Where will people move to if the suburbs are “abolished”?

With President Trump’s claims that Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, we can ask this: where will people move to instead of the suburbs or where will suburbanites end up? A few thoughts:

  1. This reminds me of the first and only homeowners association meeting we attended when we moved back to Illinois. The board and attendees discussed efforts to combat some vandalism of association property, mainly some signs at the playground in the middle of our neighborhood as well as on a bridge over a creek. One attendee stood up and told this story (and I’m doing my best to paraphrase: “Any time my family and I move somewhere, we stay until there is crime. And then we move further away from the city until there is no crime and try again. If the vandalism issue is not dealt with, there will soon be babies shot in the street.” The suburb we lived in is rather small and sleepy but I would not be surprised if many people share a similar mindset (given what I see on social media about reactions to local crime).
  2. Those with resources will likely always try to find ways to create protected suburban communities. Depending on what regulations could come down regarding affordable housing, some will try to find loopholes and some might just defy the regulations and fight in court. (Another option: some might move to upscale urban neighborhoods.)
  3. An easy answer might be to embrace telecommuting and working from home and move to more rural locations. Yet, this negates some of the advantages suburbs offer including access to amenities of the city (including cultural institutions, major airports and transportation options) and job centers in the suburbs and cities. How many people truly want small town life (rural, tight local networks, few local options for shopping, dining, entertainment) versus wanting a suburb that straddles urban options and lower density?
  4. What does this do to our understanding of white flight and related phenomena? As it stands, historians, sociologists, and others largely talk about white flight as a process that occurred after World War II as whites left urban neighborhoods for suburbs and black residents moved in. If the suburbs are more open to all (and they already are much more diverse compared to the postwar era), will white flight come to include whites moving from suburbs to more protected suburbs and/or more rural areas?
  5. At the same time, Americans are less mobile than they been in the past. Would a threat to the suburbs actually prompt people to move or would they “shelter in place” or fight in place?

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

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

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)?

Sports stadiums and white flight

How the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United went about procuring their stadiums hints at the city’s racial divides:

Accompanying the announcement, the team released a map showing where, precisely, Braves Country was—and, notably, where it wasn’t. That view of the greater Atlanta area was speckled with red dots, each one indicating the home of a 2012 ticket buyer, including season-ticket holders. Only a smattering of red appeared to the east, west and south of Turner Field, while thousands of dots congealed into a ribbon above downtown that expanded into a wide swath in the half-dozen suburban and exurban counties to the north. The new stadium would be closer to the middle of that mass, which happened to embody an older, whiter and more conservative population than the city proper. Those northern suburbs were fast diversifying, yet many in Atlanta—particularly in its black population—felt slighted by the decision, their perspectives colored by decades of racial and political tension between city and sprawl.

Five months later MLS commissioner Don Garber, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and then-mayor Kasim Reed proclaimed in their own press conference that downtown Atlanta would be home to MLS’s 22nd franchise, and the new club, Atlanta United, would take the pitch in 2017, the same year the Braves headed to Cobb. The soccer team would play in the same new $1.6 billion stadium the Falcons would soon call home, but United would be no afterthought. The facility would be designed to accommodate the beautiful game from the start. Pushing back against skepticism and pointing to an influx of young professionals near Atlanta’s urban core, Blank assured MLS’s leaders he could fill the massive venue, even in a market known for lukewarm enthusiasm toward pro sports. Reed boasted that his city’s foreign-born (and, seemingly implied, soccer-loving) population was growing at the second-fastest rate in the U.S. Garber himself insisted these factors combined to make downtown an ideal MLS incubator. The city “embodies what we call a ‘new America,'” he said, “an America that’s blossoming with ethnic diversity.”

Fast-forward five years, and Atlanta United’s ticket-sales map, while not a direct inverse, is considerably more centralized than Braves Country (or even, says United president Darren Eales, a depiction of the Falcons’ fan base). United, meanwhile, aided no doubt by winning the 2018 MLS Cup, has led MLS in attendance in each of its three seasons, averaging 53,003 fans in ’19, among the highest in the world. This echoes the success the Braves found when they chased their audience to the north, the farthest any MLB team had ventured from its city center in 50 years. The Braves’ average home attendance, aided too by on-field success, reached 32,779 fans this season, up 31% from their last year at Turner Field…

Kruse, the Princeton history professor, is blunt in his assessment of such feelings. “These ideas about downtown being a dangerous place are really about the people downtown,” he says. For years he thought that “suburbanites want nothing to do with the city except to see the Braves.” But today? “That last connection has been severed. I see this movement of the stadium as the culmination of white flight.”

Trying to connect with particular fan bases or contributing to decades-long processes of residential segregation and white flight? How about both?

