MPR on "Apartheid Without Apartments"

A friend of mine cued me in on a great MPR Midmorning show that I somehow missed, on the growing trend of neighborhood class homogenization. Kerry Miller interviews an urban studies professor from Wayne State university in Detriot named George Galster about this trend, and a study he just completed that shows that the Twin Cities is #1 in the nation in terms of percentage of middle-class families.

On the other hand, we're just #21 in terms of middle-class neighborhoods, or (as he defines it) neighborhoods that effectively balance and mix incomes. So, apparently, we're a relatively egalatarian place that manages, somehow, to still segregate people according to class. Please note that I'm not mentioning segregation according to race or ethnicity ...

It's a very good read, and makes a case that the Twin Cities is in a unique position to lead the nation in terms of geographic justice, thanks to the unique governing body that is the Met Council and what's left of our Local Government Aid system. Hopefully, we can get Democrats back in charge of the State Legislature before the GOP further guts both of those important institutions.

Anyway, enough kvetching. I made a very rough transcription of the interview, so you're welcome to listen to the show or browse my hacktastic typing job ...

[rough transcript starting halfway through the show, aka. "the intersting part"]

Kerry Miller: The Twin Cities is number one on your list of places with a middle class population. Why is this area for now bucking this trend?

George Galster: It’s amazing that the Mary Richards stereotype is amazingly true. We were stunned when we found that Minneapolis/Saint Paul had by far the highest percent of middle income (middle class) families with 26%.

However, the Twin Cities is also losing our middle class families. Over the last 30 years we lost our share a little faster than the nation did. We’re losing our head start faster than everyone else…

Kerry Miller: The Twin Cities still has these neighborhoods where the middle class population is living together?

George Galster: Well, actually the Twin Cities wasn’t all that nation leading when it came to middle income neighborhoods. In fact, 50% of Twin Cities neighborhoods we classified as middle income. It doesn’t sound bad, but it was 21st out of the top 100 cities. For some reason, the Twin Cities wasn’t using its #1 ranking of middle-income families in a way that produced middle-income neighborhoods. Why weren’t they distributing themselves across space so that they formed a middle-income neighborhood? Part of the story is that we shouldn’t just focus on middle income families…

Frankly, there are many many middle income neighborhoods that have quite a large share of lower and higher income families. But the median puts them right in that middle range. You may say that the Twin Cities, it may have solid middle class neighborhoods, but it has less than its share of neighborhoods that have both the high and low people living in equal proportions. So that might be an interesting set of discussions for your listeners. The Twin Cities have fewer highly mixed neighborhoods than some of the other cities do.

Caller: Hasn’t this thing with people buying as much house as they can get always been true? Don’t people always want the most house for the money?

George Galster: Well, the variety of housing types seemed to be greater in the past, so that there were a mixture of price points in terms of the houses. And it meant that there was a wider mix of incomes in the same geographic area. That’s what we see differently today. Developers are making large-scale subdivisions of houses at the same price point, people of the same incomes buy into these large suburban areas, and it creates a homogeneous neighborhood. In the past when there were smaller scale developers each developing a parcel here and a parcel there, you ended up with a geographic area with a mixture of house types and house prices. That lead to a mix of people who were simply buying the most house they could afford.

Caller: Developer aren’t the ones at fault. Most planning and zoning decisions set a minimum lot size that is very, very large. So developers, because land is so expensive, because of the large lot size, have to make the houses big and appeal to wealthy buyers.

George Galster: That’s absolutely on target. We have seen that in lots of suburban areas. It is based on the self centered but rational notion that they will be better off if they have a lower density environment with higher income people living there and that means they can force up the price points for the people that live in their community, and that means that they will have a stronger tax base and better public services, and be in a stronger fiscal position and status position. So its not simply developers responding in a free market situation. A lot of communities have put together zoning rules that you could argue are intentionally or implicitly exclusionary of people of more modest means, and developers are just responding to rules that are given to them.

Internet Question: Is this a “keeping up with the Jonses” situation? Where a middle class family is relying on its neighbor for inaccurate lifestyle cues?

