From the ‘Burbs to the ‘Hood

From the ‘Burbs to the ‘Hood

Activists are finding success solving social problems on a regional basis.


“There’s no such thing as the suburbs anymore,” says Minnesota State Representative Myron Orfield as he drives me past run-down apartment complexes and near-empty strip malls in the blue-collar communities north of Minneapolis. “They’re all so different now.” Except for the squat 1950s and 1960s architecture, this area looks like the inner city: check-cashing outlets, day-labor agencies, wig shops, pool halls, a social-service agency housed in an old 7-11 convenience store. In the suburb of Hilltop, the city hall sits in the middle of a trailer park. Orfield notes that schools in Brooklyn Center are 50 percent minority (in a region that is only 9 percent) and that 55 percent of students are eligible for free-lunch programs–suggesting a concentration of poverty approaching that of hard-hit neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few months later Orfield takes me on another tour, this time through the southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, where we travel down newly reconstructed highways surrounded on all sides by mounds of black dirt. As rolling farmland is dug up for a new Blockbuster video store, a new Outback Steakhouse, new glitzy office parks for firms with quintessentially Year 2000 names like Veratech and PageNet, and new subdivisions of half-million-dollar homes, the air is full of the smell of fresh asphalt and the sound of pile drivers. “I get sad out here,” he says. “The landscape is being destroyed and money is being sucked out of the city.”

Orfield, 39, who grew up in Minneapolis and now represents it in the state legislature, has launched an ambitious political initiative to slow suburban sprawl and the accompanying flow of wealth from older neighborhoods into booming new communities on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. He sees central cities and blue-collar suburbs as allies in an emerging political coalition to revitalize low- and middle-income communities–not just in Minneapolis-St. Paul but across the country. Working with a growing national movement of social-justice activists, environmentalists and municipal officials–both urban and suburban–Orfield promotes the idea that problems like poverty, affordable housing and inner-city decline are best solved on a regional basis. Struggling Brooklyn Center and ritzy Eden Prairie, along with the public housing projects and gentrified neighborhoods of Orfield’s Minneapolis legislative district, are all part of the same metropolitan community. And their fates are inextricably linked.

All metropolitan regions function as unified economic units, Orfield explains, and many of the advantages enjoyed by new, upscale suburbs come at the expense of inner-city neighborhoods and older suburbs. Communities on the outer rings of a metropolitan area that are flourishing–with new houses, new businesses and new jobs–can offer lower taxes, better public services and shelter from crime and other social problems while providing no affordable housing for the low-wage workers who make this economic growth possible. This draws businesses and middle-class families away from cities and inner-ring suburbs, setting off a spiral of disinvestment and decline. The tax base shrinks in these older communities at the same time that an increasingly poor population needs more public services. This is the familiar story of urban decline that has ravaged cities across America since World War II. But Orfield has identified two new dimensions of the problem.

First, many suburbs are now joining cities as the big losers in this game. From New Rochelle (once famous as Rob and Laura Petrie’s suburban New York home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but now heavily poor and Latino) to Compton (the Los Angeles suburb immortalized by gangsta rap pioneers NWA in their album Straight Outta Compton), it’s clear that urban decline no longer occurs only within the boundaries of central cities.

“Many suburbs are actually much more fragile than center cities,” explains Orfield. “When they start to go, they go fast. You always have certain people who want to live in the city: young people, gays and lesbians, and artistic types as well as many upper-middle-class people with an affection for urban living and old architecture. There’s an aesthetic appeal to older, walkable neighborhoods. But no one wants to live in many of these inner suburbs once they start to decline. You won’t find yuppies moving into neighborhoods full of 1950s and 1960s houses with no woodwork, no hardwood floors.”

Orfield’s second key point is that upscale suburbs on the edge of metropolitan areas thrive in large part because they receive the lion’s share of public investment in new roads and sewers, which are paid for by everyone in the region. According to his research, a disproportionate amount of gas-tax revenues, state and federal income taxes, and county and regional property taxes are spent on infrastructure improvements in new suburban areas across the country.

“Essentially,” Orfield says, “people in central cities and inner suburbs are subsidizing their own decline.” Orfield backs up these assertions with an avalanche of statistical data that he’s organized into color-coded maps. What stands out in his analysis of the Twin Cities is that a string of suburbs stretching along the I-494 beltway south and west of Minneapolis (with Eden Prairie at the epicenter) has captured most of the benefits of the region’s strong economy–new jobs, new development, high incomes, high tax base, low poverty, low crime. He notes that during the 1980s these communities, known locally as “the fertile crescent,” accounted for only 27 percent of the region’s population but claimed 83 percent of all federal and state road investments. They also account for 61 percent of job growth during the same period. These trends continued unabated through the 1990s. Today, the southwest suburbs claim 50 percent of all transportation spending.

The downside of the region’s lopsided economic growth–a growing gap between rich and poor–is felt most acutely in inner-city neighborhoods and, increasingly, in older blue-collar suburbs. Despite the Twin Cities’ strong economy and reputation as a livable, liberal community, in recent years the area has witnessed an alarming rise in poverty and now has one of the highest minority poverty rates of any major metropolitan area. The percentage of Minneapolis public school students who are poor rose from 33 percent in 1980 to 73 percent in 1998; St. Paul saw an even more drastic rise, from 28 percent to 69 percent.