Three additional thoughts:

  1. More could be made here of the public money the Braves received from Cobb County. Plus, they could develop land around the new stadium, now a common tactic to generate more revenue beyond fan attendance. Yes, fan attendance is important but the long-term money may be in investing money in land surrounded by whiter and wealthier residents. Stadium development then just continues the process of limited capital investment in neighborhoods that could really use it and concentrates it in places where wealth is already present.
  2. Baseball is widely regarded as having an older and whiter fan base. Soccer is said to have a more diverse and younger fan base. In addition to the demographics of the Atlanta area, the sports themselves try to appeal to different audiences (even as they might work to reach out to different groups).
  3. It will be interesting to see how many sports teams in the next few decades move to more niche locations while still claiming to be from the big city. Civic identity is often tied to sports teams as most metro areas can only support one team from the major American sports. Can big city politicians still lose when the team from the area decides to move to a suburb (see a recent example in the Las Vegas area) but takes that revenue out of the big city? Can a team that locates in one particular area of the metropolitan region still easily represent the entire region?

Reasons why five south Chicago suburbs lead the way in black homeownership rates

A report from Pew Charitable Trusts ranks five suburbs south of Chicago – Olympia Fields, South Holland, Flossmoor, Matteson, and Lynwood – in the top ten nationally for homeownership rates for blacks. Here is how this happened:

“We took a strong approach to diversity back in the 1970s and 1980s,” De Graff said. “We passed the strongest fair housing ordinance in the nation.”…

Flossmoor and South Holland are among towns where policies embrace values of diversity. On Aug. 20, the Flossmoor Village Board adopted a set of “Guiding Principals for Diversity & Inclusion.”…

“The white population of this area shrank dramatically from a majority of 62.6 percent in 1990 to 37.6 percent in 2000,” his report said…

Mayors offered other analysis about the Pew report that sheds light on why several south suburbs lead the nation in black homeownership rates. Burke and De Graff said Olympia Fields and South Holland have few multi-family housing units and that their communities consist mostly of single-family homes.

On one hand, this would seem to signal progress. Many suburbs were closed to blacks and other minorities for decades. Only in the last few decades decades have blacks been able to move into more communities and the population shift has picked up in recent years. On the whole, the suburbs are now more non-white.

On the other hand, the story hints at ongoing difficulties. The homeownership rate for blacks on the whole in the United States is still low: 41%. The suburbs just to the west of these suburbs – categorized in the story as southwest suburbs – have a very low percentage of black residents. Finally, the white population dropped in these suburbs in the 1990s as blacks moved in. White flight continues.

Does this all represent success – access to the suburban American Dream for blacks – or an ongoing story of exclusion as whites flee and limit black homeownership to a relatively small portion of a large metropolitan area?

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.

White flight starting in the 1910s, not after World War II

Two economists look at white flight as it occurred decades before the post-World War II era:

Economists Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed data from 10 large U.S. cities in the Northeast and the Midwest from 1900 to 1930 to isolate the role of white flight that occurred in that period—before the Federal Housing Authority, which instituted many of the discriminatory housing policies, was born. They found that the exodus of white people from a particular neighborhood following the arrival of black residents led to a 34 percent increase in segregation during the 1910s; In the 1920s, it resulted in a striking 50 percent increase…

They isolated demographic data for 10 U.S. cities—New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Baltimore in the Northeast, and Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis in the Midwest—all of which had seen large influxes in black residents as a result of the Great Migration. They then designed a strategy to quantify the contribution of white flight to racial segregation…

One important thing to note: when white people left their neighborhoods in response to black arrivals in this period, they didn’t go to the suburbs—because suburbs didn’t really exist until the second half of the 20th century. They went to neighborhoods pretty similar to the ones they left—at least in terms of tax bases and public spending. That means that the measurements of white flight here “may thus provide a better gauge of racial distaste than those using postwar data,” the authors write in the paper.

When I’m asked about suburbanization, I often note that is start in the early 1900s, was derailed by the Great Depression, and then really took off after World War II. Many of the processes of post-war suburbia – including mass consumption, the construction of major roads and highways, more mass produced homes, the dominance of the automobile for daily life and planning, and changing racial and ethnic demographics in numerous urban neighborhoods – were already underway decades before. Perhaps it is convenient to blame the post-war era – and there were specific policy changes that happened then like federal funding for highways and changes to the mortgage industry to make homes accessible for more Americans – but these disliked features of 1950s suburbia have deeper roots.

Why are Chicago families fleeing for cheaper homes in the suburbs?

The Chicago Tribune leads with the story of a Chicago family who left the city for a townhouse in River Forest:

Megan Keskitalo and her husband, Glenn Eckstein, were enthusiastic city dwellers until the suburbs began calling. First it was Chicago’s crime, then it was worry about school districts, and in the end, it was money that pushed them past the city’s edge.

After a long search, the parents of two young daughters packed up their $1,300-a-month three-bedroom Lincoln Square apartment and in September paid $286,000 for a three-bedroom town house in River Forest.

