities with shopping malls, big box stores, and other brick and mortar establishments will face these questions in the coming years. TIFs are one tool to use; what other options will emerge as popular and/or successful paths for communities to follow for redevelopment?

The ongoing process of reparations and housing in Evanston

Evanston, Illinois initiated a reparations program several years ago that would provide money for some Black homeowners. The process of funding, assessing applications, and providing monies is underway, even if it is slow-going:

But outside that ballroom, the program is failing to meet many of its initial promises. So far, the city has only spent $400,000 of the $10 million promised in 2019. Out of hundreds of Black residents who applied, 16 have received money. Another 106 are on a waiting list, with hundreds more behind them. At least five people have died before their promised reparations could be dispersed, the program’s leaders acknowledge.

City officials say these early stumbles don’t diminish their ambitions for the program, which is aimed at addressing decades of housing discrimination rather than slavery. And it’s just a starting point, they say…

The program quickly ran into problems. Instead of the three marijuana dispensaries the city was expecting, only one opened, bringing in a trickle of the tax money initially forecast. A year after the reparations effort launched, few were receiving housing vouchers…

Acknowledging the program’s slow start, the council voted in December to set aside an additional $10 million over ten years, this time from a tax on real estate sales over $1.5 million.

The fate of programs or initiatives can depend on the decisions made – and this article suggests there is ongoing discussion about whether this is the best path to pursue – as well as how they are carried out. A good or helpful decision that then gets bogged down by processes, bureaucracy, and funding is one that may be limited or worse in the end.

The portions cited above plus additional comments in the article also address the funding side of this. Can local governments effectively address the issue of reparations? Depending on the size of the community, budgets, money sources, and more, some communities will have more resources to draw on. What are the advantages to local efforts addressing housing and reparations compared to broader funding sources at higher levels of government that are also removed from the particular circumstances in individual communities?