The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

We’re Not Ready – Still – to Address Inequality and Segregation

University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield in St. Paul, MN.  Source:

If anyone’s been wondering about the relative lack of content on this blog lately, one explanation, aside from some recent personal changes, is the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last April and the subsequent protests.  To me the death of Gray is not surprising, nor are the street-level protests.  I’ve been dismayed by the reactions to the protests, much of it coming from the very urbanists I assumed would be a natural ally to the cause and plight of minorities in distressed inner-city communities.  Sadly, the events in Baltimore, coupled with the events in Ferguson late last year, give me a sense that many urbanists are willing to take a “we’ll take it from here” approach to urban revitalization, rather than teaming with current residents to address disparities and inequalities.

A running thought in my mind is that cities across the country have made incredible progress over the last 20-25 years, yet the rising tide has hardly lifted all boats.  Even as economic inequality rises in the U.S., I was holding out some hope that proximity might provide an opportunity for improved economic outcomes — that wealthier people living closer to lower-income people might offer some benefits in terms of understanding concerns and coming up with solutions.  What I’m seeing now is movement toward succession in cities.

I’m not alone in this thinking.  I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Myron Orfield, currently a law professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the school’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.  He’s also the author of two books that strongly influenced me early in my career — Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability and American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality.  The first was published in 1997, the second in 2002.

Orfield started out as a Minnesota state legislator representing parts of the Twin Cities in the early ’90s.  Through his own research he found, even in a metro area as homogeneous as the Twin Cities, considerable evidence of economic and social disparities rooted in residential segregation patterns.  He was an early adopter of GIS and used maps to illustrate the disparities throughout the Twin Cities metro area.  The maps and reports became the foundation for regional policies coordinated through the Twin Cities’ Metro Council.  His work there led to the books.

There are eight regional policies that often come up in Orfield’s books and subsequent reports that move metro areas from isolating the poor and working class within distinct parts of the region, and having them accept their fair share of the burden:

  • Regional sales tax sharing.
  • Regional property tax sharing
  • A regional standard of the number of affordable housing units within municipalities
  • Elimination of exclusionary zoning practices
  • Suburban consolidation
  • School district consolidation
  • Effective and expansive regional transit systems
  • Urban growth boundaries

Any one of these would be incredibly difficult to implement within any metro area.  They challenge the sovereignty and exclusivity of suburban areas.  No wonder Orfield’s reports had so little traction.

Fast forward twenty years.  The Metro Council has pared back many of the innovative policies it once employed.  On the strength of his books Orfield embarked on a national tour to analyze other metro areas across the country and develop detailed reports on how they, too, could address their inequality challenges.  But as the mid-2000s housing bubble grew, it appears many metro areas believed they could grow out of any problems they might have, and Orfield’s work waned.  Then the crash, the foreclosures, and startling recognition that our nation’s largest cities were growing.

With the changes we’ve seen over the last 20-25 years in cities, does Orfield believe metropolitan coordination is more or less relevant now?  “Without a doubt it’s more crucial today, and many metro areas are paying the price for not having put in place regional policies in a more favorable political environment,” at the local and state levels.  He compared Detroit with Louisville, Kentucky.  More than forty years ago, hyper-segregation in metro Detroit’s schools led to the Miliken v. Bradley case.  The Supreme Court ruled that unintentional segregation, as they saw it in Detroit, did not require action from local school districts; only if segregation had been an explicit policy of the school districts.  Metro Detroit schools were able to remain segregated.  It could be argued that Detroit’s segregationist policies play a role in a metro area punching below its economic weight.

Meanwhile in Louisville, a similar desegregation suit led to the merger of the Louisville Public Schools with that of Jefferson County in 1975.  Educational and economic disparities in metro Louisville have greatly reduced over time, and the consolidation may have provided the impetus for the Louisville/Jefferson County consolidation that took place in 2003.

I asked Orfield about the larger profile he had 20 years ago compared to what he has today, even at a time when inequality is more of a national concern than it’s been in decades.  He agrees, and says the growth of the community development/affordable housing industry has addressed the housing side of the equation without at all addressing inequality as a result of segregation.  Here’s how he describes it in a paper that was a response to a rebuttal of a paper Orfield did on the limits of fair housing policy:

“Within the field there are two broad perspectives about housing policy. One older framework focuses overwhelmingly on the production of units with the physical structure and the immediate neighborhood as the fundamental focal points. Such housing researchers tend to focus on the details of packaging, financing, and activities within the frame of single neighborhood, rather than a metropolitan area. This older field studies neither racial segregation nor discrimination by government, private firm, and individuals, nor its metropolitan level harms to individuals, neighborhoods, and regions. It is not concerned with the impact of residential segregation on local school quality or the metropolitan dynamics of housing markets and migration patterns for households of all races. It is not interested in the effects of local tax policy and inter-local fiscal disparity on urban services and redevelopment.

The second perspective conceptualizes housing policy in a way more closely attuned to the priorities of middle class families: as access to a desirable community that offers strong opportunities and few threats to the development of the children, drawing heavily on both law and sociology. It is also concerned with the need of central cities to remain racially and socially integrated and competitive with the suburbs in terms of cost and services. In short, one viewpoint (places emphasis) on the details of putting together funding and gaining access to sites and the other on systems of opportunity related to location within metropolitan space.” 

 Emphasis added.

