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"Diverse Suburbs and Civil Rights,"

by Myron Orfield & Thomas Luce November/December 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

I. The Diverse Suburbs

Diverse suburbs, communities where 20 to 60% of the residents are non-white, represent the largest single suburban segment. Once a destination for whites avoiding city neighborhoods, many of these areas now struggle to maintain racial and economic diversity while competing against newer, whiter and richer suburban communities that are often resistant to affordable housing and racial diversity.

Diverse communities have many strengths. They are growing. Population in suburbs that were diverse in 2010 grew by 15% between 2000 and 2010—more than any other community type except the sparsely settled exurban group. In fact, suburbs that were diverse in 2010 added more population in the previous 10 years (6.8 million people) than predominantly white areas (3.1 million) and exurbs (2.5 million) combined. They also contain more jobs per capita than any of the other groups except central cities, and show the greatest job growth of any group except exurbs (which started with a very small base of jobs). Many suburban job centers—the most important source of job growth in modern American metropolitan areas—are located in diverse suburbs because those diverse suburbs are often located near core areas and along interstate highways. Reflecting this, they are largely fully developed—about two-thirds of them are more than 80% urbanized and less than 5% of them are less than 20% urbanized.

Other common measures of social and economic welfare indicate that diverse suburbs are less stressed than central cities and predominantly non-white suburbs but lag behind predominantly white areas. A typical diverse suburb had a local tax base roughly equal to its region’s average in 2008. In this regard, diverse suburbs trailed predominantly white suburbs by several percentage points, but fared far better than the non-white suburbs or the exurbs.

The most troubling signs for diverse communities from a civil rights perspective are the clear indications that many are in the midst of racial transition in the direction of segregation. Integrated suburbs show the most rapid racial change (relative to their individual metros) of all of the community types. The non-white share of population in a typical diverse suburb increased from 65% of the regional average in 2000 to 78% in 2010.

The diverse suburbs are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. They are more likely than other types of suburbs to switch parties from one election to another and, as a result, can often decide the balance of state legislatures and the Congress, or determine the outcome of gubernatorial and presidential elections. If the diverse suburbs banded together to form a political faction, it would be hard to deny them.

II. Strategies to Achieve Stably Integrated Suburbs

Racial instability and resegregation are the dominant U.S. pattern. However, stable racial integration has been achieved by neighborhoods, cities, large urban counties and even at metropolitan scales. Stable integration does not happen by accident, but is almost always the product of clear race-conscious strategies, hard work and political collaboration among local governments. Stable integration measures work best when local, state and federal governments and the private sector are cooperating with strong multi-racial citizen involvement.

The following are concrete strategies that can foster residential stability in diverse communities:

A. Civil Rights Enforcement

The most obvious way to promote integrated communities is through enforcement of the national Fair Housing Act, which prohibits racial steering, mortgage-lending discrimination, and disproportionate building of subsidized housing in integrated communities.

Neighborhoods were once zoned by race, racially restrictive covenants kept neighborhoods rigidly segregated, real estate agent rules required racial steering in some areas, and the federal government endorsed the redlining of non-white and integrated neighborhoods. This sort of clear and overt discrimination is gone, and as a result residential integration has improved slowly—however, less obvious and often covert racial discrimination in the housing market remains common.

One of the best ways to document modern housing discrimination is through paired testing. To do this, researchers assemble a large group of paired white and non-white testers of the housing market. Each pair of white and non-white testers has similar incomes, credit histories, education and personal backgrounds. The testers are trained to approach and interact with real estate agents and banks in the exactly the same manner. For example, both the white and non-white tester might ask a real estate agent to show them the best house, in the best neighborhood, with the best schools that they can afford. Illegal discrimination occurs when these paired testers are shown neighborhoods with different racial characteristics, receive different credit treatment, or are treated differently by sellers or rental agents. Without such paired testing, it is hard to detect, much less prove, such discrimination.

HUD, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Fair Housing Act, is now conducting metropolitan-level, paired-testing steering studies to make sure that all parts of suburbia are open to non-white buyers, to ensure that non-white buyers are not disproportionately steered toward racially diverse neighborhoods and school-attendance areas, and to confirm that white buyers are not steered away from these same areas to white neighborhoods. If and when evidence is found of steering or other housing discrimination, HUD and appropriate local authorities should take enforcement actions to ensure that such discrimination stops.

The government has been collecting mortgage data through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act for 40 years. It has revealed profound disparities in the treatment of white and non-white individuals and among predominantly white, predominantly non-white, and integrated neighborhoods. The data suggest discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, and federal, state and local authorities have an obligation to take action.

HUD and state and local governments should also abide by fair housing siting rules to ensure that new low-income housing is not sited disproportionately in racially transitioning areas. Whiter and more affluent developing suburbs should be prioritized for funding. and incentives should be created to encourage fairness and stable metropolitan-level integration.