Orfield found parallel trends when asked by local foundation officials and activist groups to do similar studies of Chicago; Los Angeles; Washington, DC; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Miami; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon. In region after region, his maps chart rising levels of economic inequity (no surprise) but also strong trends of disinvestment and poverty in inner-ring suburbs. He points to studies showing that fifty-nine suburbs in the Chicago region now have a lower tax base per household than the city itself. In the Los Angeles region, eighty-six suburbs do.

Drawing on this research, Orfield has fashioned an innovative political program to spread the benefits of economic growth to all corners of America’s metropolitan areas. The chief goal of this program is encouraging middle-class people and thriving businesses to remain in–or move back into–city neighborhoods and older suburbs. Orfield proposes to achieve this by removing barriers that stand in the way of community revival: poor public services, a low tax base and the web of social problems that arise in pockets of concentrated poverty. His recipe for regional revitalization, outlined in his book Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Brookings Institution), is surprisingly simple, based on four ideas that have already been shown to work around the country: Setting an urban growth boundary beyond which new development cannot sprawl; creating a regional government elected by voters; establishing “fair share” housing policies that insure all municipalities provide some affordable housing; and sharing local tax revenues between wealthier and poorer municipalities.

An urban growth boundary, which has been in place in Portland, Oregon, for more than twenty years, keeps the lid on suburban sprawl, saving farmland and open space. But it also redirects development back toward the city and inner-ring suburbs because there is less cheap land available on the outskirts of the region. Downtown Portland and many city neighborhoods have benefited enormously from renovation projects and new development spawned by the growth boundary [see Walljasper, “Portland’s Green Peace,” October 13, 1997].

Elected regional government, also found in Portland, allows important decisions like transportation planning, land-use planning and housing policy to be coordinated on a regional level rather than by scores of local governments. This helps to stop the damage of zero-sum politics, in which a suburban city council is, for instance, unlikely to take the lead in creating affordable housing out of fear that if other communities don’t follow suit it will be deluged with poor people.

Fair-share housing measures, which require all municipalities in a region to provide housing for some low- and middle-income families, help relieve the tangle of social problems that arise when poor people are concentrated in certain locales. This idea has been adopted in a number of suburban areas, most impressively in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, DC, where 10,000 affordable houses have been constructed in affluent neighborhoods since 1977 [see Walljasper, “A Fair Share in Suburbia,” January 25, 1999].

Tax-base sharing, which has been practiced in the Twin Cities since 1976, helps put the brake on urban and inner-ring suburban decline by insuring an adequate level of public services in all communities. The inner-city neighborhoods and hard-hit blue-collar suburbs in the Twin Cities area don’t show the same signs of economic free fall as their counterparts across the country. Poverty certainly exists, and public schools, along with other social institutions, are strained, but you don’t see the urban decay and decline in social services so familiar in poor quarters of other metropolitan areas. The streets are in good repair. Police and emergency vehicles respond quickly to calls. There are numerous neighborhood libraries, well-maintained playgrounds and parks with neatly trimmed grass. This is because 40 percent of all commercial and industrial property taxes collected in each Twin Cities municipality is put into a regional pool and divvied up among communities on the basis of need. The city of St. Paul is the biggest beneficiary in total dollars, but the Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights counts on these funds for a full quarter of its municipal budget. Tax-base sharing is very popular, having survived Republican attempts to repeal it almost every year since it was passed. A look at the numbers shows why: Two-thirds of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region benefits from the economic good fortune of the wealthiest one-third.

Orfield has incorporated the four elements of this regionalist revitalization agenda into a series of bills introduced in the Minnesota state legislature. While he has not succeeded in enacting the program as a whole, he’s seen significant success with new policies on affordable housing, sewer construction, transit and redevelopment money for urban brownfields. And thanks to a never-before-seen coalition of legislators from central cities and blue-collar suburbs, there have been steps toward greater decision-making on a regional scale.

After the election of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota’s governor in 1998, many observers predicted that Orfield’s ideas would be dead in the water. Ventura, after all, had once denounced Orfield as a communist on his talk-radio show. Yet, as it turns out, Ventura’s administration has been surprisingly warm to the regionalist agenda–especially Ted Mondale, son of the former Vice President, who was appointed to the powerful position of metropolitan council chairman (responsible for transportation planning, sewer services and some other regional services).

Orfield is not surprised at Ventura’s support, noting that as mayor of Brooklyn Park, a northern suburb with a mix of blue-collar and white-collar residents, the former pro wrestler endorsed all of Orfield’s regionalist legislation. Ventura understands that the voters who put him into office benefit from these policies. He won 58 percent of the vote in blue-collar suburbs and 33 percent in the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, compared with only 17 percent in white-collar suburbs.

