The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Metro Bait and Switch

Maybe the most famous example of “bait and switch”.  But not the only one.
We know this, but we act as if we don’t.
Our nation’s metropolitan areas are currently undergoing the most significant transformation of the last 75 years.  Not since widespread suburban expansion following World War II have we seen a similar metropolitan paradigm shift.  Cities are becoming more attractive and viable for former suburbanites.  Suburbs are rapidly diversifying in terms of their race, ethnicity and economic status.  These are the changes that many urbanists, housing and community development activists and others have been seeking for half a century.
Now that it’s happening, it’s evident that it’s too little, too late, and on the verge of establishing profound unintended consequences.
Instead of moderate integration, socially and economically, racially and ethnically, of both cities and suburbs, we’re in the midst of the rapid re-segregation of both.  The shift is supported by well-intentioned research and analysis by urbanism’s best and brightest minds, and may now be accelerated through federal policy.
City revitalization and suburban diversification are both well-documented, even as few people seem to conflate the two.  First, there’s the return of young, often white, suburbanites to cities.  Beginning around 1980, New York and San Francisco, and then Boston and Seattle, and later Washington, DC and other major cities, reversed decades of population loss with new growth.  Their newfound growth was in fact an outcome of an economic shift that preceded it – the explosion of the knowledge economy.  The late 20thcentury saw the consolidation of global economic sectors in our largest cities, leading to more finance workers to New York and tech workers to the Bay Area and Seattle.   City resurgence was also bolstered by growth in their educational and medical institutions, legacies of their earlier economic prosperity. 
At roughly the same time the racial, ethnic and economic diversification of the suburbs began.  In 1980, the U.S. Census showed that less than half of minorities living in metro areas were living in suburbs.  By 1990 Asians were the first minority group to have greater numbers in the suburbs.  They were followed by Hispanics in 2000, and African-Americans in 2010.  City revitalization and suburban diversification continue to move forward.
However, let’s look at how this appears in a wider social context that considers not just simple demographics, but new information and changing consumer preferences.  City revitalization is happening after a couple decades of suburban discredit, largely beginning in the ‘90s and building since.  After years of decrying homogenous, car-dependent subdivisions, more people are yearning for the walkable, mixed-use, serendipitous environment that cities offer.  New city residents are ready and willing to dispatch of their suburban past – at least for now – as they cozy up to the rediscovered city.
Meanwhile, suburban diversification is happening after even more decades of urban discredit, in effect displacing the declining urban narrative that came to the fore more than a century ago.  There is a new appreciation of and access to the suburban lifestyle by minorities.  Minorities are finding the space, solitude, good schools and peace of mind that often eluded them in cities.
The problem, however, is this: well-to-do whites who move to cities stand a good chance of bringing with them many of the private amenities – the shops and stores, restaurants, and ultimately, jobs – that will make cities more livable again.  History shows that the same won’t happen with increased suburban diversity.  The minorities who move to the suburbs stand a good chance of losing a substantial number of the amenities that exist there today. 
If we extrapolate current trends over the next couple decades, we may have metro areas that will become the polar opposite of the poor-city/rich-suburb paradigm that’s dominated for nearly a century: welcome to the rich-city/poor-suburb future.
The nation’s urban and housing policy apparatus is shifting along these same lines.  A growing number of urbanists target zoning policy in our cities and suburbs.  Widespread downzoning of former multifamily districts into single-family districts in cities, or unrealistic height limits, they say, restricts housing supply in the urban neighborhoods that are now in greatest demand.  This means affordable housing development cannot take place where it is most needed.  Furthermore urbanists point to similar exclusionary zoning policy in suburban areas as a key barrier to diversification.  Urbanists are pushing for zoning reform in both realms.  An emboldened U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also entered the fray by issuing its new Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule, which will require jurisdictions that receive HUD funding to specifically note how they will address affordable and fair housing concerns – bolstered by data from HUD that will outline the issues.  Jurisdictions that fail to adequately address HUD’s concerns may risk losing funding.
The policy tide is turning along with the shift in preferences.  Sadly, just as earlier policy led to the creation of our urban ghettos, particularly in Northeastern and Midwestern cities, today’s policy direction will lead to poorer and more isolated suburbanites surrounding affluent cities.