Finally, local, state and federal education authorities have an obligation to ensure that local school-district-boundary decisions, school-transfer policies, and capital decisions are fair under Titles II and VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and under state and federal constitutions.

B. Local Stable-Integration Plans

Housing markets are regional, and housing discrimination operates on a regional scale. Hence, regional remedies to address housing discrimination are the most effective. Nevertheless, dozens of communities have created effective local stable-integration plans. Case studies illustrate the potential value of proactive, multifaceted strategies. Such strategies can include:
• local fair-housing ordinances;
• public and private funding of pro-integrative home-loan and insurance-purchase programs;
• cooperative efforts with local school districts to ensure high-quality, stably integrated schools;
• community-safety programs in diverse neighborhoods;
• marketing efforts to encourage local chambers of commerce, rental property owners and realtors to view diverse communities as potentially strong markets;
• public-relations campaigns to encourage positive media stories of community successes;
• financial support of pro-integrative community-based organizations; and
• support of public forums to defuse racial misunderstanding and promote the value of integrated communities.

Experience shows the success of such initiatives. For example, Hanover Park, a western suburb of Chicago, went through rapid racial change in the early 2000s, going from 47% non-white in 2000 to 62% in 2010 (still diverse but trending toward resegregation). In contrast, Oak Park, a community about 15 miles away that has a well-known stable-integration program, showed much greater stability, with a non-white share that grew from 34% to 36% during the same period.

Similar contrasts can be seen in the Cleveland area. Two suburban areas without stable-integration programs—Euclid and Maple Heights—each showed dramatic racial change between 2000 and 2010. The non-white share of the population increased by 23 points in Euclid (from 34% to 57%) and by 23 points in Maple Heights (from 49% to 72%). During the same period, two nearby communities with nationally recognized pro-integrative housing programs were much more stable. Shaker Heights went from 41% non-white to 46% while Cleveland Heights went from 48% to 51%.

C. State and Metropolitan Actions against Exclusionary Zoning

Some states, either by legislative or judicial action, require all communities to provide for their fair share of affordable housing. Oregon and its largest metropolitan area, Portland, provide excellent examples of state- and metropolitan-level actions that promote and maintain integrated communities. At the state level, Oregon’s Land Use and Development Commission Goal 10, promulgated in 1973, requires that regional and local comprehensive plans “encourage the availability of adequate numbers of needed housing units at price ranges and rent levels which are commensurate with the financial capabilities of Oregon households and allow for flexibility of housing location, type and density.”

At the regional level, the Portland metropolitan area’s regional planning policies have helped to reduce segregation by encouraging all developing communities to provide for their fair share of affordable housing. The area has a strong regional planning agency (Portland Metro) that enforces a regional growth boundary designed to focus new development in core areas. Research for the 1990s shows that the most common measure of black-white segregation—the Dissimilarity Index—declined more rapidly in regions with growth-containment policies. Black-white racial segregation has in fact decreased in the Portland region—it is now one of the nation’s least class-segregated metropolitan areas.

Similarly, Montgomery County, Maryland provides the best example of pro-integrative policies at the county scale. Thirty years ago, the County—a wealthy suburban area directly northwest of Washington, DC—adopted its Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. The MPDU requires that any new housing development of 50 or more units set aside 12.5 to 15% of the units for households earning 65% or less of the regional median income.

Non-whites have been the primary beneficiaries of the Montgomery County program. As of the late 1990s, people of color occupied 80% of the new public-housing rental units, and from 1991 to 1998, people of color accounted for approximately 55% of the purchasers of moderately priced dwelling units. At the same time, and at least partly as a result of these proactive housing policies, Montgomery County schools have made enormous strides in reducing the educational achievement gap between poor non-whites and affluent whites.

In New Jersey, where the state Supreme Court declared in the Mount Laurel cases that every city in a metropolitan region has an obligation to provide for its fair share of affordable housing, research has found gains in educational achievement, health and many other benefits for low-income non-white families moving to affordable housing in white affluent suburbia.

D. Metropolitan School Integration Strategies

The Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Milliken v. Bradley stopped most school integration plans at the borders of a local school district. After Milliken, most school desegregation efforts were only temporarily successful—if not counterproductive—because they tended to encourage white flight to adjacent, whiter school districts.

Forty years of history and data demonstrate that integrated neighborhoods in regions with large-scale, metro-wide school integration plans were much more stable than in metropolitan areas without such plans. Census tracts without metro school integration, were more than 23% non-white in 1980 and were more likely to become majority non-white than remain integrated. In these areas, neighborhoods that were between 30 and 60% non-white had very little chance of remaining integrated. For example, neighborhoods that were 50% non-white had an 85% chance of becoming 60% non-white by 2009.