Blue-collar suburbs have become the strategic battleground of US elections. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both won big in these communities. And they are where both the presidential and Congressional elections will be decided this year, which may be the reason Al Gore has invited Orfield to the vice-presidential residence several times. Orfield calculates that as many as two-thirds of residents in America’s metropolitan regions wind up on the short end of the stick when it comes to the massive share of public investment flowing into new suburbs. As people have come to realize this, it has sparked a wave of community organizing on regional revitalization issues–in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Portland, Oregon.

If residents of older, blue-collar suburbs come to feel their fate is linked with that of people in central cities, it could change the face of US politics. No one says this is going be easy. For one thing, regional revitalization is an unabashedly wonkish issue, replete with arcane details about funding sewer projects, drafting land-use strategies and apportioning responsibilities among different levels of government.

At the same time, “people can come to understand what appears to be rather complex social and political analysis when it affects their lives,” observes Pamela Twiss, co-director of ISAIAH, a statewide group of inner-city and suburban churches that has embraced Orfield’s regional revitalization agenda as one of its chief organizing missions. “When you talk about how all the money for roads and sewers is going to the new suburbs and how poverty is being consciously concentrated in the inner city and inner suburbs, you can see the lights going on in people’s heads.”

The regionalist agenda has been challenged by some as being blind to the question of race–a criticism Orfield acknowledges. “It is a question of political order,” he answers. “First you get communities to accept a variety of housing types. Once that occurs you are in a better position to talk about racial discrimination in housing.” One of Orfield’s allies in the regionalist movement, john powell, the African-American director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School and former legal director for the national American Civil Liberties Union, argues that inequality in public services and economic opportunities between rich and poor communities is one of the prime obstacles facing people of color today. “Why aren’t civil rights activists jumping up and down and saying we need to do something about this?” he asks. One reason, he suggests, is that leaders in minority communities, especially elected officials, worry about a dilution of political power if government decision-making shifts to the regional level. Yet a glance at longtime strongholds of black voting power like Gary, Indiana, and Detroit shows the stark limits of political clout in regions where economic control is concentrated outside the city limits.

Other objections, raised most frequently by Republicans opposing Orfield’s measures at the state capital and by municipal officials from upscale suburbs, are that these measures undercut the power of local governments, choke free-market development, penalize prosperous communities, promote class conflict and deny people a choice of lifestyle options. “People want to live the lifestyle they want to live, no matter what the regulations say,” declares Representative Ron Abrams, a Republican from a wealthy suburban district west of Minneapolis.

Orfield counters that his legislation offers families a greater choice in how they live. Existing regulations in upscale suburbs generally restrict people to single-family houses on large lots, even though there is a strong local market and willing developers for apartments and townhouses. At the same time, he adds, efforts to revitalize central cities and older suburbs could provide attractive options for people of all incomes wanting something besides the cul-de-sac lifestyle.

Fears about race and class, although seldom mentioned outright in polite Minnesota, pose perhaps the most significant obstacle to the regionalist agenda. Many people feel they’ve insulated themselves from the problems of urban life by moving into a prosperous new suburb. They react fiercely to proposals to bring lower-income people into their neighborhoods or to share their tax dollars with less fortunate communities, condemning these ideas as “social engineering.”

“I always shudder when I hear Myron’s proposals called social engineering,” says Russ Adams, director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a coalition of more than twenty organizations–ranging from the Minneapolis Urban League to Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy–that is working to promote the regional revitalization agenda in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “What was redlining to keep investment out of black neighborhoods? What was federal funding for freeways so people could move out of the city? Our suburbs are complete products of social engineering.”

However, there are signs that this kind of resistance is not insurmountable. Maple Grove, a fast-growing upscale suburb northwest of Minneapolis where local officials were adamantly opposed to affordable-housing projects just a few years ago, won an award last year for excellence in affordable-housing initiatives. The turnaround came, according to Adams, after the passage of regionalist legislation that offered a combination of carrots and sticks on affordable-housing policy.

Orfield notes that he hears from many residents in newer suburbs who support the regionalist agenda as a way to curtail sprawl and preserve the quality of life in their communities–by preventing further traffic problems, preserving open space and insuring future vitality. If the bulk of new investment continually flows to the outer edges of a metropolitan region, it’s only a matter of time until currently prosperous areas begin to show symptoms of decline. After all, many of the inner-ring suburbs around the country now experiencing urban decay were settled in the 1950s and 1960s by families seeking a haven from what were perceived as the problems of the city. Orfield points to studies done by Richard Voith, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, showing that suburbs enjoy higher income growth and higher land values in major metropolitan areas where the central city is economically vital. “If you live in a middle-class suburb and your center city is not doing well,” Voith notes, “it’s a good bet that your suburb is not doing as well as a similar suburb where the center city is doing well.”

Our present patterns of regional development benefit a fortunate few in the short term while at the same time degrading the natural environment, aggravating conditions for poor people and setting the stage for decline in many middle-class communities. The regional revitalization movement directly challenges these trends with a simple set of ideas–and the promise of a formidable new political coalition–that offers help and hope for a majority of people. As a moral call for justice, the regional revitalization movement probably won’t go far in the present political climate. But as a pragmatic program to improve the communities where most Americans live, it could.

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