Continuing suburban life next to a Karen

The suburbs often operate under a code of moral minimalism. But, when open conflict does occur, it involves race, and it goes viral, how do suburban residents move on? A case from Montclair, New Jersey involving a reaction to the construction of a small patio:

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“It shouldn’t have started any conversation,” Norrinda replied. The Hayats spent most of the summer hoping the conversation would die out, if she was being honest. In the end, they didn’t write back to the people vowing to curse Schulz on their behalf; they didn’t take that discount at the restaurant. They chose not to cooperate with the prosecutor. “Personally, I think if [Schulz] had been prosecuted and found guilty in any way, even just paid a $500 fine, I think this would have gone away for her a lot faster,” suggested a Montclair resident who had tracked the situation…

Fareed posed a question in one of our talks: “White supremacy that’s alive and well and a part of all of us,” he said, “and the question is, How much of it are we going to reject? And how much are we willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to continue to move forward?” He asked it from an intellectual distance, as if he were delivering closing arguments or posing a question to his class. But at close range, the question simply is, Would my neighbors step up to defend me again? And will they continue to want to have this conversation about race now that the immediate drama is over?…

As for Schulz, Norrinda thought she once saw her in the grocery store. Fareed told their boys they needed to be careful with the balls in the yard. He doesn’t want things to escalate. They finally have peace. Everyone wants it to stay that way.

But sometimes, well, often, when he’s standing in his house, looking out over the fence, he sees Schulz in her yard, or even just the empty yard, and it hits him. Just for an instant. Maybe it was silly or naïve or too optimistic, but there was an expectation that in Montclair he could be aware of the reality of being Black in America without having to confront it or acknowledge it in his daily life. But now, “we do actively acknowledge it,” he said. “It’s just a reminder of that reality.”

The American suburbs are built in part on a legacy of exclusion. Yet, racial incidents in wealthier suburbs might be rare and so surprising when they do occur (see other examples) for multiple reasons:

  1. There are relatively few interactions between wealthier suburbanites and Blacks and Latino neighbors. If wealthier communities have policies, housing, and character that discourage certain people from living in the community, there are fewer opportunities for being neighbors or regular interaction.
  2. As I noted in the introduction to the post, moral minimalism suggests open conflict in suburbs is undesirable. Instead, conflict is mediated through other actors or institutions such as schools.
  3. As the article notes, wealthier communities would often say they open to diversity. But, given #1 and #2 above, this does not mean they are really welcoming of residents different than the majority.

Even without the viral incident/open conflict, this does not mean suburbs are open to all. Technically, yes. In practice, not really.

Looking for buyers for thousands of properties in Black communities in and near Chicago

Even as new skyscrapers join the Chicago skyline, thousands of properties in the Chicago barely attract any interest:

Locations of Cook County property tax 'scavenger sale' properties
Chicago Tribune graphic

County Treasurer Maria Pappas is out with a new report that concludes the 81-year-old program isn’t working. Not enough people are bidding on the properties, she says, and so the parcels often remain eyesores, a deterrent to revitalizing the neighborhoods they blight. That especially hurts struggling Black city neighborhoods and south suburbs, Pappas notes.

“Nobody wants these properties because they are in areas that are losing population, have high crime and aren’t worth the property taxes you have to pay to own them,” said Pappas, who conducts the sales as directed in state law. “So people abandon them.”…

Land Bank officials strongly dispute that notion, saying they’ve done more to return properties to productive use in just a few years than private buyers — often hedge funds making speculative bids — have achieved over a much longer period of time.

They acknowledge changes to the system are needed, and plan to ask lawmakers to approve them. “If the treasurer would like to support the reform of this, we couldn’t be more happy to have her join us,” said County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who set up the Land Bank in 2013.

Vacant properties are not desirable in any community since they are not generating the revenues they could, whether because taxes are not being paid or the land is not being used in a productive way. Additionally, they are aesthetically unappealing – being often viewed as signs of blight or neighborhood problems – and could attract unwanted activity. Whether it is suburbs trying to fill empty grocery stores or dead shopping malls or communities with fewer economic opportunities looking for redevelopment, vacant or abandoned land is distressing.

This particular ongoing issue in the Chicago area is highlighted even more clearly when land not very far away – perhaps just a few miles and sometimes in the same municipality – is very desirable and multiple actors would want to redevelop it. Even during COVID-19, land in the Loop attracts attention as developers and architects eye property and vie to be part of what is viewed as a desirable area and a good investment.

In the United States, the contrast between the availability of capital and development by location can be incredibly stark. In this case, it is connected to significant residential patterns by race where land and buildings in Black neighborhoods are less desirable. There is land to be redeveloped in Chicago and it can be had rather cheap…but, due to powerful social forces over time, no one has any interest in the cheap land and they would rather continue to fight over and compete in the lucrative areas.

