The potential decline of mature, wealthier suburbs

If you are not growing, you are falling behind. Does the principle apply to older suburbs? See the case of several New England suburbs:

This has little to do with the housing market broadly speaking: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, prices are rising and homes are sold within days of listing. Rather, it’s a sign that suburban neighborhoods straight out of Mad Men are no longer as in-demand as they once were. Around Boston, for example, 51 towns and suburbs started the year with price declines while the city’s prices skyrocketed. Indeed, as Blackwood drives me through this picturesque New England town just an hour from New York, we pass dozens of for-sale and for-rent signs outside home set back from the road. These are homes that, one day, might have been on any family’s dream list, back when suburbs were where everyone wanted to live and there were dozens of companies to work for nearby. Median home values in Fairfield County, where New Canaan is located, are down 21 percent from their peak in 2003, according to Zillow; for the state as a whole median home values are down 18 percent from their 2004 peak. By contrast, home values nationwide are down just 5 percent from their 2005 peak. In urban areas, they are up—often substantially; in Boston, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, prices this year have set record highs.

Cities are in vogue again, and that’s starting to be a problem for places that are made up mostly of suburbs. Companies like General Electric that were once headquartered here in the suburbs are decamping for city centers, where they say they can more easily find the talent they need. In 2010, Aetna abandoned a giant campus in Middletown, Connecticut; Pfizer recently tore down 750,000 square feet of unused laboratory space in nearby Groton. At the same time, the baby boomers who flooded the suburbs to raise their children are getting older and no longer need big homes, but their children’s generation doesn’t have the desire—nevermind the savings—to buy up the houses, at least not at the prices boomers are looking for.

The Northeast has long been growing more slowly than other, warmer, parts of the country. Now, parts of the region are starting to see net losses in population. Between 2014 and 2015, Connecticut lost nearly 4,000 residents as Florida, a retirement hub, added 366,000. During that same period, the Northeast and Midwest together lost half a million people to the South and West. “Where the real action is is the Sun Belt,” William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, told me.

The losses are exacerbated by the fact that the region’s median age is growing. Connecticut, alongside New England neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is one of only a few states to have a median age over 40, which means half of its population is over child-bearing age, according to Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographer. “Connecticut is a basketcase demographically, as are many of the states in New England,” Francese told me.

Several thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, there is both inter-regional competition for residents and businesses as well as intra-regional competition. It would be interesting to know whether these communities have seriously considered changes to attract new people. Of course, doing so might mean altered demographics or character.
  2. The problems here are partly regional but also common across American suburbs. What do communities do when (1) they run out of new greenfield space and (2) stop growing? This stage of development might require large decisions to be made because of a default of not changing much could lead to additional issues – see #3.
  3. I would also add that these suburbs are also competing with other nearby suburbs in addition to cities. There are plenty of suburbs trying denser housing or more cultural events or affordable housing that might just attract some of those residents who are leaving or city residents who want the suburban life.
  4. It would be fascinating to compare suburbs at this mature stage – limited land to develop, aging populations and an older housing stock, population plateau or decline – that differ on social class. The suburbs profiled here are wealthy and it could take some time before outsiders could truly point to noticeable decline. In contrast, suburbs with fewer resources could more quickly decline. And once the “decline” starts, what can stem the tide or reverse it?

Majority of American jobs in the suburbs

An analysis at New Geography shows the metropolitan locations of American jobs:

The 2014 data indicates that more than 80 percent of employment in the nation’s major metropolitan areas is in functionally suburban or exurban areas (Figure 3). The earlier suburbs have the largest share of employment, at 44 percent. The later suburbs and exurbs combined have 37.0 percent, while the urban cores have 18.9 percent, including the 9.1 percent in the downtown areas (central business districts, or CBDs).

These numbers reveal dispersion since 2000. Then, the earlier suburbs had even more of the jobs, at 49.4 percent, 5.3 percentage points higher than in 2014. Virtually all of the lost share of jobs in the earlier suburbs was transferred to the later suburbs and exurbs, which combined grew from 31.4 percent in 2000 to 37.0 percent in 2014. The urban cores had 19.4 percent of the jobs (8.8 percent in the CBDs), slightly more than the 18.9 percent in 2014.

