Canutillo, Texas

I’ve been thinking all day about an article I read this morning about a school board outside El Paso, Texas, considering a resolution to oppose public housing on the grounds that students that would hail from these apartments would be “too costly to educate.” According to the article, the draft resolution points to “additional financial demands” as well as increased social problems.

A few weeks ago I made my way through Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, and found his discussion on the history of annexation in American cities particularly interesting- probably because I didn’t previously know anything about it. Prior to the twentieth century, American cities had pretty much free reign when it came to the annexation of outlying areas surrounding their cities (think the five boroughs in New York becoming one city in 1898, or the gradual growth of older cities such as Chicago). As wealthy residents moved further from city centers, the cities were able to incorporate these newer areas, thereby preserving their tax base. The richer, outlying areas were used to cross-subsidize poorer areas. This system made sense; residents of these areas were likely to work in the city, and to draw on centralized utilities and infrastructure. Proximity to cities conferred benefits on these residents, and their taxes reflected it.

Jackson details the awakening of these out-lying areas to the realization that they could fight for suburban incorporation and therefore remain independent of the more urban areas they had left behind. He points especially to the collection of towns in Westchester County, directly north of the northern border of New York City. These areas continued to work in and receive benefits from the city, but their economic contributions to the metropolis were substantially cut.

Fast forward to 2017, and the result of the withdrawal of these relatively wealthier enclaves-become-independent cities becomes abundantly clear. The Canutillo Independent School district does not cover a particularly large portion of El Paso County. A metropolitan-wide school district would be relatively indifferent regarding the placement of public housing if it knew that, regardless of which block the housing was located on, the district would be responsible for educating its residents. It’s hard to fault the Canutillo school board too much here. If the new housing not only brings in families with below-average incomes but also causes wealthier families to move out of their catchment area, they are hit on both ends.

Of course, suburban municipalities are often set up, at least implicitly, in order to ensure that families are able to send their kids to well-funded public schools (because the median household income in Canutillo is roughly the same as all of El Paso County, that’s not likely the case here). An excellent CityLab article from earlier this month details how families selected segregated neighborhoods based on the quality of their schools, and worked to keep poorer and blacker families out of their districts. While less racially explicit now, laws such as minimum plot sizes ensure that lower income families are unable to purchase homes in suburban areas with good school districts, thereby maintaining high per-student funding and household incomes.

Rage all you want about the incompetence of Betsy DeVos. And unprepared she is. But so long as suburban municipalities are able to reap the benefits of living near a city but avoid a cross-subsidization of their lower-income neighbors, American public schools will continue to face yawning performance and funding disparities. So, remind me where you’re moving so you can send your kids to a good public school?

Social Services in the Suburbs

The past few months have seen a slew of articles critiquing the common narrative proclaiming the renaissance of the city in America. In fact, only a small slice of the US population (the young, the white, and the educated) is becoming more urban. While those with the most economic and social capital move to the cities, everyone else is still moving into less dense, more spread out, and more car dependent neighborhoods. This trend has wide-ranging implications for how we administer social services to the poor.

Measuring a city’s ability to serve its low-income residents is notoriously tricky. Cities providing the fewest social services to their residents are often abandoned by those residents, leading to artificially low rates of poverty. Cities with robust safety nets often see the reverse effect. The difficulty of analyzing the effectiveness of these policies often distracts from a more fundamental question: Do cities have a unique ability to care for the poor by virtue of their density? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Here in New York City, representatives from Riders Alliance and others have been pushing for subsidized MetroCards. This is hugely important, as reliable access to jobs and services vastly increase the earning potential for lower income residents of the city. A subsidized MetroCard, or its equivalent, is much less effective at ensuring economic access in a less dense region without a sufficient network of public transportation options. What, in the suburbs, would a program like this look like? Subsidized car ownership certainly doesn’t make much sense. The result is often bleak: The Federal Highway Administration estimates that transportation costs consume 25% of the average family income in auto dependent areas, but only 9% of family income in denser regions. While the poor in every city are the most likely to use public transportation, public transportation is not an effective link the wider community in suburban areas built on the expectation of ubiquitous car ownership. A family is forced to choose whether they will be at the mercy of a stigmatized, ineffective public transit system or pump a quarter of their income into car ownership.

Similar arguments can be made for everything from soup kitchens to food pantries, from job training sites to homeless shelters. In areas where people are spread out, these social services don’t have the dense concentration of users that enable them to be cost effective. The effective, efficient provision of social services are dependent on density.

Mayor de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans have been the subject of intense debate. These plans have often centered on the issues of displacement and neighborhood ownership. With good reason, many have lamented that the city is becoming increasingly unaffordable and that the character of long established neighborhoods is at risk. Much ink has been spilled about rising prices forcing lower income residents to leave the city behind, and the potential impact of losing touch with the network and support system often attendant in neighborhoods. We have rightly lamented the loss of community, but we have not paid enough attention to the economic and employment effects of those being displaced from the city. Unfortunately, low income residents being forced to leave the city due to rising prices are losing more than just community- they are losing access to dense, urban neighborhoods that are uniquely suited to provide them with the services they need.

Gentrification will continue to be a loaded, tense word for years to come. Rents will still be much too high for too many people. But as we continue to disagree over and to debate the merits of plans for affordable housing, we cannot lose sight of the fact that more than just community character is at stake. If we are unable to accommodate our lower income neighbors, we will be forcing them to move to areas systemically unable to provide for their needs anywhere near as effectively as the cities they currently live in.