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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

A recent article by Joel Kotkin tries to stir up a stew of resentment about alleged “attacks on suburbia”.  Here’s the article and my thoughts on it (in italics):

Countering Progressives’ Assault on Suburbia

By Joel Kotkin – July 10, 2015

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently.

Theoretically, the suburbs should be the dominant politically force in America. Some 44 million Americans live in the core cities of America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million Americans live in the suburbs. In other words, nearly three-quarters of metropolitan Americans live in suburbs.

This is based on Wendell Cox’s definitions of cities and suburbs, which might not be yours and mine.  By his definition, most core cities (except for the most dense ones) are “suburbs.”

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

Density can mean more suburban housing, not less.  For example, if a suburb reduces its minimum lot size requirements so that you can build 10 homes per acre instead of one, that’s more suburban homes. 

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities,

Those “attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities” are attempts to make suburbia MORE accessible to minorities- that means MORE suburban homes, not less.

and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners.

Some conservatives rightly criticize such intrusive moves, but they generally ignore how Wall Street interests and some developers see forced densification as opportunities for greater profits, often sweetened by public subsidies.

Overall, suburban interests are poorly organized, particularly compared to well-connected density lobbies such as the developer-funded Urban Land Institute (ULI), which have opposed suburbanization for nearly 80 years.

The New Political Logic

The progressives’ assault on suburbia reflects a profound change in the base of the Democratic Party. As recently as 2008, Democrats were competitive in suburbs, as their program represented no direct threat to residents’ interests. But with the election of Barack Obama, and the continued evolution of urban centers as places with little in the way of middle-class families, the left has become increasingly oriented towards dense cities, almost entirely ruled by liberal Democrats.

Obama’s urban policies are of a piece with those of “smart growth” advocates who want to curb suburban growth and make sure that all future development is as dense as possible.  Some advocate radical measures such as siphoning tax revenues from suburbs to keep them from “cannibalizing” jobs and retail sales.

If Kotkin is talking about regional tax base sharing, the primary winners from these policies can be suburbs. Cities, like the most prosperous suburbs, have a commercial tax base.  But housing-only suburbs have none, and actually benefit from regional tax base sharing.   If he is talking about city county mergers, places that do that tend to be relatively conservative cities like Jacksonville, Fla. not Detroit or San Francisco.

Some even fantasize about carving up the suburban carcass, envisioning three-car garages “subdivided into rental units with street front cafés, shops and other local businesses” while abandoned pools would become skateboard parks.

Again, more suburban housing, not less.  By the way, if you click on the link, Arieff is writing about fixing up suburbs full of foreclosed homes, not the kind of place where Kotkin and most of his readers live.

At the end of this particular progressive rainbow, what will we find? Perhaps something more like one sees in European cities, where the rich and elite cluster in the center of town, while the suburbs become the “new slums” that urban elites pass over on the way to their summer cottages.

The whole point of Arieff’s article is to PREVENT the suburbs from becoming slums.

Political Dangers

The abandonment of the American Dream of suburban housing and ownership represents a repudiation of what Democrats once embraced and for which millions, including many minorities, continue to seek out. “A nation of homeowners,” Franklin D. Roosevelt asserted, “of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.”

Since I’m not a Democrat I’m not going to comment on what he thinks the Democrats are for.  Let the Democrats fight their own battles!

This rhetoric was backed up by action. It was FDR, and then Harry Truman, who backed the funding mechanisms—loans for veterans, for example—that sparked suburbia’s growth. Unlike today’s progressives, the old school thought it good politics to favor those things that most people aspire to achieve. Democrats gained ground in the suburbs, which before 1945 had been reliably and overwhelmingly Republican.

Even into the 1980s and beyond, suburbanites functioned less as a core GOP constituency than as the ultimate swing voters. As urban cores became increasingly lock-step liberal, and rural Democrats slowly faded towards extinction, the suburbs became the ultimate contested territory. In 2006, for example, Democrats won the majority of suburban voters. In 2012, President Obama did less well than in 2008, but still carried most inner and mature suburbs while Romney trounced him in the farther out exurbs. Overall Romney eked out a small suburban margin.

Obama still did a heck of a lot better in suburbia than any Democrat did in the 1980s.  Kotkin’s description of electoral history is rubbish.  Since Kotkin is from southern California, let’s look at Ventura County near Los Angeles,  Even in 2012, Obama got 52 percent there.  How well did Mondale do? 30 percent.  Even in the more Democratic year in 1976, Carter got only 44 percent.In more Republican Orange County, the Democratic vote share increased from 35 percent in 1976 to 45 percent in 2012.

