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...