In Tod’s Swinging at the Fences Posts, I got into a conversation with Michael Cain about whether the Democratic Party has anything nice to say about suburbs. We are both Democratic Party supporters. Michael said this:
On the one hand there are conservatives who are fighting the demise of small town America, where the fundamental problems boil down to an inability to generate enough jobs for coming generations and an insufficient tax base to support contemporary levels of government service. On the other hand there are liberals who are fighting the demise of urban core America, whose fundamental problems come down to… an inability to generate enough jobs for coming generations and an insufficient tax base to support contemporary levels of government service. On the gripping hand , as they say in the sci-fi world, there are the suburbs, where an absolute majority of Americans choose to live, which have done the vast majority of the heavy lifting on job creation for decades, and which are routinely asked to subsidize government services in both rural and urban-core areas. There’s a growing body of evidence that given unconstrained choice, something over half of the population globally would choose suburban individual family dwellings and private transportation. Why isn’t the discussion, “What can the urban cores and the rural towns learn from the suburbs?” rather than “How can we preserve models that have largely failed in contemporary society?”
Will Truman added that he thinks the recent Supreme Court case that allows disparate impact lawsuits for fair housing/housing discrimination claims will hurt the Democratic Party in the long run. Will wrote: “I think suburban voters are the weakest link in the chain of the Emerging Democratic Majority. I think the HUD ruling may be a policy victory but may be a political liability.”
For the sake of this essay, I am going to take Michael Cain’s comments at face value. I will assume that suburbs do the heavy lifting for job creation and that “given unconstrained choice, something over half of the population globally would choose suburban individual family dwellings and private transportation.” Yet I will respond with why the Democratic Party needs to pay attention to urban issues.
Some asides, I am not as opposed to suburban living as I make myself out to be probably. I love cities but I can see why many people find them way too expensive and wonder why should I pay an obscene amount of money for a one or two bedroom apartment when I can buy a nice house in the suburbs and each of my kids can have their own room, and privacy, and we have nice school districts. The suburbs are not for me yet but I am starting to see why it is nice to have a quiet place to go to in the evening. I further admit that my cultural-recreational activities bend me towards wanting to at least live near a major metropolitan area especially a place like New York which can support festivals like Next Wave, the Lincoln Center Festival, and Brits Off-Broadway. So if you were to give me a choice between a huge house three to four hours from NYC or a one or two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn. I would pick the small apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn for the cultural access. I don’t know what percentage of people would make the same choice. Obviously the ideal would be a house in a inner-ring suburb or a Brownstone of my own.
I also don’t think the HUD case will really hurt the Democratic Party because disparate impact housing discrimination suits have been going on for years and suburban counties have been ignoring court rulings for years.
Here are the issues on the problems of suburbs as I see them:
1. Structural Racism. Minorities have been excluded from suburbs and the job growth gains of suburbs for decades via intentional and unintentional policies. This started with redlining and continued with research that showed upper-income African-American families were more likely to receive sub-prime loans than lower-income white families. This is not an issue of equal outcome but an issue of equal opportunity. This is why disparate impact housing lawsuits are so important because they give minorities access to suburbs and good suburban school districts when they have been denied access for most of the 20th and into the 21st century. So the Democratic Party can either fight for bringing jobs and good schools to where their base is or they can bring their base to where the jobs and schools are, they can’t do both. I think it would be kind of cruel, evil, and self-defeating for the Democratic Party to tell their base that things just suck and they will be stuck in the inner-city without jobs and without good schools or government services.
2. The Paradox of Suburbs. LWA wrote this in the thread: “The paradox of suburbia is that the more popular it gets, the less desirable it becomes. San Francisco can accommodate growth by becoming more like Hong Kong, but if the suburbs of SF become denser, they stop being suburbs and just become cities.” Matt Yglesias wrote about this on Vox last week with his essay on “Want a good public education for your kids first? Better be rich first?”
The Vox essays proves Matt’s point and my own observations confirm it as well. Middle-class Americans tend to enjoy cities when they are young and single but as soon as they are ready to settle down and have kids, they head to the suburbs. The biggest reason is that urban school districts tend to be a chaotic mess. Most urban areas tend to have a handful of good public schools. When I was looking for apartments in Brooklyn, I really wanted to live in a neighborhood called Carroll Gardens. Carroll Gardens was split between two public elementary schools. My real estate agent was sure to tell me which apartments were zoned for the good elementary school even though I was a single, grad student and looking at studios and one-bedrooms. When I lived in the neighborhood, you would see that the good elementary school was filled with kids from “new” Brooklyn. The largely upper-middle class, professional, white and asians who are driving housing costs up. The public middle and high schools were 99 or 100 percent African-American and Hispanic. I think most of the new Brooklyn crowd sent their kids to private middle and high schools unless their kids got into the handful of “good” high schools. NYC has seven or eight good high schools as judged by the standards of middle-class people who expect their children to be college-bound.
Matt Y’s solution to this problem is allowing for more density or upzoning but this is clearly not what people want. My experience is that if people can afford it, they will travel as far as they need to in order to afford a house and find a decent school system. In San Francisco, there are people who live in Sonoma, Napa, or even as far East as Fairfield who commute into and out of the city every day. These are commutes of two or three hours. Basically Matt Y’s solution is to turn suburbs into mini-cities. He doesn’t even bother asking whether we can just improve school quality everywhere. My observation is that urban public schooling is really hard because you have vastly different communities with different needs and goals. Leeesq lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This used to be a very poor neighborhood filled with ultra-religious Jews and poor Hispanics. Now it is one of the most hipster filled and gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was called “Babyburg” as early as 2004-2005. Whenever I visit Leeesq, I always see posters about “taking back our schools”. There seems to be an on-going war between the educational demands and wants of the lower-income Hispanic residents and the upper-income white and Asian professional residents over the same public schools and resources. The ultra-Orthodox Jews do not send their kids to public school.
There are other reasons to prefer urbanization and public transportation. Urban density protects the environment and allows for more wild land and undeveloped areas for nature. Public Transportation can cut down on traffic and commuting times and climate change. Public transportation can also allow people to live in cities and commute to the suburbs for better paying jobs without increasing the need for car ownership.
Maybe most people want to have a detached house and maybe most people want to commute via private transportation. There could be a lot of really good reasons for this. I understand wanting a good amount of space. I am not a fan of the micro-house movement and microapartments are not good solutions for families either. But detached, suburban living for everyone and private transportation for everyone might not be possible or viable in the long run especially if communities enact a lot of policies that make it hard for people to live in their towns unless they are the “right” sort of people.