Yet by 2014, as the Democratic Party shifted further left and more urban in its policy prescriptions, these patterns began to turn.

Further left than in 2012?  Seriously?

In the 2014 congressional elections, the GOP boosted its suburban edge to 12 percentage points. The result was a thorough shellacking of the Democrats from top to bottom.

Will demographics lead suburbs to the Democrats?

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

Not really false, but (1) the article Kotkin links to (by Wendell Cox) defines “inner cores” really really narrowly (basically, as just downtown), and (2) Cox himself writes, in that very same article, ” the central cores of the nation’s largest cities are doing better than at any time in recent history. “

Some suggest that the trends of the first decade of this century already are passé, and that more Americans are becoming born-again urbanistas. Yet after a brief period of slightly more rapid urban growth immediately following the recession, U.S. suburban growth rates began to again surpass those of urban cores. An analysis by Jed Kolko, chief economist at the real estate website Trulia, reports that between 2011 and 2012 less-dense-than-average Zip codes grew at double the rate of more-dense-than-average Zip codes in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Americans, he wrote, “still love the suburbs.

A fact that doesn’t tell us as much as you might think.  If the less dense than average zip code has 100 people and grew by 5 people, and the more dense zip code has 1000 people and grew by 40 people, obviously the more dense zip code had more growth- but the smaller zip code has a higher percentage growth because it started from a lower base.

What is also missed by the Obama administration and its allies is the suburbs’ growing diversity. If HUD wants to start attacking these communities, many of their targets will not be whites, but minorities, particularly successful ones, who have been flocking to suburbs for well over a decade.

Is making it easier for minorities to live in a community “attacking” it? It seems to me that Kotkin is trying to have it both ways: brag (quite correctly) about suburbs’ growing diversity yet attacking bureaucratic attempts to diversify the suburbs.  Maybe he’s arguing that HUD’s efforts are unnecessary, but the paranoid language about “attacking the suburbs” doesn’t really help his point. 

Also, Kotkin kind of misses the issue of racial segregation of suburbs- blacks living in some (mostly poor) suburbs like Ferguson and whites living in richer ones- but that’s a much more complex discussion and one that can’t be resolved by partisan attacks,

This undermines absurd claims that the suburbs need to be changed in order to challenge the much detested reign of “white privilege.” In reality, African-Americans have been deserting core cities for years, largely of their own accord and through their own efforts: Today, only 16 percent of the Detroit area’s blacks live within the city limits.

These trends can also be seen in the largely immigrant ethnic groups. Roughly 60 percent of Hispanics and Asians, notes the Brooking Institution, already live in suburbs. Between the years 2000 and 2012, the Asian population in suburban areas of the nation’s 52 biggest metro areas grew by 66 percent, while that in the core cities expanded by 35 percent. Of the top 20 areas with over 50,000 in Asian population, all but two are suburbs.

Left to market forces and natural demographic trends, suburbs are becoming far more diverse than many cities, meaning that in turning on suburbia, progressives are actually stomping on the aspirations not just of privileged whites but those of many minorities who have worked hard to get there.

Another huge misreading of trends relates to another key Democratic constituency, the millennial generation.  Some progressives have embraced the dubious notion that millennials won’t buy cars or houses, and certainly won’t migrate to the suburbs as they marry and have families. But those notions are rapidly dissolving as millennials do all those things. They are even—horror of horrors!—shopping at Wal-Mart, and in greater percentages than older cohorts.

Moreover, notes Kolko, millennials are not moving to the denser inner ring suburban areas. They are moving to the “suburbiest” communities, largely on the periphery, where homes are cheaper, and often schools are better. When asked where their “ideal place to live,” according to a survey by Frank Magid and Associates, more millennials identified suburbs than previous generations. Another survey in the same year, this one by the Demand Institute, showed similar proclivities.

Kind of cherry picking the data- but then again, people who talk about millenials moving to cities do the same, so I can’t get too indignant.  The reality is that there’s more than enough growth to go aroundI’ve written about millenials here and here.

I looked up these alleged studies and couldn’t find the actual poll questions.  Kotkin links to the webpage of Magid, but I couldn’t really find the alleged survey.  The Demand Institute has a report but I can’t find the actual questions with the technical details, just their description of the questions.

