Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

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

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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:

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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.

What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

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  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.

What vision of the suburbs do President Trump and other Americans have?

With recent words, President Trump has suggested Joe Biden and Democrats want to destroy suburbs. To Trump, what are the suburbs? One columnist puts it this way:

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Trump seems to have a suburb in his imagination, one that’s a remnant of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s populated entirely by white people, who came there to escape diversifying neighborhoods and are terrified that people of color might move in next door. These suburbanites can be pulled to the Republican Party with a proper dose of racialized fear.

Yet, the suburbs as a whole today do not look like this:

Trump seems to think it’s still 1973. But here’s his problem: The suburbs of today are very different than they were then. The suburbs are still majority white, but they’re more diverse than they were when Trump was refusing to rent to people of color. They have more immigrants, more people of color, more people with higher education — and critically, the white people who live there are rejecting Trump.

Suburbs have indeed changed – see this earlier post on complex suburbia. In multiple ways, suburban areas are now different. They have more nonwhite residents and more residents who are lower-class and working-class (as well as more who live under the poverty line). Some suburbs are classic bedroom suburbs populated by whiter and wealthier residents but there are also numerous suburbs that are more diverse and less well-off. Suburbs are now full of jobs, from manual labor and production jobs to elite white-collar positions.

While this story casts the issue in terms of voters and winning the 2020 election – and suburban voters are indeed crucial – there is a bigger issue at stake: what vision of American suburbs will win out? Here are three competing options:

1. The suburbs are the American Dream where anyone who works hard can purchase a single-family home, live with their family, and expect to live a relatively comfortable life and expect good things for their children. This is often tied to the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s – and this vision may have fully flowered at this point – but this ideology stretches back at least a few decades earlier.

2. The suburbs are the American Dream as they offer opportunities to all Americans who want to find the good life as defined by a decent job, a place to live, and peace and quiet. This would be a more multicultural vision of suburbs where the movement of minorities and those with fewer resources to suburbs in the last few decades represents progress and success as they too can enjoy a suburban lifestyle (and the dream of #1 was restricted largely to whites).

3. The suburbs are a dead-end for all Americans. According to critics of the suburbs, the emphasis on sprawling land use and driving, individual lives and private homes, and exclusion are not sustainable or desirable for future generations. While some people may want to live this lifestyle, we should encourage more Americans to live in denser communities.

No presidential election is a referendum on just one issue. At this point, the issue of suburbs is still not a front-burner issue: housing received limited attention at the Democratic debates and arguably Trump is more interested in discussing race and cities in ways to attract voters than he is in considering suburban life and its ongoing role in American life. Yet, this is an opportunity for Americans to think about what kind of spaces they want to encourage and inhabit in the future.

Disproportionately more Illinois COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Chicago suburbs

The Daily Herald reports on COVID-19 cases in the Chicago suburbs as a whole:

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Since the outbreak began, there have been 83,563 cases in the suburbs as of Thursday, 50% of the state’s total, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. There have been 3,750 deaths in the suburbs, representing almost 50.9% of all deaths in Illinois.

The data presented suggest the Chicago suburbs account for roughly half of cases and deaths in Illinois. But, how does this compare to the percent of Illinois residents living in the Chicago suburbs?

The subsequent numbers of COVID-19 cases by community suggest these are the counties in the Daily Herald analysis: suburban Cook County, DuPage County, Kane County, Will County, McHenry County, and Lake County. If you add up these populations (using the U.S. Census QuickFacts 2019 population estimates), the suburban population is roughly 5,610,000. With the total population of Illinois at 12,671,821, the residents of the Chicago suburbs account for a little over 44% of the state’s population.

Thus, the Chicago suburbs have slightly more of their share of COVID-19 cases and deaths within the state of Illinois. Is this expected or unexpected? If we hold to images of wealthier, whiter suburbs, perhaps this is surprising: can’t many suburbanites work from home and/or shelter in place in large homes? Or, is suburbia more complex?

The disparities across suburban communities are not just limited to DuPage County. Take two large municipalities in suburban Cook County: even though Schaumburg has 13,000 more residents than Des Plaines, it has 1,200 cases than Des Plaines. Or, in Kane County, St. Charles has 4,500 fewer residents than Carpentersville (population of just over 37,000) but has just a little more than half of the cases.

While much attention regarding COVID-19 has focused on cities – and for some good reasons – this data from the Chicago suburbs suggests it is a issue for many suburbs as well.

(It is unclear how this data might change if the analysis extended to more counties in the Chicago metropolitan region, which include additional counties in Illinois, northwest Indiana, and southeastern Wisconsin.)

Considering what we know about the broad sweep of suburban TV shows

An Atlas Obscura piece on Levittown begins with a summary of suburbs on television:

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From the air, the homes fan out like intricate beadwork. For decades, America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows, from Leave It To Beaver* to Desperate Housewives, chronicling entertaining trivialities against the backdrop of meticulously shorn lawns, the drifting smoke of barbecues, the infrastructure of cars and roads: a pleasantly domestic—but fraught—version of the American dream.