George Galster: Actually, what we’re seeing is fewer and fewer examples of people with different incomes rubbing shoulders as neighbors. …

Now, why do communities adopt land use policies that exclude those of modest means? A lot of it is a status thing. If communities attract people of high income, they will become known as a high status community. Fill in the blank with whatever proper name of a suburb that you want to fill in here. And that might be the identity that we’re being pushed right now in a consumer society. If your identity is intimately bound up with where you live, and the name of your community, then I could see that being translated into strong political forces that would want to keep that community as high in income, as high in status as possible. And we’re starting to see the geographic consequences of that. In fact, it’s been very successful. We’re seeing more homogenous communities, where only one income group is living there. Of course it’s only the high-income group that’s doing this by choice, and every other group is doing it out of necessity.

Kerry Miller: What is the clout of wealthy communities in the political process. You’re up there at the state legislature, trying to get your share, and if you have wealth you have more power, right?

George Galster: And there’s a second dimension to that which I view as more worrisome. For what issues are they going to be exerting that power? If we’re talking about a community that less and less has different income groups within it, then the very narrow interests of a higher income group are going to be the message that will be conveyed to those state legislatures. Its not going to be a message of “one for all and all for one,” or “we’re all in this together” because they represent a wide range of income groups… Nope, it’s going to be more of a message of “we’ve got ours, we want to continue to keep ours,” and maybe at the expense of other people in our society. That’s what I’m worried about, that this homogeneity of neighborhoods and political jurisdictions is going to increasingly lead to a politics of selfishness.

Caller: Locally the media and the political process leads to larger houses on smaller lots and increasing costs. Is it affected by the demographics of baby boomers?

George Galster: Good question. I don’t have a good answer to that one. I don’t know whether or not my generation is more willing to live in a diverse circumstance.

KM: There seem to be marketing attempts to bring people of closer income levels into these communities for people who are 60 or 65.

George Galster: I agree that the baby boom generation happened to be the dominant force when all this gated community stuff started happening. I wonder if there is a connection there… that’s a fascination question, I’d like to probe it a bit.

Online question: What about those of us being pushed out because of real estate taxes. We’re not choosing to be segregated by income….

George Galster: The key point to remember is that the kinds of sorting processes that I described earlier as leading to more homogeneous neighborhoods are process that not all households are equally powerful to resist… and are certainly not equally responsible for causing. Sounds like Chad [the caller] is in a situation to react to forces that other people are creating. The upper income folks who can afford the most expensive housing are the most powerful force in the housing market, just like they are in most markets in our capitalist system. And developers and politicians are going to respond to that segment of the market more than other segments. We’re talking about the forces that can lead to gentrification in a core community, or suburban subdivision development.

And if those market forces see that the most profit can be made by catering to development aimed at this higher income segment, that can boost housing prices in the area, but it can also change the quality of the retail environment and all sorts of other things, which can create a much more expensive community which the old time residents can no longer afford to live in. So they’re forced to leave the community, thereby creating a more homogenous situation.

The rest is in comments...


Wm said...

Caller: What kind of cities were you looking at? And do you have studies that back up your political assertions?

George Galster: Our research considered all sorts of communities regardless of infrastructure. We used the census definition of a metro statistical area, so we looked at all of the counties connected to the Twin Cities through commuting flows. It would include detached smaller towns on the rural fringe of these counties, as well as the outer- and inner-ring suburbs, as well as the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. And as for the politics… our studies didn’t focus on the political aspect of the growing neighborhood homogeneity. That was my opinion of what I’m afraid of this leading to, in terms of a long-term political ramification related to this neighborhood homogeneity.

Online question: What about schools? Some suburban wealthy communities have 1% poverty while nearby schools have 95% poverty…

George Galster: We have found many many, many examples in the literature that show one of the strongest predictors of how well kids do in school is the rate of poverty of their classmates. And especially in areas where the vast majority are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, that makes it a very difficult challenge for even the best teachers in the most well resourced schools educating these children. And we do have to worry about the education consequences of this increasing trend toward homogeneity. As more and more of this homogeneity is created across school district boundaries as well, you make it increasingly likely that schools will basically have a student body of one economic group and a nearby school district will have a student body from a very, very different economic group. We know that those kinds of segregation by income produce a very different set of opportunities for children.