While Chicago is one of the cities with a higher percentage of jobs in the city, Sun Belt locations dominate the list of cities with more jobs in outer suburbs:

These figures counter claims or stereotypes that (1) suburbs are primarily bedroom communities where people sleep but work in the city and (2) urban cores are the primary job centers of metropolitan regions. Of course, some suburbs are bedroom suburbs and big city downtowns are still important, particularly for certain industries (think global finance). At the same time, it would be interesting to envision some of these Sun Belt cities with no downtown…how different would Raleigh or Atlanta or Orlando really be?

Deannexation option could lead to smaller Tennessee cities

Efforts by the Tennessee legislature may make it easier for residents and neighborhoods to deannex from large cities:

The growing deannexation debate could ultimately shrink six cities in Tennessee, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Johnson City, Kingsport, and Cornersville.

For more than six decades, communities across Tennessee could simply pass an ordinance to forcibly expand their city limits, whether the people who owned the annexed property liked it or not.  In 2014, the state passed a law requiring residents to vote in favor of joining a city before their property can be annexed…

However, the 1990s and early 2000s were a time of rapid expansion under former mayor Victor Ashe.  Knoxville grew by 26 square miles during his time as mayor, mostly through what was nicknamed “finger annexation” that extended the city limits in the shape of fingers along the interstates…

Deannexation means the city would also lose out on some property taxes.  Rogero said if every annexed neighborhood left the city, it would add up to around $377,000 in annual property taxes.  That figure is actually much smaller than you may expect based on how much property Knoxville annexed in the late 1990s.  Rogero noted only residential property would be eligible for deannexation and much of Knoxville’s annexed property was zoned for commercial use.

Annexation stopped for many Northern cities around the turn of the 20th century as suburbs stopped wanting to join big cities but Sun Belt cities have often had different policies and more land growth over recent decades. Forced annexation would be one of the worst things one could do to many suburbanites who prize property rights and local control. But, it is another thing to allow them to deannex themselves. Would a better solution be to have both parties – those who want to leave as well as the larger community – both approve the annexation or deannexation via vote?

More broadly, there are various efforts for more metropolitan government, particularly to help balance out disparities (housing, education systems, tax bases, etc.) wrought by residential segregation, or to consolidate or limit the growth of local taxing bodies. Thus, it is interesting to hear of an effort to go the direction and let people continue to fragment within regions.

Still using Chicago as “urban laboratory”

Following in the tradition of the Chicago School which saw the city as an “urban laboratory,” sociologist Robert Sampson explains how the findings from studying Chicago apply to the entire country:

Many cities were considered as a possible launching pad for the study, but Chicago got the nod for its composition of whites, blacks, and Latinos — the three largest groups in the United States — and for the access to the city’s extensive statistics on health, police, and more. “Chicago offered us a picture of American life that we thought was broadly representative,” Sampson said.

According to Sampson, a vast array of social activity is concentrated in place. “We studied crime, health, altruism, cynicism, disorder, collective efficacy, civic engagement, leadership networks — all of which are influenced and shaped by neighborhood effects.”…

Even as the world is increasingly globalized, neighborhood structures remain local and important. “Neighborhoods have legacies,” he said. “Crime and poverty are durable over long periods of time. From the 1960s onwards, cities went through amazing social change — riots, crime — to one of the largest decreases in violence from the late 1990s to the present. Yet communities are persistent in rank ordering. People are moving in and out of neighborhoods, but the perceptions of neighborhoods stay largely the same.”

What’s more, he found, no community in Chicago transitioned from black to white, a pattern he shows is similar to the United States as a whole.

To sum up: place matters.

I’ve thought several times over the years that I would like to see more work about whether Chicago is really representative of America as is often suggested or if other cities are better options. To put it another way, is Chicago studied more often because there is a legacy of studying Chicago well at the University of Chicago and other schools or because Chicago is truly unique? Others have argued that other places are more emblematic of more recent patterns – check out the Los Angeles School for a differing opinion. Chicago might represent Rust Belt cities but what about Sun Belt cities?