Getting the categories right in continued urban/rural-plus-suburbs-and-exurbs-in-the-middle divide

Numerous outlets have commented on the continued presence of an urban/rural divide in 2020 voting. Here is another example:

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Rather than flipping more Obama-Trump counties, Biden instead exceeded previous Democratic win margins in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

That pattern extended to Michigan and other battleground states, with Biden building upon Democrats’ dominance in urban and suburban jurisdictions but Trump leaving most of exurban and rural America awash in red.

The urban-rural divide illustrates the pronounced polarization evident in preliminary 2020 election results. The split underscores fundamental disagreements among Americans about how to control the coronavirus pandemic or whether to even try; how to revitalize the economy and restore jobs; how to combat climate change or whether it is an emergency at all; and the roles of morality, empathy and the rule of law in the body politic.

Four thoughts in reaction to this.

  1. The urban/rural divide is described in an interesting way above: it is cities and suburbs for Democrats and exurbs and rural areas for Republicans. This matches the patterns of this and recent elections. However, is separating the suburbs and exurbs worthwhile? Here is where county level analysis may not be fine-grained enough to see the patterns. Another way to put it might be this: there is a gradient in voting by party as the distance from the big city increases. Does it shade over to Republicans only in exurbs – which are suburbs on the outer edges? Is the 50/50 split a little before exurbs? A concentric circles approach could help though there still could be pockets that break with the overall pattern.
  2. Suburbs might just be too broad of a term to be useful in such analysis. The exurb/suburb split it one way to put it. Might it help to also think of different types of suburbs (wealthier bedroom communities, ethnoburbs/majority-minority communities, working-class suburbs, industrial suburbs, etc.)?
  3. Explaining the differences as urban/rural has a nice short ring to it and it fits the data. Introducing more categories in the middle is interesting to campaigns, pundits, and researchers but is harder to quickly describe. Perhaps the urban/suburban versus exurban/rural divide?
  4. Is the urban/rural divide one of the most fundamental aspects of polarization? Or, is it a symptom? In this story, the divide leads off the discussion of polarization on a number of fronts. But, what leads to these spatial patterns in the first place? While the geography is helpful to think about, are the real issues behind the urban/rural divide about race/ethnicity and class? Given residential segregation patterns in the United States, using the spatial patterns as an explanation covers up a lot of important social forces that led to those patterns in the first place.

“Dream Hoarders” in exclusive locations

The 2018 book Dream Hoarders connects the actions of the top 20% in income to where they live and how they control who lives near them. Excerpts from the book:

https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

The physical segregation of the upper middle class noted in chapter 2 is, for the most part, not the result of the free workings of the housing market. This inverse ghettoization is a product of a complex web of local rules and regulations regarding the use of land. The rise of “exclusionary zoning,” designed to protect the home values, schools, and neighborhoods of the affluent, has badly distorted the American property market. As Lee Anne Fennell points out, these rules have become “a central organizing feature in American metropolitan life.” (102)

Zoning ordinances, which began life as explicitly racist tools, have become important mechanisms for incorporating class divisions into urban physical geographies. This is not a partisan point. If anything, zoning is more exclusionary in liberal cities. (103)

So, those of us with high earnings are able to convert our income into wealth through the housing market, with assistance from the tax code. We then become highly defensive – almost paranoid – about the value of our property and turn to local policies, especially exclusionary zoning ordinances, to fend off any encroachment by lower-income citizens and even the slightest risk to the desirability of our neighborhoods. These exclusionary processes rarely require us to confront public criticism or judgment. They take place quietly and politely in municipal offices and usually simply require us to defend the status quo. (106)

There are numerous connections in this section to earlier posts. Here are a few:

One of the reasons Americans love suburbs is that suburban life allowed for excluding people they do not want to live near.

There is bipartisan white suburban support for homes rather than apartments.

-Housing rarely comes up in national political conversations. It may get a few minutes at debates or occasionally come up in trying to appeal to some voters.

-Tackling this at the state (example of California) or local level is difficult (example of Naperville, Illinois and suburban New Jersey).

In sum, it is hard to understand the life of wealthier Americans without also addressing how this wealth and the opportunities that come with it are closely connected to particular locations.

Housing appraisals reflect existing racial inequalities in housing

A new published sociology study connects housing appraisals and race:

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For decades, research has shown that houses in predominantly Black neighborhoods have been generally appraised at lower values than houses in majority-white neighborhoods. This is true even when comparing housing stocks that have the same characteristics (age, square footage, number of rooms, etc.) and neighborhoods of equal socioeconomic status.