There is no doubt about the claim in the second sentence: “America’s suburbs have been a popular setting for television shows.” Today, television viewers can still find new suburban sitcoms that play with the 1950s formula (actually begun in radio) of a happy nuclear family with plenty of resources working through entertaining yet relatively low-level issues. And as noted at the end (and developed by numerous scholars – I would recommend starting with the work of Lynn Spigel), the television image of suburbs was too pleasant and reinforced a well-off white image of the suburbs.

At the same time, I have published two articles on television in the suburbs and they contribute to a more complicated story of suburbs on television. In my article “From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007,” I find that suburban-set shows never dominated the most popular American TV shows. Although such shows might be familiar, common, and live on in memories connected to a different era, they are not the only places Americans see on television. Take as one example the Brady Bunch: it may have been watched for millions in syndication, it may have particularly influenced younger viewers, and it had an iconic house but it never was a Top 30 television show. The suburban TV show is well-known but how influential they are is debatable.

Similarly, more recent suburban TV shows have truly tweaked the format. Lynn Spigel points out that twists to the typical format started early on while more recent shows feature suburban lifestyles from a different point of view (thinking of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and American Housewife off the top of my head). I wrote “A McMansion for the Suburban Mob Family: The Unfulfilling Single-Family Home of The Sopranos” and considered this critically-acclaimed and popular show set in suburban New Jersey. It has a similar set-up to 1950s suburban shows – the successful white nuclear family living in a big suburban house – but ultimately suggests all of this is an illusion as Tony Soprano’s mob dealings undergird and undercut the family’s attempts to live a normal suburban life. The Sopranos is not the only show to do this; others feature other family structures, deviant behavior, and alternative routes into and out of the suburban dream.

At this point, have television shows covered all of the stories of American suburbs? No. Is there still a typical format? Yes. Have creators played around with the typical format to present other stories? Yes.. Do Americans want to watch suburban TV shows? Yes and no.

Does new housing data support the claim that people are leaving cities?

Reuters tries to connect the dots between data on housing construction and claims that people are leaving cities:

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U.S. homebuilding increased in June by the most in nearly four years amid reports of rising demand for housing in suburbs and rural areas as companies allow employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic…

A survey on Thursday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders vaulting in July to levels that prevailed before the coronavirus crisis upended the economy in March.

Builders reported increased demand for single-family homes in lower density markets, including small metro areas, rural markets and large metro suburbs. The public health crisis has shifted office work from commercial business districts to homes, a trend that economists predict could become permanent…

Home building last month was boosted by a 17.2% jump in the construction of singe-family housing units, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, to a rate of 831,000 units. Groundbreaking activity increased in the Midwest, South and Northeast, but fell in the West.

It is widely assumed that large numbers of urban residents have left New York (and possibly) other places for suburbs and other parts of the country. If so, this could influence the housing industry. Yet, I would ask a few more questions.

First question to ask: is this activity due to people leaving cities or other factors? It would be helpful to consider other possible factors at play such as seasonal changes (more housing activity in warmer weather, more demand in warmer months) and the economy (ranging from confidence of different actors to mortgage rates to available capital to unemployment – all intertwined with COVID-19). Is the uptick in activity since roughly early March to today (when

Second question to ask: if there is evidence that things are happening simultaneously, is there more evidence to suggest they are causal patterns at play? If people are leaving cities, it does not necessarily mean they are looking for new homes. Perhaps they want to return to the city, perhaps they are living with others, perhaps they are willing to rent for a while and see what happens.

And out of my own curiosity, the reporting I have seen about people leaving cities during COVID-19 seems to primarily apply to wealthier residents. Does this mean the new construction of homes will tilt toward larger, more expensive homes? If so, this is a continuation of a bifurcated housing market where those with resources will have options while many with limited resources or opportunities will not.

There is a lot to consider here and we may not the patterns for a while yet. Even if the housing industry thinks that people are fleeing cities for good, this matters regardless of the actual data.

Naperville considering affordable housing – but primarily for current residents?

Naperville will soon discuss recommendations from a consultant regarding affordable housing. Several of the suggestions point to at least some of the affordable housing serving current residents:

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Commissioners say the ideas are designed to help the city meet a state mandate on affordable housing and provide more places where seniors, young professionals and others who can’t afford many of the houses in Naperville can live…

Establish a rehabilitation loan fund to help low-income senior homeowners make repairs so they can age in place.

Establish a housing trust fund to help veterans, seniors, populations with special housing needs and first responders (including nurses, police officers and firefighters) purchase a home…

These ideas and others are listed in the report from SB Friedman, which found that roughly 22% of homeowners and 44% of renters in Naperville are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, making them “cost-burdened.” Many of these households are low-income, the report found, saying “there appears to be a considerable need for both owner- and renter-occupied affordable housing and income-restricted housing throughout the city to meet current residents’ needs.”

One way for wealthier suburbs to address affordable housing is to look for solutions for some of the populations mentioned above: seniors who are retired and are downsizing or having a hard time affording local housing on a restricted income; young professionals who are just out of school and looking to establish their career; and local workers who are seen as essential to the community such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. These are all groups that a wealthier suburb would want to keep as older residents should be able to age in place, attracting young professionals is important for keeping a strong tax base and having more young families in the community, and having certain occupations near their jobs and involved in the community is viewed as a plus.