Orfield believes that fair housing policy has been co-opted by the community development/affordable housing industry and its myriad actors, and in fact may be operating with the blessing and consent of the for-profit housing development industry that seeks to claim land for the most profitable homes — on the suburban periphery, and now, in trendy urban cores.

That kind of thinking may put him in the same gloomy place I’ve been.

One of the strengths of Orfield’s books was that he not only documented the extent of the problems within metro areas, he detailed the constituency that would be most receptive to the message and could lead the charge for implementation.  He argued that inner-city neighborhoods (like Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was killed) and inner-ring suburbs (like Ferguson outside St. Louis, where Michael Brown was killed) could band together to form a natural coalition.  Inner-city neighborhoods had seen much and could easily state the case for change; inner-ring suburbs are on the cusp of dramatic change and in need of new tools to survive and prosper.  It made all the sense in the world when I read his boos 18 years ago.

But does anyone see such a coalition emerging today?

I wonder if the future of our metro areas depends on it.

5 Responses to “We’re Not Ready – Still – to Address Inequality and Segregation”

  1. Anonymous

    1) Regional sales tax sharing.2) Regional property tax sharing3) A regional standard of the number of affordable housing units within municipalities4) Elimination of exclusionary zoning practices5) Suburban consolidation6) School district consolidation7) Effective and expansive regional transit systemsUrban growth boundariesRealistically, only 4) has a chance and that's because leading leftists are championing the cause. The other seven? No way in hell are voters in Dupage County, IL or Oakland County, MI or Arapahoe County, CO gonna' agree to merge with Chicago or Detroit or Denver. No way in hell. Why would they want to be stuck with those corrupt, Machine Democrats? So they can screw up even more of the land and population? Dream on.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Mike, surely you read what I wrote immediately following that list you shared:\”Any one of these would be incredibly difficult to implement within any metro area. They challenge the sovereignty and exclusivity of suburban areas. No wonder Orfield's reports had so little traction.\”I agree that the political slope for the passage of any of these is quite steep and very unlikely, for the reasons you suggest. And keep in mind here that I was only passing on Orfield's policy prescription, not mine. However, I do look at this from a moral perspective. Suburban areas created exclusive dominions for the middle and upper classes to concentrate the poor in cities, and cities have paid the price. Should suburbs accept some of a metro area's overall low-income burden? I believe they should. And the libertarian view to let cities and suburbs compete in the marketplace creates perverse options (dense suburban subdivisions surrounded by nothing, and intact urban neighborhoods torn up for more contemporary suburban tastes. Neither really works.)Lastly, Democrats do not stand alone when it comes to corruption. There are instances of suburban Republican corruption, most recently with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's hush money/blackmail scandal. Former Rep. Hastert hails from suburban Yorkville, IL. I can't agree that cities are in the position they are because of corrupt, Democratic rule. They would be in the same position with Republican rule — is Indianapolis any better off for having mostly Republican mayors, or Kansas City? The problem is at the state and federal levels, where nothing like a reasonable and coherent urban policy has been in place for nearly 50 years.


  3. Anonymous

    @ Pete Saunders: However, I do look at this from a moral perspective. Suburban areas created exclusive dominions for the middle and upper classes to concentrate the poor in cities, and cities have paid the price. Should suburbs accept some of a metro area's overall low-income burden? I believe they should.Conversely, cities created exclusive dominions for lower and very-upper classes. Witness the fleeing of the middle class from Chicago, leaving only the lower class who depend on the Dem's for free stuff, and the childless, very-upper class who don't care if they pay $5K or $10K property taxes on their $500K condo on the North Side because 1) they can afford it in any case and 2) it assuages their white guilt that they've been inculcated with since being taught such nonsense at their Frankfurt School public schools. Dem's love this bifurcated electorate because it guarantees their continued election. Middle class voters are too darned independent and seriously threaten the Democrat Machine monopoly. Witness the GOP strongholds of Dupage County, IL, Oakland County, MI, and (to a lesser extent) Arapahoe County, CO. They're the first line of defense against one party rule of their respective cities.I never claimed that Republicans aren't corrupt. They're politicians, so of course they're corrupt. My point is this: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.[Lord Acton (1887)]. Chicago hasn't had a GOP mayor—a change in party—for 83 years; Detroit: 53 years; Baltimore: 48 years; St. Louis: 66 years. Absolute, multi-generational corruption. Denny Hastert's getting into the pants of high school jocks—while disgusting—doesn't even come close to enervating effects of the rampant, absolute corruption in the big, blue, Midwestern cities: it absolutely drives out the hard working, tax-paying middle class.You bring up Indianapolis: at least there's been a power change every generation or so, unlike political cesspools of Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. And as I recall, you recently landed in Naperville, which hasn't had a Dem federal Representative since 1895.


  4. NEO

    Sadly, it is this precise, extremely narrow, binary political thinking of individuals like \”Mike\” that will likely continue to doom governance of American metros to rampant parochialism, fractiousness and ultimately mediocrity. That is, until a broader coalition of urban and suburban residents finally emerges to supplant it, seeing the benefits and value in collective unity at the metropolitan level.There is reason to believe as Mr. Saunders has suggested in previous articles, though it is still far off, that such a day is coming, as observable social and economic differences between urban and suburban areas continue to gradually fade and disappear in most major US metros. I suspect this will become more evident with the aging and eventual passing on of the Boomer generation. Not that Gen-Xers and Millennials are necessarily anti-suburb, but they certainly seem to be much less vehemently ideological about them either way, compared to the Boomers as a group–one that \”Mike\” seems very much a part of.



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