And I think that if society is serious about its longstanding motto of having an equal opportunity society that we have to get serious about the vestiges of not only racial and ethnic segregation in our society, but increasingly our trend toward income segregation in our society. Because I think that equal opportunity is a sham in a segregated society.

Caller: I am wondering if you’ve done anything about how city councils set policy to build only high-income housing. In Brooklyn park our city council deliberately set a policy to only build housing that was $400,000 or more in the northern section of Brooklyn park, and my husband called in the apartheid-i-zation of Brooklyn Park, because you can actually see clear demarcations by streets, if you go north of a certain street all the houses are $400,000, if you go into the middle section, all the houses are middle, and then there’s lower income on the southern section of Brooklyn Park. And at the same time the city council was setting this into policy, they were also trying to dismantle the lower-income apartments in this middle section, and trying to raise the income of that too. I’m wondering of you’ve done any studies on that?

Kerry Miller: How much control are city councils having on this, professor?

George Galster: I haven’t personally done studies about how frequently this phenomenon is occurring. I have read lots of other studies that suggest that what you’ve talked about is becoming more and more a common incident. And I loved your use of the language there. You’re getting apartheid with no apartments. Good system. And why are city councils doing this? I think they’re doing it because they perceive it as sound fiscal management. They see higher income residents both providing a higher tax base for the city coffers that they occupy, but also there are studies that have shown that higher income residents on a per household basis are smaller users of city services than lower income people are.

So, if they’re simply taking a bottom line perspective, they are thinking “A Ha!” In order to run my government on my own resources, that might drive me toward these kinds of exclusionary practices aimed at just attracting or allowing higher income people to come to my community. That may be how the rules of the game say that local planners or townships, or councils or trustees, have to play the game now, but there’s no reason why that’s the rules of the game.

Fortunately the Twin Cities has a system of revenue sharing across the metropolitan area that few systems in the United States do. You at least have the start of a revenue sharing regional system. That takes the pressure off local communities at least somewhat to make these exclusionary decisions. Now in your case it’s apparently not sufficient to take all the pressure off.

But you can imagine what its like in my region where there’s no region wide revenue sharing, where the state has cut back on its revenue sharing, and so every boat has to float on its own financial bottom. Ad we have hundreds of little townships and municipalities that surround the city of Detroit, and they’re all making these exclusionary decisions trying to attract the highest income people to their community. And it’s vicious. Its one group trying to fight the other and we’re getting this tremendous class segregation as a consequence of this. And its all because the rules of the game suggest aht every local government has to support itself on its own financial abilities. And we have to look at the state government and ask, why do you make us play this ridiculous game?

Kerry Miller: you outline some potential ideas that might address this at some point. You write that if the construction of homogeneous high-income developments or exclusionary zoning contributed to this polarization, how politics to mandate inclusionary zoning might provide an appropriate response. That sounds like academic lingo, but it sounds like someday we may be zoning for mixed income, and that might be what we have to do to solve this.

George Galster: Absolutely. We’ve heard lots of your callers complain how their communities are using zoning to restrict their communities to high-income groups. That can be flipped on its head and be used to mandate mixed income communities. And, fortunately, we have some precedents.

The most famous and well-studied one is Montgomery county Maryland, which is a county adjacent to Washington DC on the north side. I contains a lot of the northern suburb areas around the DC metro area. And it’s probably 25 years ago now, they mandated as part of a comprehensive planning structure for the county an inclusionary zoning law, which basically said if a development had more than a minimum number of units, I think it was more than 10 units in the development… whether that be apartments or single family homes it didn’t matter, if the development was over that minimum size it had to set aside 15% of those units as affordably housing. And of that 5% of the units were purchased by the county wide housing authority for use as public housing. Scattered sites. Public housing. And so the developers had no choice because f the zoning regulations to include in their developments a mixture of housing for people of different incomes. To live in the same community as neighbors.

I think it would be a worthwhile public policy to consider, as opposed to the direction we’re going in.

Charlie Quimby said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks for making the effort to transcribe.

I'm organizing a session for bloggers to discuss the Growth & Justice "Invest for Real Prosperity" strategy, and a lot of this fits in.

If you're interested in attending (6:30pm, 10/10) or learning more, drop me an email.