At the same time, it is not clear that this gets at the full range of housing needs in the Naperville area, Chicago region, or the United States. There are lots of people who would benefit from cheaper housing costs yet the issue of affordable housing in many places is also connected to race and class. As noted in this article, housing is a social justice issue. Is Naperville addressing social justice issues if it is providing housing for the populations discussed above? Or, would providing housing for those with lower-wage jobs make more sense? Or, could cheaper housing provide opportunities for some future residents to experience upward economic mobility in a community with a lot to offer?

There is still much that could happen in these discussions. Naperville has a lot to offer to residents and it is a well-off and high-status community. What comes out of these conversations could help determine what the population of Naperville looks like in the coming years.

 

President Trump suggests suburbs can exclude and exercise local control

In a June 30th tweet, President Trump expressed disagreement with policies enacted under President Obama involving desegregating housing:

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President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he would reverse a federal rule that promotes fair housing and sets desegregation as a national priority. The policy is known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH; it’s a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“At the request of many great Americans who live in the Suburbs, and others,” Trump tweeted, “I am studying the AFFH housing regulation that is having a devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban areas. Corrupt Joe Biden wants to make them MUCH WORSE. Not fair to homeowners, I may END!”

Trump was specifically aiming at an Obama rule about how to finally implement the policy, a mandate (on paper only) for more than 50 years due to federal reluctance to address racial segregation. It might come as a surprise to the president, but his administration has already tackled this policy: The White House took steps starting in 2018 to gut the rule by arguing that it was too burdensome—not because desegregation would have a “devastating impact” on suburban America.

As he’s done time and time again, Trump said the quiet part out loud. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken numerous steps to undermine key rules and policies that promote desegregation as a requirement for jurisdictions that receive federal housing dollars. But under Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the agency has carefully framed those revisions in procedural terms—namely as ways to reduce the paperwork load for housing authorities. In his tweet, Trump essentially admitted that there’s a different motive: Eliminating the rule will reduce the pressure on local governments to provide space and opportunity for Black families in affluent white neighborhoods.

Several thoughts:

1. The suburbs were built in part on exclusion – by race/ethnicity and social class – as well as on local control where suburbanites could avoid regulation from outside parties.

2. This continues conservative opposition to President Obama’s policies regarding cities and suburbs and might give hope to those who hoped President Trump would inaugurate a new wave of suburban development.

3. As the article notes, Trump has not said much else recently about housing or suburbs. It is not an easy national policy issue to address and Democrats have not spent much time on the issue in this election cycle. Yet, Trump’s tweet fits with other things he has said about law and order, racial issues, and cities. If I had to guess, he is trying to win over some suburban voters by suggesting he would allow suburbanites to dictate their own community’s fate. Whether he has the ability to appeal to suburban voters by November given his approach and positions is something to watch.

4. I’m on the record saying addressing issues of race in the United States requires addressing residential segregation. Even as suburbs as a whole have become more diverse by race and class, this does not necessarily mean opportunities in wealthier suburbs are available to all or even many.

Some suburbanites do not like more explicit divisiveness or racism

With the 2020 presidential election riding on the suburbs, some suburban voters do not like the rhetoric and policies of President Trump:

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From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Trump’s policies.

As the president increasingly stakes his candidacy on a message of “law and order,” casting himself as a bulwark against “angry mobs” and “thugs,‘’ there are signs that he is alienating voters in bedroom communities who approach the debate over racial justice with a far more nuanced perspective than the president does.

The disconnect is especially pronounced in the swing state suburbs like Cornelius — traditionally a conservative-leaning area — and along the Main Line outside Philadelphia, where some educated white voters, including some former Trump supporters, are repelled by the president’s divisive rhetoric…

While Trump won suburban areas overall by 4 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls, white college-educated suburban women have rapidly moved away from his Republican Party, and they helped deliver the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018. And now, as some polling shows Trump facing competitive races even in deep-red states, he cannot afford to lose all of those voters again.

What could be behind this discomfort among some suburban voters? A few possible answers:

  1. Suburbanites do not often like open conflict or confrontation in their personal interactions with fellow suburbanites. This could also apply to contentious social issues. If a candidate, party, or figure is openly combative, this may be too much for suburbanites who prefer more polite, refined discourse. Suburbanites have a particular status to protect, particularly those with education, good jobs, and homes.
  2. Suburbia has changed quite a bit in recent decades. Suburbanites themselves, particularly in middle suburbs (stuck between the exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic votersthe exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic voters), may have changed views of the world. Perhaps more well-off suburbanites than before do now care about race.
  3. Perhaps this is all still unclear or undecided months out from the election. Some suburbanites are caught in the middle and right now do not like Trump’s approach. If the economy picks up and COVID-19 winds down, will these same voters show less concern about polarizing views? If social movements, which are now in the suburbs too, wane, will this make it easier to support Trump?

Which way these voters go could indeed help decide the 2020 election. Among other things, it will be interesting to see how the candidates pitch themselves to middle suburbia (even as they balance pitches to other groups).