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.

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.

Repealing a suburb’s English language resolution amid demographic change

The Chicago suburb of Carpentersville passed a resolution in 2007 saying English was the official language. The suburb continued to change and now officials have repealed the resolution:

Local officials say the English resolution caused nothing but controversy, and that progress came instead from targeting troublemakers, not Spanish speakers. Now, as one of the most diverse communities in the Chicago area, leaders hope to put the controversy behind them.

There’s also the demographic and political reality that Hispanics now account for slightly more than 50 percent of Carpentersville’s population of about 38,000, up from about 40 percent when the language measure was passed. Whites now make up about a third of the local populace, with most of the rest African- or Asian-American…

Still, it’s a touchy subject. When asked about the change in local law, Village President John Skillman, a lifelong resident, downplayed it. He said village documents and meetings will continue to be in English, and emphasized that the resolution made no concrete changes in the first place…

At the same time, efforts have been made to reach across ethnic boundaries. Last year, in addition to its Fourth of July fireworks, the village held a Mexican Independence Day celebration, and this year, its first Cinco de Mayo festival.

It is a relatively quick turnaround from a set of white candidates running for office and getting enough votes to join the Village Board and passing this resolution (and other measures aimed at undocumented immigrants) to repealing that same resolution eleven years later. At the least, it could suggest there is power of being part of local government: in a suburb of roughly 38,000 people, it may not take much to run for local office and campaign for particular issues. Regardless of what side of a political issue a resident is on, running for local office can make a difference.

The rest of the article hints at ways the suburb has come to terms with an increasing Latino population: Latino businesses in town, addressing gang activity, local festivals, and whether residents experienced discrimination. But, there is a lot more that could be addressed here. Did such a resolution significantly change day to day life? (The article suggests no.) How much do white, Latino, and black residents interact and participate in each other’s social networks? How does this play out in certain civic institutions like schools, religious groups, and community organizations? Resolutions or ordinances can certainly have a symbolic effect but there are a number of layers to community life and interactions in a suburb like Carpentersville.

(Side note: this is an apropos follow-up to yesterday’s post about how many Americans speak a language other than English at home. This affects more than just home life.)

Would new local taxes on large tech firms really cause them to leave Silicon Valley?

Several communities in Silicon Valley are considering levying special taxes on large companies, possibly affecting some of the biggest tech companies:

Cupertino, Mountain View and East Palo Alto have begun to ponder new taxes based on employer headcounts — levies that could jolt Apple and Google — and if voters endorse the plans, a fresh wave of such measures may roll toward other corporate coffers.

Alarmed by traffic and other issues brought on by massive expansion projects, the three Silicon Valley cities are pushing forward with separate plans to impose new taxes that could be used to make transit and other improvements…

A lot of factors point to this being a prime time for efforts such as these. San Francisco ranked fifth worst for traffic congestion in the world — and third worst in the U.S. — last year, according to INRIX Global Congestion Ranking. Record housing prices in 2018 boosted the median price of a single family home in the Bay Area to a record $893,000 in April, according to a CoreLogic report.

Federal tax cuts also have improved the balance sheets on an array of U.S. companies, large and small. Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies have contributed to the gridlock on freeways and soaring housing costs as they’ve grown rapidly in recent years, with brisk hiring and expansion in unexpected areas and mega-leases that gobble up huge swaths of office space.

If this works the way that some would argue it does, then the local taxes will be viewed by the tech companies as an unnecessary burden for their operations. They should then consider moving elsewhere where they are not subject to such local taxes. Indeed, if they wanted to move sizable operations, they could probably get numerous communities to offer them tax breaks.

However, this assumes that the local taxes are the primary factor that determines where companies and organizations locate. Instead, there are a variety of factors that both support and work against staying in their current location. I assume these are important reasons for why Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are in this location: the construction and maintenance of large headquarters, proximity to other like-minded organizations, an talented employee pool nearby, and the proximity to major cities like San Jose and San Francisco. Are local tax issues more important than these other concerns? Probably not. And even if they are, it would take some time before a large organization could significantly alter their operations in response.

Why I’m skeptical housing will become a national political issue

Even as affordable housing is a concern in a number of places in the United States, there is little national political discussion of the issue:

Franzini is joined in this quest by a curious cast of fellow travelers who are committed to raising the political profile of the American housing dilemma. As home prices creep up everywhere from established tech hubs to traditionally inexpensive cities like Boise and Nashville—and as homelessness reaches epidemic proportions on the West Coast—a number of organizations from a diverse array of sectors have recently formed to push for housing policy changes at the highest levels of government. They’re frustrated by the lack of engagement on housing that national political leaders are offering. And they’re finding that, at least for the moment, the first order of business is just educating people about the seriousness of the issue.

