Responding to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs”

A recent episode of Adam Ruins Everything addressed how racism helped create the American suburbs. Here are my quick thoughts in response to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs.”

-Using the Settlers of the Suburbs game as a visual tool is a clever technique with its Monopoly appearance (though I could also imagine linking it to Settlers of Catan). Urbanists over the years have developed numerous classroom activities involving games to help show students who development works. Like games, development tends to follow certain rules or patterns (even if from the outside those rules are hard to see or, in the case of the suburbs, it all looks fairly haphazard). Also, for a simulation of residential segregation, see the modeling of economist Thomas Schelling where the preferences of individual residents to live near people like them can add up to a racist system. For a good board game that gets at suburban development (though there is only a limited racial dimension), see my quick review of Suburbia.

-The main emphasis here is on redlining: federal guidelines for making loans based on the neighborhoods the home was in was then also picked up by private developers. There is a lot more to this story including what were the patterns already in place that make redlining seem logical to the government in the 1930s (the book Sundown Towns can help explain a lot as black Americans had truer geographic dispersion from roughly 1865 to 1890 but then were restricted in where they could live in the North) as well as what other groups were discriminated against with these policies. Redlining certainly did a lot but it was not the only technique used to limit where non-whites could live. Other options included restrictive covenants, provisions written into deeds, racial steering, blockbusting, and riots and bombings. And the groups targeted included blacks, Jews, Asians, Mexicans, and others. In other words, redlining was an important part of a large package used by white structures and individuals to keep their communities all white.

-The video then nicely suggests that the effects of redlining compounded over time: growing individual wealth for white homeowners, new development in whiter communities, limited wealth in redlined communities, and segregated schools in the long run. This is the Matthew Effect in action.

-At one point, Adam suggests Levittown is still mostly white. This may be the case yet minorities have moved in increasing numbers to suburbs in recent decades. At the same time, the legacy of housing discrimination lives on as racial and ethnic groups are not necessarily evenly dispersed across suburbs. And, as noted later, black and Latino residents still have a harder time obtaining loans and continue to face housing discrimination. This is despite the 1968 Housing Act which was intended to eliminate such discrimination; the sociologists who wrote American Apartheid suggested that we lack the political will to see the Housing Act through.

-Nikole Hannah-Jones of NYT makes an appearance to talk about school funding and how white suburbs can draw upon a larger property tax base. Yet, Hannah-Jones goes much further in a 2015 episode of This American Life titled “The Problem We All Live With.” I highly recommend this and have had multiple classes listen to the story of segregated schools in Ferguson, Missouri and other nearby suburbs of St. Louis. By a loophole in state law, Ferguson students were allowed to attend a wealthier white district and it worked…until the loophole was closed. School funding is not the major issue. The deeper issue is the segregation of schools which we know can help minority students. And we know that integration – the 1966 Coleman Report made this clear and busing was tried in a few places for a few years until the outcry was too great – would work but few suburbanites want to consider it as a legitimate option.

-The video closes with these two lines: “The suburb you live in was built on a foundation of segregation. And we can’t close our eyes to that.” I imagine many white suburbanites would still object. At least two good academic books addressing two different contexts (White Flight in Atlanta and Colored Property in Detroit) show how white suburbanites in the 1960s made a switch from race-based arguments for segregation to economic-based ones. Now, if you ask suburbanites about race and ethnicity in their community, they will tend to say that they do not know of any issues or do not contribute to the problem yet they are more willing to talk about quality of life, property values, and good schools. Additionally, suburbanites tend to associate certain classes with certain racial and ethnic groups, leading to different treatment. Of course, race and class are intimately intertwined in the United States and class can often be used as a proxy for excluding by race or ethnicity.

-Just a note on sources: the video uses an interesting mix of scholarly and journalistic sources. There is a lot of excellent academic literature on race and the suburbs and I have tried to point to some of those in this review.

In sum, this video could be a great start to a discussion of ongoing racial disparities in the suburbs. Residential segregation is not just present in large cities and it has long-lasting consequences. Even though the oft-cited histories of the American suburbs – such as Crabgrass Frontier – acknowledge redlining and discuss its implications, many Americans may be unaware of how race strongly influenced the creation of suburbs. (There were other influential factors present as well but that is a long story.) Going further, there are easy ways to go beyond this video and draw upon more complex studies of race in the suburbs.


