According to a new Brookings Institution report, the number of low-income people living in suburbs increased 67% between 2000 and 2011, altering longstanding perceptions of a rising middle-class fleeing from cities to achieve the American Dream. Reasons for the shift include urban gentrification, the foreclosure crisis, greater access to suburban affordable housing and the rapid expansion of suburban areas. Paris and other European cities have long had the wealthy living in central city areas and the poor outside the city’s core, but the post-World War II growth of suburbia sent the United States in the other direction. This shift of the middle-class to the suburbs and corresponding central city decline continued until the the late 1970’s, and urban America’s dramatic comeback continues at full speed today.
Now that cities offer walkable, bicycle-friendly, public transit-available neighborhoods with desirable restaurants and a high quality of life, the poor are being shunted to car-dependent suburban areas in economic decline. Activists now face the challenge of helping the suburban poor while still pushing for public housing residents and those living in non-gentrified urban neighborhoods to get the resources they deserve.
The new report on suburban poverty authored by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, which defined poverty using the federal poverty line of $22,350 for a family of four in 2011, will not surprise Californians. The state has seen mass foreclosures in suburban Pittsburg and Brentwood, steadfastly high unemployment in Central Valley suburbs, and steep declines in construction activity in the Inland Empire whose growth boosted state revenue until the housing bubble burst.
How can activists already unable to get more federal resources to the urban poor meet this new challenge of rising suburban poverty? It won’t be easy. Most of the suburban poor are not connected to community organizations, and a strong foundation/nonprofit infrastructure does not exist to address their needs.
And many urban activists will be cautious about advocating for more government resources for the suburban poor, as any funding increase could well come from cities. After all, the Reagan Administration claimed the needs of the rural poor justified its shifting a greater share of its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to cities under 50,000 people; this was after they decimated the program’s budget, a savage funding cut that no president has fully restored.
So do not expect the new study to bring politicians out in force demanding a new “War on Poverty” for the suburban poor. To the contrary, because the suburban poor are far removed from major media centers, and because many Americans still cling to the “Revolutionary Road” ideal of the suburbs as a bucolic refuge from urban squalor, it is unlikely that the rising poverty in suburbia will get the national attention it deserves.
Helping the Urban Poor
While urban gentrification has virtually eliminated affordable, unsubsidized apartments for the urban poor, many low-income people live in public and privately-owned subsidized housing in expensive cities like New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. And, contrary to outdated assumptions, these low-income residents have a better potential future in even rapidly gentrifying cities than in declining, car-dependent suburban areas.
The key word is “potential.” Poor people have not gotten a fair shake in urban America. Many leave San Francisco and other cities not due to displacement, but rather in response to unsafe neighborhoods, overcrowded/troubled schools, and rundown public housing.
I always recall a Latino family I represented in the 1990s that was living in a small building in San Francisco’s Mission District. A mother and her daughter lived in one unit, and her parents and grandparents lived in another.
We had filed habitability and wrongful eviction claims and the landlord sought to tie a settlement to also paying the daughter to move. We told the mediator that moving was out of the question, but when we told the daughter of the offer she surprised us by saying “I need to get out of this neighborhood. I don’t want my daughter growing up like I did.”
The mother preferred to raise her young daughter outside of the city and “away from the gangs.” She was not “displaced” from San Francisco as that term is commonly used, but her “voluntary” departure was precipitated by an unhealthy street environment that the city had long failed to address.
As the new study confirms, the shift of low-income people from crime-plagued urban neighborhoods to the suburbs is more common than realized. It helps explain why so many former public housing residents used Section 8 certificates to move to the suburbs and why immigrant groups — from the Vietnamese refugees who left the Tenderloin for the South Bay in the 1980s to the many Latino families still leaving San Francisco — choose to move to the suburbs despite having below-market rents in the city.
Cities typically cannot regulate the sales price of single-family homes, condos or vacant rental units, but they can do a much better job of improving the quality of life in their few remaining low-income neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this has not been a top urban priority, which is why so many poor people now live in the suburbs.
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