Let’s consider how segregation has evolved so far in America.  American Segregation 1.0 had its start after Reconstruction.  The Black Codes, and later Jim Crow, were buoyed by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision to allow separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites.  That led to explicit segregation of housing, public and private facilities, and vastly unequal societies.  The Civil Rights Movement defeated Segregation 1.0.
American Segregation 2.0 began its rise in the 1910s and ‘20s, as blacks began moving northward for opportunity and refuge.  Restrictive covenants and zoning laws were established to contain blacks within certain areas of cities.  Redlining, urban renewal policies and federal interstate highway construction were meant to maximize urban investment potential but had the disparate impact of isolating inner city communities.  The modern ghetto is an outcome of these policies, and despite the fact that there is growing awareness of the creation and impact of Segregation 2.0, it still flourishes.
Today’s metro bait and switch is American Segregation 3.0.  After a few generations of suburban living, many whites began to rue the loss of proximity to businesses, retail , top-tier educational and medical institutions, museums, art galleries, music venues and sports complexes that remain rooted in cities.  The cities that enjoy plentiful and accessible public transit make it easy for people to reach these amenities there, and people are returning.  Hooray for city revitalization.
But why are the suburbs that many decried now suddenly “good enough” for minorities?  Why is it finally happening now that suburbs are considered – almost exclusively – as a key part of the resolution of our nation’s fair and affordable housing problems?  Rather than worry about displacement because of gentrification, where are the strategies and policies for addressing integration in cities, as they continue their rebound?
Does anyone else see this flip occurring?
HUD’s recent response to this change, through its AFFH Rule, is admirable but it essentially addresses Segregation 2.0’s problems without an acknowledgement of the new dynamic.   Suburban jurisdictions have become quite adept at evading and avoiding their affordable housing responsibility, and done so with HUD’s frustrating complicity.  Despite the new rule, it’s conceivable that suburban jurisdictions will find new ways to evade and avoid as they attempt to hold on to narrow housing demographic that they believe defines them.  As that happens, opportunities for true integration will be lost.
There is an implicit racism buried deeply within this bait and switch.  Not only are suburbs being touted for minorities, but there is a sense that cities can be “rescued” from decades of bad governance, deindustrialization and crime through technology, DIY strategies and a belief in their “authenticity”.  Put another way, minorities had their chance to save the city; now it’s our turn.
So what does the future hold?  Paris’ les banlieues, the suburban low-income, public housing districts that surround the affluent City of Light, offer some insight into how the rich-city/poor-suburb paradigm will look.  The isolated, largely immigrant population outside Paris stands in sharp contrast to the beautiful city center.  There are American examples of this as well, in metro Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and others, with Ferguson, MO, outside of St. Louis, being one especially cautionary example.  The only difference between Paris and the American metros showing signs of this is that the process in America has yet to fully mature.
Metro areas that reach the end state of the emerging rich-city/poor-suburb paradigm will find themselves with poorer suburban residents, with less access to jobs and public and private amenities, and even more social isolation than today’s low-income city residents endure now.
If our metro areas are ever going to move toward integration – and more importantly, operate at their greatest economic efficiency – it’s time to employ new tools for the metropolitan future.  Eliminating exclusionary zoning practices in cities experiencing strong development pressure is worthwhile.  But doing so just in the most desirable cities will simply mean that more housing will be built where the demand is strongest, with little attention given to less desirable areas.  Zoning reform must be part of a broader metro approach that assures all metro area municipalities dutifully accept their fair share of affordable housing.  Regional transit, and transit-oriented development, should become a priority for all sizable metro areas, improving access for workers to job-rich areas.  Perhaps metro tax sharing programs can ameliorate the funding differences that create the disparities we see now within our metro areas, and will surely develop as the paradigm shift accelerates.

It is vitally important for us to make the best use of the opportunity before us.  This is a once-in-a-century transformation taking place within metro areas.  We must deal with the legacy of segregation in American metros, and our half-hearted attempts at finding solutions.  If not, it won’t be long before pundits conjecture on why American cities are prosperous while our suburbs lag, with little understanding on the policy and process that preceded the transformation.

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