When looking at American cities that seem to get most research attention or are covered in “classic works”, having an established research school with an interest in urban sociology seems to matter. Chicago gets a lot of attention as does Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. This makes sense: these cities have great universities and it is logical that researchers and graduate students would look at some of the surrounding areas and be able to justify this study beyond simply saying it is more convenient or cheaper. In contrast, other major cities don’t seem to get the same level of scrutiny, places like Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and a number of other ascendent Sun Belt cities.

Perhaps my thoughts are too impressionistic and one could try to quantify just how much each city actually does get studied. But even then, there are cities with histories that matter, research legacies that have inertia and are likely to continue for some time. Someday we might have a Houston school or an Atlanta school but that requires resources, effort, and research that is recognized as being relevant and innovative.

A consequence of white flight: costs for aging infrastructure born more by minorities

The phenomenon of white flight in the United States refers to whites leaving urban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II and going to the suburbs to avoid growing minority populations. Several researchers recently uncovered a latent consequence of white flight:

Racial minorities pay systemically more for basic water and sewer services than white people, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

This “structural inequality” is not necessarily a product of racism, argues sociologist Stephen Gasteyer, but rather the result of whites fleeing urban areas and leaving minority residents to bear the costs of maintaining aging water and sewer infrastructure…

The researchers analyzed Census data on self-reported water and sewer costs in Michigan. The study found that urban residents actually pay more than rural residents, which refutes conventional wisdom, Gasteyer said…

Detroit is the “poster child” for this problem, Gasteyer said. The city has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, and the water and sewer infrastructure is as much as a century old in some areas. Billions of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the aging lines every year, and the entire system has been under federal oversight since 1977 for wastewater violations.

Very interesting: another infrastructure problem to be solved and it happens to fall disproportionally on minority populations. It would be interesting to see this analysis extended beyond Michigan – is this primarily a Rust Belt phenomenon where the big cities have some infrastructure that dates to around 1900 or does this also apply to newer Sunbelt cities?

Overall, it might be helpful for those who argue the United States needs to seriously put a lot money into infrastructure to demonstrate how much this matters to everyone and how much the aging (leaks, potholes, etc.) costs everyone each year. It is pretty hard to live without water and sewers but it wasn’t too long ago that these were not regular amenities. Indeed, 1890 was roughly a turning point when both big cities and smaller suburbs could put together their own infrastructure systems to serve residents. (This also lines up with the period when suburbs started resisting annexation to big cities as they could handle these amenities themselves.) Add roads, electricity, and natural gas to this and you have a system that is vital to modern life but is relatively behind the scenes. If you could add a fairness/social justice dimension to it (the most aging infrastructure is in places that can least afford it), this could be a very public issue.

Is the American Sun Belt boom over?

One of the biggest changes in the American population in the last sixty years has been the migration to the Sun Belt. But new data suggests that this boom may have come to an end:

Between 2007 and 2010, Florida lost more people to internal migration than it gained, for the first time since the 1940s. Nevada, too, which had been growing for decades, had a net migration loss of 30,000 in 2009. And Arizona had a net gain of just 5000, way down from 90,000 five years before.

Meanwhile, New York and California both saw their net losses shrink in 2009 by more than half since 2005.

The analysis, based on Census Bureau and IRS data, was conducted by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

What explains the shift? The Sun Belt states, of course, were hit hard by the housing bust that helped trigger the recession and its aftermath. The early aughts housing boom was responsible for much of the growth in places like Clark County, Nev., and Maricopa County, Ariz. in the first place.

But just as important, migration as a whole, which has been on the wane for three decades, has really tailed off since the downturn began.

The economic crisis has limited mobility across the United States, particularly for the less wealthy who are then more tied to existing jobs and homes.

It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues or (1) the Sun Belt will grow again in the future or, in a longer shot, (2) older cities in the Midwest and Northeast (“Rust Belt”) regain some of the population that shifted south and west. In other words, once people have some more freedom to move, what will they choose to do and what social forces will push or pull them in certain directions?