The new study finds that the racial composition of a neighborhood was an even “stronger determinant” of a home’s appraised value in 2015 than it was in 1980, to Black homeowners’ increasing disadvantage. Analyzing reported home values, Howell and Korver-Glenn found that the race appraisal gap has doubled since 1980: The difference in average home appraisals between neighborhoods that are majority-white and those that are predominantly Black and Latina was $164,000 in 2015, up from about $86,000 in 1980.

Rather than explaining the racial inequity as a vestige of historic segregation, the study finds more culpability in a method used to calculate appraisals today, the “sales comparison approach,” which determines a home’s appraised value by looking at the prices of other similar homes that were recently sold from the same neighborhood. The real estate industry sees this as a race-neutral way of appraising homes so that it doesn’t run afoul of fair housing laws, and it is one of the key criteria used for determining property values. But what makes this method problematic, according to the study, is that it basically grandfathers in racist home pricing that existed before fair housing legislation.

In other words, if an appraiser is calculating  the value of a home in a Black neighborhood by comparing it to houses recently sold around it, then chances are she is comparing it to other Black-owned houses that, because of the legacy of segregation, have handicapped values in the market compared to similar homes in white communities appraised at higher prices. The unfairly valued prices of homes in Black neighborhoods before the 1970s thus serves as the baseline for how homes are appraised and priced today. While the Fair Housing Act and Community Reinvestment Act forbade practices like redlining and denying mortgage loans based on race, they did nothing to readjust housing prices in segregated neighborhoods after they were passed.

In other words, past decisions and actions valued homes in white neighborhoods more than homes in black neighborhoods because of racism. Today, appraisals that typically compare homes in like neighborhoods perpetuate those different homes values. The system carries on these inequities even if no appraiser is intentionally racist; the way things are done continues the patterns set decades before.

There is another question here as well: what exactly are appraisals and housing values based on if they contingent on factors like race and not just on the characteristics of the home? Is there inherent value in a particular configuration of home traits – say a three bedroom, two bedroom home with a two car garage – or is the value completely dependent on what society says it is? I know the market is involved and the head of an international appraisal association is quoted later in the article cited above talking about supply and demand. But, if supply and demand says some homes are worth more because of the people who own them and the people in the neighborhood, this does not exactly sound like a desirable “free market.”

Bipartisan white suburban support for fewer apartments, more homes

A political scientist shares research findings on how political views affect suburban support or opposition to different kinds of development:

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As a political scientist who has studied local land-use regulations, I’m surprised to see a national political campaign in 2020 place such an emphasis on the issue—which hasn’t figured much in presidential races in half a century. The Trump campaign isn’t wrong to think that white suburban voters—the obvious target of the McCloskeys’ speech—would oppose apartment construction in their neighborhoods. In a nationally representative survey of metropolitan areas that I conducted last year, a substantial majority of homeowners revealed a strong preference for single-family development and opposition to apartments. They also overwhelmingly agreed that residents of a community should get a vote on what is built there…

And yet the history of exclusionary zoning reveals that it has long been a bipartisan activity. Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was the first major action taken by any presidential administration to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which despite its lofty promises has not resulted in an integrated America. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter assured voters that he was not “going to use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.”

My survey data revealed no significant difference between white Republican and white Democratic homeowners in their opposition to high-density housing. I also found overwhelming agreement that apartment complexes would increase crime rates, decrease school quality, lower property values, and degrade the desirability of a neighborhood…

What this means is that Trump’s approach could conceivably appeal to white suburbanites more broadly, not just Republicans. And yet the evidence suggests that this is unlikely. Most white Democrats support the development of affordable and subsidized housing in the abstract and will feel comfortable rejecting Trump’s similarly abstract opposition to it. Where white Democrats oppose such development is when it arrives in their own backyards. But they do not need Trump to block it.

The Americans suburbs are based around single-family homes, exclusion, and local control (in addition to other factors). Opposition to apartments can be about both changes in aesthetics and character of a suburb and the kinds of people who are assumed to live in apartments.

But, as is hinted above, the real battleground over apartments and affordable housing and residential segregation really is about the local level. Federal or state guidelines could require certain things for municipalities. This is the first line of defense for those opposed to housing or any other development they do not desire. And these are abstract levels of government until local development pressure starts up. Even if such regulations passed, where exactly apartments might be located, in what scale and with what design, and how local residents and officials respond is the real pressure point.

If I am interpreting the last paragraph cited above correctly, white suburbanites in general will mobilize to oppose local development they do not want. This can have multiple effects: (1) it stops apartments and affordable housing from being built; (2) it can push such development into communities that are less able to mobilize or where there is already cheaper housing; and (3) it can create long-standing tensions between community members and prospective residents. In the long run, it means that some of the same patterns that suburbanites might criticize in big cities – uneven development, residential segregation – are replicated in suburbs.

Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

exterior of cozy house in evening

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That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

photo of houses during daytime

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

interior of abandoned building

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Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.