Here are four reasons why I believe it will be very tough to have a national political discussion, let alone pressure for the federal government to act, regarding housing:

  1. Housing is local. Americans would like local governments to handle the issue as they prefer, particularly those with more resources, to live in places that can limit others of lesser status from moving in. Residents and smaller governments argue that they should not be forced to build housing that current residents do not desire or give money to less deserving people for housing.
  2. Americans historically do not have much appetite for significant federal involvement in public or subsidized housing even as they like socialized mortgages for single-family homes.
  3. The housing industry has significant influence, from the National Association of Home Builders to the National Association of Realtors, due to the importance of the housing industry for the American economy and particular American ideals about what kinds of housing are preferred. Affordable or cheaper housing might generate fewer profits.
  4. Opponents to federal action will argue that Americans can have cheaper housing if they (a) are willing to move to metro areas that have cheaper housing (and plenty of them exist) and (b) truly take on the local power brokers that usually do not want the working and middle classes to access their wealthier neighborhoods. These arguments are plausible enough (though with issues) for a number of participants in the discussion.

A number of these reasons involve ideas about what should be part of the American Dream as well as perceptions about who can access it (so it involves race and social class).

Saving 40 gallons a week in water when I pay low prices per 1000 gallons every two months

I recently used a body wash that said on the back: “Did you know by reducing your shower by 2 minutes you can save an average of 40 gallons of water/week?” Water conservation is a laudable goal. Yet, the way our water bill was structured in our previous homes – the prices plus the measurement of the water use – illustrates how it can be difficult to convince Americans to use less water.

In our former home, our bill was structured this way:

  • We paid every two months.
  • The water use was measured in 1000s of gallons. For a family of three, we regularly used 9,000-10,000 gallons.
  • We paid $1.50 for 1,000 gallons of water and $2.98 for 1,000 gallons of sewer usage.

Several features of this structure would make it more difficult to care about conservation:

  • A two month time period was too long to see real changes in the bill. A significant change in water usage, say from watering plants during a hot period or the presence of visitors, would not create that much change over two months.
  • Using 40 gallons less water per week would only lead to 320 less gallons over two months. This might affect a bill but only by one 1000 unit of water, if at all. This is too large of a unit for residents to think about. Our current water usage is measured in 100 cu feet of water, a unit that is very difficult to visualize or connect to everyday usage.
  • The water price was really cheap. If we used 3,000 more gallons over two months, the cost was minimal: $4.50 in added costs for water and $8.94 in added sewer costs. The financial incentive to save water is reduced at such cheap rates.

A number of scholars have argued that Americans pay too little for water. This has negative consequences, such as wealthier residents using more water and cities losing lots of water before it gets to users. These problems could be addressed, even without immediately jumping to higher prices. Some of these techniques are already in use with utility bills:

  • Bill users more frequently (monthly).
  • Provide ways to show real-time water use.
  • Compare users to other nearby users. This can help people who use a lot of water see “more normal” use.
  • Show the bill in smaller water units that make sense to people. What is 1,000 gallons?

Raising prices could help too.

Win political office with low turnout in municipal elections

Even large cities have problems with voter turnout in municipal elections:

Voter turnout in local elections has always been low, and it’s gotten worse in recent decades, studies of voting behavior in municipal elections have shown. In most of the biggest U.S. cities, fewer than one-third of eligible voters turned out in the most recent municipal elections. And according to data culled by researchers at Portland State University, those who do cast ballots in major cities tend to be significantly older than the general population, a factor that might weigh against women and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

My impression of elected officials in suburbs is that a good number get into local elections because they care deeply about an issue. With low turnout, relatively small communities, and a lack of formal political parties (many smaller municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan), it does not take a lot of resources to run for local office.

Of course, some of these variables are different at the big city level: often dominated by partisan politics, a larger need for significant sums of money, and a need to woo tens of thousands of voters. Still, it is notable that the leaders of some of the most important cities in the world can be voted in with votes from a relatively small number of citizens. These local leaders may not be able to easily move into national positions yet their decisions affect residents on a daily basis in a way that more abstract and further removed national politics cannot.