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The Slumming of Suburbia

• February 14, 2009 • 1:00 PM

The poor are fleeing our cities, but life is not always greener, even when affordable housing comes with a two-car garage.

The financial meltdown has produced a vast patchwork of foreclosed and abandoned single-family homes across America, accelerating the decades-long migration of our nation’s poor from cities to the suburban fringe. In 2005, as rising property values reduced affordable-housing stock in inner-city neighborhoods, suburban poverty, in raw numbers, topped urban poverty for the first time.

The trend will continue. By 2025, predicts planning expert Arthur C. Nelson, America will face a market surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (a sixth of an acre or more), attracting millions of low-income residents deeper into suburbia where decay and social and geographic isolation will pose challenges few see coming.

“As a society, we have fundamentally failed to address our housing policy,” said Nelson, director of metropolitan research at the University of Utah. “Suburbia is overbuilt and yet we will keep on building there. Most policymakers don’t see the consequences, and those who do are denying reality.”

Nelson and others warn that suburbia’s least desirable neighborhoods – aging, middle-class tract-home developments far from city centers and mass transit lines — are America’s emerging slums, characterized by poverty, crime and other social ills. Treating those ills is complicated by the same qualities that once defined suburbia’s appeal — seclusion, homogeneity and low population density. “We built too much of the suburban dream, and now it’s coming back to haunt us,” Nelson said.

To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience — dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers — while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.

Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones — sometimes called “demographic inversion” — will continue for decades.

“Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they’re tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan. He said consumer preference is reflected by Hollywood: “People identify with Sex and the City and Seinfeld. So why are we still building like Leave it to Beaver?”

Leinberger is an unabashed urbanist who preaches the gospel of dense, mixed-use communities like a missionary saving souls in the jungle. As a visiting fellow this year at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., he walks to his office and to appointments around the city. He argues, with few dissenters, that suburbs are losing favor because they make little sense, forcing people into their cars, limiting social interaction and discouraging racial and socio-economic diversity. Enlightened planners across the country are promoting compact “24/7″ urban centers were people live, work and play in close proximity. Virtually every major U.S. city is targeting once-gritty urban neighborhoods for revitalization and, inevitably, gentrification.

The displaced poor find value in the aging, outer-ring tract-home developments that once promised easy living far from the city’s hustle and bustle. And housing officials, resolved to breaking up pockets of concentrated poverty (where at least 40 percent of the families are living below the poverty line), are thrilled. The federal Section 8 housing program, which allows recipients to negotiate government-subsidized rentals anywhere, is grounded in the belief that a safe, stable neighborhood can help unbuckle the straps of poverty.

But the positive benefits of moving to a neighborhood of less poverty diminish as the number of poor relocating there increases, new research suggests. In other words, families are far less likely to pull themselves out of poverty when their exposure to other poor families reaches a kind of tipping point. George C. Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, has quantified this poverty threshold as roughly 15 to 20 percent of a neighborhood. If the poverty rate exceeds that, Galster said, “All hell breaks loose” in the form of crime, drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, drug use and, in turn, declining property values.

Galster’s working paper for the National Poverty Center, Consequences from the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990s: A Cautionary Tale, warns that polices to break up concentrated poverty may be backfiring. While the number of Americans living in the poorest neighborhoods has notably declined since 1990, by about 25 percent, poverty elsewhere has inched up. Galster worries that the rush to relocate the urban poor, through Section 8 and other poverty redistribution programs, has pushed many less-desirable suburban neighborhoods to this tipping point.

And when they tip, he added, neighborhoods tend to spiral deeper into poverty: Declining property values attract more poor residents, gradually displacing the middle-class families that provide stability, further depressing prices.

Miami real estate broker Adrian Salgado said he’s witnessing the spiral, even within newer tract-home development in the region’s southern and western fringes. With many areas overbuilt, and foreclosure rates high, Section 8 tenants and other low-income renters are finding deals too good to pass up. “I know everybody needs a place to live, but we’re creating a social disaster,” said Salgado, noting that many early middle-class buyers in these transition neighborhoods are desperate to sell but can’t.

Although national data is thin, local officials across the country are reporting an increase in violent crime, gang activity, drug use and other social breakdowns within suburban neighborhoods. In places like New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, urban crime rates are dropping while rising on the outskirts of town. Crime is also rising in the fast-growing sunbelt communities hit hard with foreclosures. Leinberger noted that in Lee County Fla., where nearly 25 percent of the homes stand empty, robberies were up nearly 50 percent last year.

Indeed, police in some cities are monitoring suburban foreclosures to identify neighborhoods at risk for increased crime, while others look at Section 8 relocations, arguing that a sudden rise in low-income rental densities is among their most reliable indicators of a coming crime spike.

Such tactics rankle some anti-poverty advocates, but a growing body of research is challenging suburban relocation as a remedy for poverty. Ed Goetz, a housing policy specialist at the University of Minnesota, said the suburban dream often fades for poor families because old support systems are severed, and access to programs and services — day care, after-school programs, job training, drug treatment and counseling — are greatly hampered by shear distance.

“The isolation can be both physical and emotional,” Goetz said. “The frequency of interaction with neighbors declines, social networks break down. We haven’t considered that carefully enough.” Goetz said studies show a surprising willingness among the suburban poor to return to urban, high-poverty neighborhoods where services are more accessible and mass transit more convenient.

But the suburban diaspora of America’s poor is unlikely to subside, most experts agree, posing complex challenges for policymakers. If anything, added Alan Berube, a housing expert at the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty will grow not just from in-migration of the poor but from within as the financial crisis “pushes middle-class families down the economic ladder.”

With that in mind, Galster recommends strict monitoring of suburban poverty rates to prevent neighborhoods from reaching the so-called tipping point. Such data would allow housing officials to push for laws requiring property owners in low-poverty neighborhoods to accept Section 8 tenants (the existing program is voluntary), something he recommends. Conversely, he argued, laws should prevent landlords from accepting low-income tenants when neighborhood poverty rates exceed designated levels. He also supports “inclusionary zoning” rules that mandate a small number of low-income housing units in new single-family developments.

But Nelson, whose research predicts the vast oversupply of large-lot homes in the coming decades — and the growing “suburbanization of poverty” — said much can be done today to reshape the residential landscape. Most of the homes he expects to exist in 2025 have yet to be built. He said planners can reduce that oversupply by crafting long-term growth policies that reflect a careful assessment of regional demands for all housing types over a generation or more. What they will find, he said, is a preference among all income groups for denser, mixed-use communities with access to mass transit.

Leinberger agreed, arguing that planners should acknowledge that the suburban experiment has failed. “I wouldn’t add another new road in American today,” he said. “The changing geography of poverty is another reminder that our housing policies today will be felt for years to come, and in ways nobody ever imagined.”

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David Villano
David Villano is an award-winning, Miami-based journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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