Pick the wrong suburb and you can try again

Keep trying and you might just find the suburb that suits you:

Switching suburbs after you’ve plunked down a hefty down payment and settled your children in school seems infinitely challenging, and indeed some recent transplants who have doubts about their new communities resign themselves to the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect suburb.

But for others, the gnawing sensation that something is not quite right pushes them to keep searching for another suburb, a better suburb, a place where they might actually feel at home. Maybe it’s the commute. Maybe the schools are too big or too small, or the town is too quiet or not quiet enough. Maybe what they thought was important — the big yard and the birds singing out the windows — was not so important after all….

Even if a possibility looks great on paper, one person’s idea of a great place to live can be another person’s nightmare. “The suburbs are not the same; the subtleties of their personalities are so different,” he said. “Just like someone living on the Upper East Side won’t fit into Williamsburg, someone who likes Maplewood may not fit into Short Hills. You can end up in a place that really doesn’t suit you.”

Moving to a new suburb may be the way to recapturing your identity, whether it’s somewhere where you can walk to dinner or a place with more like-minded people. But first, you should give serious thought to who lives in the town and what types of things go on there. Whom will you encounter when you walk your children to the park? Whom will you drink a beer with at the neighborhood block party? What do the mothers wear to drop-off, or will you see only nannies?

I get that the American suburbs are often about finding individual happiness. And buying a suburban home is a significant investment. The consumer is king. But, does this go too far? How many times can the average family move? Is there any concept of contributing to a suburban community rather than just finding people like you or that you enjoy?

One of the side effects of encouraging individuals to find the suburb that suits them is that it encourages further geographic sorting. Residential segregation is already a major issue in the United States and further moves for psychological or social fit likely allows those with more resources to pick their preferred setting.


Diversity in a community does not necessarily lead to diversity in interaction

Having a diverse population within a municipality or neighborhood doesn’t guarantee the groups will interact or work together:

Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes…

“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”…

At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.

The proposed solution? More interaction across groups within the public school system:

“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This is where Census data can let us down and experience on the ground is helpful. From a macro level, a community or city can look very diverse. An obvious example is a major city like Chicago which is around 45% white but is one of the most segregated cities in America. However, this also happens in much smaller communities as well. Take Wheaton, Illinois. Starting in the late 1800s, a small population of blacks lived on the east side of the city. This was unusual: very few Chicago suburbs had any black residents. But, how much interaction was there between groups in Wheaton?
  2. The author notes that this community is unusual in that a sizable white population remained even as the black population grew. This doesn’t happen in many places: as minorities move in, whites leave.
  3. While race is highlighted here as the dividing force, it sounds like social class is also a factor. While the two areas are closely intertwined, addressing one without the other may be as profitable.
  4. The proposed solution in the public schools is not an unusual one. Yet, it does highlight how few social institutions in the United States really cut across racial or class lines. Where else might people of different groups interact when most other opportunities (from churches to local government to social clubs and civic groups) are segregated?

Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

A quick guide to the Fair Housing Act

Here is an overview of the Fair Housing Act which was passed in 1968. An excerpt from my favorite section of the guide:

Did it work?

While the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in practice, in reality, significant degrees of segregation still exist across much of the country. According to a 2012 study by the American Constitution Society, “fair housing in the United States remains a pressing civil rights issue.”

Despite the passage of the law, a generation of politicians from both parties have failed to fully enforce the law, as documented in a lengthy ProPublica series. There are also significant social and economic costs to continued segregation: A recent study showed that Chicago segregation costs residents $4.4 billion every year in potential earnings.

The Obama administration made a handful of moves in its final years to address this historic inequality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, introduced in 2015, asks cities to do more to protect the non-discrimination policies enshrined in the Fair Housing Act.

In other words, the move to make illegal housing discrimination has not exactly led to the end of residential segregation. The guide suggests earlier that “the act is meant to create a unitary housing market, where only your financial resources, not your background, can prevent you from renting or purchasing a home.” However, because financial resources are so closely tied to other dimensions of social groups – including race and gender – we wouldn’t exactly have a level playing field even if there was no discrimination at all present.