“We were looking (in the city), but we couldn’t find anything in our price range, which was under $350,000,” Keskitalo said.

But, just how many Chicago families are doing this? The story sticks to general trends without any numbers:

They aren’t the only ones. While experts say Chicago’s housing market is sizzling — home sales were up about 8.1 percent in Chicago through November of this year, says the Illinois Association of Realtors — not everyone can afford to buy in the city. That’s because home prices are up too…

It’s not unusual for millennials and Generation Xers with children to flee to what real estate experts call “surbans” — walkable, amenity-rich suburbs — once they get married, have kids and are looking for less party and more quiet.

The implication of this article is that families like this are being priced out of Chicago: they might stay if they could find housing in their price range in attractive neighborhoods. Yet, there is a lot more going on here:

  1. The article also says real estate prices are on the rise in Chicago. This is generally seen as a good thing – unless it pushes desirable people, like young white families (or recent college graduates or older long-time city residents) out.
  2. There are real issues of affordable housing in Chicago and the whole region. However, there is often disagreement about who such housing should serve. Should it help keep wealthier residents in a community or serve those with much lower levels of income? Chicago is building plenty of high-end condos but there is not much action on the lower end of the market with affordable units in decent neighborhoods.
  3. This family had particular conditions for where they were willing to live: less crime, good schools, cheaper housing. Overall, they wanted a particular quality of life. They could have found cheaper housing in Chicago but without being willing to compromise on these particular issues, they left for the suburbs.
  4. How much of this is tied to the ongoing process of white flight? This family left a trendy Chicago neighborhood for an established wealthy and white suburb: River Forest is roughly 85% white and the median household income is over $113,000. Again, they could have found cheaper housing in the city (#3 above) if they were willing to live in more places that might not have been as white.

Residential segregation increases in the suburbs

A new study looking at 222 US metro areas between 1990 and 2010 finds increasing suburban residential segregation:

While segregation from neighborhood to neighborhood is decreasing (micro-segregation) within metropolitan areas, segregation from suburban communities (e.g., towns, villages, and cities) to other suburban communities within the same metropolitan areas and from major metropolitan cities to their suburban communities is increasing (macro-segregation). In other words, instead of people of different races living in distinct neighborhoods in the same major metropolitan cities and suburban communities, these major cities and suburban communities are becoming increasingly racially homogenous…

“One of our major findings is that suburban communities are becoming more segregated from each other,” Lichter said. “Cities and communities — not just neighborhoods — matter. Over the past decade or so, some suburban communities have become more racially diverse, even as whites have moved out to other growing suburbs farther from the city or have moved back to the city as part of the gentrification process. In the late 1970s, there was a famous study titled, ‘Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs,’ which highlighted that blacks generally lived in large cities while whites lived in suburban communities. Our study shows that minority population growth in the suburbs has fundamentally shifted historic patterns of residential segregation in this country.”…

Hence the claim that residential “segregation now taking new form.” This is consistent with other research showing the white flight scenario of the post-World War II decades has become more complex: more minorities and poor people live in the American suburbs but this hasn’t necessarily improved their lot in terms of quality and/or affordable housing, good schools, job opportunities, access to social services, and so on. Suburban communities have a variety of ways to promote racial (and class) homogeneity through means like zoning, minimum housing sizes, and appeals to patriotism. In this way, perhaps the suburban critics were/are right: they could never be the total panacea for the problems of American society.

White population of Detroit increases 12,000 in recent years

The tide of white flight out of Detroit has reversed slightly in the last few years:

No other city may be as synonymous as Detroit with white flight, the exodus of whites from large cities that began in the middle of the last century. Detroit went from a thriving hub of industry with a population of 1.8 million in 1950 to a city of roughly 680,000 in 2014 that recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In those decades, the city’s population has gone from nearly 84 percent white to a little less than 13 percent white.In the three years after the 2010 U.S. Census, though, Detroit’s white population grew from just under 76,000 residents to more than 88,000, according to a census estimate. The cheap cost of living, opportunities for young entrepreneurs and push by city-based companies to persuade workers to live nearby have made a big difference, experts say…

Blacks appear to be weary of waiting for Detroit to turn things around and have been migrating to nearby suburbs in search of comfort, better schools and lower crime.

The city’s black population was nearly 776,000 in 1990. By 2013 it had dipped to an estimated 554,000.

 

The first paragraph cited above is key: the level of white flight in Detroit was so staggering that even an increase of 12,000 white residents in three years might just be seen as a major success. However, this pace would need to pick up and/or continue for a decade or two before there could be legitimate claims about a rebound. Of course, as the later paragraphs above note, even black residents have left in large numbers in recent decades. Would it be considered a success if the white population continued to grow but the black population continued to leave?

In other words, there is still a lot to be done here before we can qualify the changes as successful for the whole city.