The likelihood that a neighborhood would remain integrated between 1980 and 2005-09 or resegregate is a function of its racial composition in 1980—for the 15 metropolitan areas that had large-scale school integration plans. In contrast with the results for metros with no such plans, integrated neighborhoods in regions with metro (or nearly metro-scale) school-integration plans were much more stable.

Neighborhoods between 20 and 33% non-white were much more likely (between 55 and 65% likely) to remain integrated than to resegregate. And neighborhoods between 33 and 50% non-white had a roughly 50% chance of remaining stably integrated over 25 years.

III. Conclusion

More than half of suburban residents in America’s largest metropolitan areas live in places that are threatened economically because of un-redressed housing discrimination and the resulting resegregation. In these communities, homeowners and business owners alike lose equity every year because these laws are not enforced. These communities that were built at great public expense will unnecessarily become blighted and abandoned as middle-class families move out, and citizens will be taxed to create new communities of escape. Rather than becoming America’s most expensive disposable product, these communities should be recycled, renewed and redeveloped. As the largest suburban block of voters—and the most politically volatile—diverse suburbs should be able to command the attention of political leaders and policymakers. These communities, in combination with central cities and predominantly non-white suburbs (which have many common interests), have the metro majority of local officials, legislators and Members of Congress, and therefore should be able to ensure the enforcement of existing laws and the creation of new laws necessary to stabilize neighborhoods and schools in metro America. All of these types of communities are hurt by current patterns of housing discrimination and resegregation. Together, they could form a majority political coalition to advance these reforms.

The largest barrier to this change is lack of understanding.The general public, particularly the politically pivotal diverse suburbs and their elected officials, simply do not understand the economic consequences of resegregation or the clear benefits that strong fair-housing policies provide to their communities. Thus, it is important to begin large public-education efforts to help the integrated suburbs understand what is happening to them and how many communities are in a similar position. These efforts would explain that stronger fair-housing policies would strengthen their residential market, increase prime low-cost credit, stabilize their schools, and allow strong potential for redevelopment.At present, many in these areas think just the opposite; they incorrectly believe that fair housing will increase the speed and severity of the already occurring resegregation and decline.

A key to stability—or transition—is what residents and potential residents think the future of a community will be. Many whites are perfectly willing to live in a diverse community but do not want to be in a predominantly black or Latino community, or a community that shows clear signs of economic and social decline. Similarly, they are very willing to have their kids go to a diverse school, but not to one that has resegregated or is in the process of rapid transition. There is, of course, a wide range of preferences and tolerances for diversity among all racial and ethnic groups— and the key is to invest in strategies that will increase tolerance and promote stability over time.

Most currently diverse communities are in the process of resegregation, but have no real plans to do anything about it. Diverse suburban communities need technical support (since they have very limited staff and knowledge) to help them deal with their housing and school issues and, if possible, financial support to implement their plans. The truth is that most diverse suburbs have no idea of how to address resegregation, and they have no external framework of advice and support. A federal or state initiative of school and housing agencies to support stable and successful diversity in suburban communities would be very well received. If this initiative was managed as a purely voluntary process, then it would be a political advantage rather than a cost.

Because the diverse suburbs do not realize how many communities are in a similar situation, they are more likely to avoid discussing the issue of resegregation for fear that calling attention to the problems may make them worse. But if public-education efforts made diverse suburbs aware that resegregation is common, they could then cooperate with the large number of similarly affected communities and develop political and reform efforts.

Existing membership organizations for municipalities, such as the League of Cities, involve all types of cities and suburbs, rich and poor, white and non-white. As voluntary membership organizations, they risk losing members who disagree with their actions. Thus they are consensus- and status-quo-oriented and may be unlikely to take any strong position on the issues necessary for suburban stability. Given this reality, the diverse suburbs must form their own organizations, support them with dues, and seek government and private grants to fund their reform efforts. Once created, these organizations should use their political power, in every way they can, at the state and federal levels, to ensure that current laws are enforced or changed to support their stability and redevelopment. Some relatively new organizations of older suburbs exist—in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Michigan and New Jersey, for instance—but this process needs to accelerate.

Metropolitan America is at a crossroads. The places in the country that have worked to create stable integration have been rewarded for their efforts. Louisville, Raleigh, Portland and Montgomery County are not only some of the most desirable places to live for people of all races in the United States, but have strong, resilient economies. If racially diverse suburbs can become politically organized and exercise the power of their numbers—in their own self-interest—they can help to ensure both the stability of their communities and the future opportunity and prosperity of a multi-racial metropolitan America.

Myron Orfield is Professor of Law and Director of the Inst. on Metropolitan Opportunity at the Univ. of Minnesota.
Thomas Luce is Research Director of the same Institute.
This article is exerpted from the authors’ article in Housing Policy Debate, March 2013.

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