On one hand, we might think that this 1968 legislation was a big step forward. It is one thing to acknowledge equal rights for a certain group but another to allow the possibility that they might live next door. On the other hand, I’m not sure there has been much advancement beyond this act and there is very little current discussion about seeing housing as a right or even seriously addressing a lack of affordable housing.

Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?

The conservative approach to affordable housing

Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution summarizes how conservatives might approach affordable housing:

The key challenge is to choose the correct path for housing reform. Many of Carson’s critics think the proper line is to require new developments to save a proportion of units for low-income residents, which will ensure, they claim, “that economically diverse neighborhoods and housing affordability will be preserved for generations to come.” The implicit assumption behind this position is that government agents have enough information to organize complex social institutions, when in fact they are slow to respond to changes in market conditions and are often blissfully unaware of the many different strategies that are needed in different market settings. No one wants to say that governments should not lay out street grids and organize infrastructure. But they operate at a huge comparative disadvantage when it comes to real estate development on that public grid.

Far superior is an alternative view that I have long championed. The first thing to do is to abandon the assumption that there is a systematic market failure requiring government intervention. The second is to remove all barriers to entry in the housing markets, so that supply can increase and prices can fall. These barriers are numerous, and include an endless array of fees, taxes, and permits that grant vast discretionary authority to local officials. A removal of these burdens will allow us to harness the private knowledge of developers who will seek to work in those portions of the market that hold the greatest profit opportunities…

The so-called housing experts all sign on to the general mission of HUD to deal with the various ills of housing shortages, but none of them have the slightest interest in the market solutions that could improve the overall situation. To make the point more clearly, market solutions do not include letting developers steamroll small property owners through eminent domain abuse, or allowing local communities to pass restrictive zoning and permitting requirements that are intended to block low-income housing. Rather, the correct answer is to stop eminent domain abuse, to peel away layers of regulation, and to cut out the extensive network of government grants that impose strings on how housing can be built. Perhaps Carson does not know much about the current programs. But if he puts the necessary reforms in place, he will have no need to master the details of endless federal, state, and local regulations that have created the affordable housing crisis in the first place.

Epstein sees two issues: there is not “a systematic market failure” and too many regulations limits supply and discourages builders. While I am not suggesting federal government programs alone can solve affordable housing (see this earlier post where I discussed this idea with other academics who study public housing), I am skeptical about this line of argument.

First, the “systematic market failure” often discussed by academics is related to race: whites made rules (and then institutionalized them with lending institutions and the federal government) that ensured whites did not have to live with other racial and ethnic groups. Even before some of this was institutionalized, the relatively freer housing market of the late 1800s and early 1900s was already promoting residential segregation. See the case of the Black Belt on the South Side of Chicago or separate black suburbs (see Places of Their Own by Andrew Wiese). And if people didn’t make market decisions about housing based on race, they would do so regarding class. The idea of exclusionary zoning is that wealthier communities set up conditions that do not allow for the construction of cheaper housing. Epstein suggests at the end that exclusionary zoning might have to end but then how would he balance the interests of lower-income residents versus the property rights (often an important cause among conservatives) of existing owners?

Second, regulations may discourage builders. But, loosening regulations does not necessarily mean that they would suddenly build cheaper housing when they could make more money on larger houses. This is a common conservative argument about the Bay Area in California: if regulations protecting land could be done away with, more housing would be built and prices would drop. This could happen broadly though I suspect some of those existing homeowners would not like this (and property values are of utmost importance to many homeowners) and it is not clear that builders would construct housing that is that much cheaper (even if they are contributing to increased supply). Perhaps Epstein could provide some examples where this – builders have moved to fill cheaper niches in the market – has happened. And it may be hardest to do this in places where there are already a lot of regulations; moving to a lot fewer regulations or no regulations requires a major shift on everyone’s part and probably must be demanded by a majority of the public (requiring some sort of political movement).

Come to think of it, there are ways these arguments could be evaluated with data. Are there places in the United States that have more or less housing regulations and whose housing outcomes can be compared? Are there any truly free markets in housing that working in providing affordable housing?

Additionally, it may be time for some more creativity regarding housing. Could we have different locations – cities, states – try different approaches and see what works?