By the way, the Demand Institute also says that the richest areas (“Affluent Metroburbs”) has the highest Walkscore of any of several suburban groups listed.  So even Kotkin’s own sources don’t believe the market values sprawl.

Stirrings of Rebellion

So if the American Dream is not dead among the citizens, is trying to kill it good politics? It’s clear that Democratic constituencies, notably millennials, immigrants and minorities, and increasingly gays—particularly gay couples—are flocking to suburbs. This is true even in metropolitan San Francisco, where 40 percent of same-sex couples live outside the city limits.

One has to wonder how enthusiastic these constituents will be when their new communities are “transformed” by federal social engineers. One particularly troubling group may be affluent liberals in strongholds such as Marin County, north of San Francisco, long a reliable bastion of progressive ideology.

Forced densification–the ultimate goal of the “smart growth” movement—also has inspired opposition in Los Angeles, where densification is being opposed in many neighborhoods, as well as traditionally more conservative Orange Country. Similar opposition has arisen in Northern Virginia suburbs, another key Democratic stronghold.

The Orange County link shows that NIMBYs sought to “reduce the allowable amount of residential apartments in the Beach-Edinger Corridor Specific Plan.”- in other words, to use government coercion to prevent the market from building stuff.  The only “forcing” going on here is the kind Kotkin favors.

In other words, Kotkin’s position is crystal clear: when government prevents housing in exurbia, that’s bad.  But when government prevents housing anywhere else, that’s “self-determination.”  So spare me the rhetoric about consumer preferences. 

These objections may be dismissed as self-interested NIMBYism, but this misses the very point about why people move to suburbs in the first place. They do so precisely in to avoid living in crowded places. This is not anti-social, as is alleged, but an attempt—natural in any democracy—to achieve a degree of self-determination, notes historian Nicole Stelle Garrett.

A few points:

1) This issue has nothing to do with “crowded places”. NIMBYism exists in the most urban places as well as in suburbs (numerous NYC examples here). 

2) As far as “self-determination”, Mr. Kotkin is confusing what people do with THEIR OWN property with government regulation of OTHER PEOPLE’S nearby property. It is not “self-determination” to insist that no one near you be allowed to use their OWN property to build apartments, any more than it is “self-determination” to insist that no one near you be allowed to be a Shiite Muslim.

Aroused by what they perceive as threats to their preferred way of life, these modern pilgrims can prove politically effective. They’ve shown this muscle while opposing plans not only to increase the density in suburbs,

For the 800th time: “increasing the density” means “more people get to live there.”  It sounds like what Kotkin is for is moving people to suburbs, but only in places that aren’t actually near any existing suburbanites.

and also balking at the shift of transportation funding from roads, which suburbanites use heavily, to rail transit. This was seen in Atlanta in 2012 when suburban voters rejected a mass transit plan being pushed by downtown elites and their planning allies. Opposition to expanding rail service has also surfaced in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

Cherry-picking the data.  Some suburbanites want more rail service, others don’t.  Kotkin links to an article on Maryland’s proposed Purple Line, whose supporters are also suburbanites. 

By the way, it wasn’t just suburbanites who opposed the 2012 transit referendum; the Sierra Club and the NAACP were against it too because it gave too much to roads and not enough to transit.

Suburbs and 2016 Election

To justify their actions against how Americans prefer to live, progressives will increasingly cite the environment. Climate change has become the “killer app” in the smart growth agenda and you can expect the drumbeat to get ever louder towards the Paris climate change conference this summer.

Yet the connection between suburbs and climate is not as clear as the smart growth crowd suggests.  McKinsey and other studies found no need to change housing patterns to reduce greenhouse gases, particularly given improvements in both home and auto efficiency.

And given that government gives everyone a free pony, no one would buy horses.  (Kind of ironic, by the way, since the progressives Kotkin beats up on are the ones who tend to support auto efficiency regulations).  I couldn’t find the McKinsey study because it was behind a paywall, but the second study he cites says CO2 emissions from personal travel would decline by “8 to 11 percent by 2050”, (not too different, by the way, from the Growing Cooler study) which sounds pretty good to me compared to the alternative of ever-increasing driving and CO2 emissions.

Yet so great is their animus that many anti-suburban activists seem to prefer stomping on suburban aspirations rather seeking ways to make them more environmental friendly.

As for the drive to undermine suburbs for reasons of class, in many ways the  assault on suburbia is, in reality,  a direct assault on our most egalitarian geography. An examination of American Community Survey Data for 2012 by the University of Washington’s Richard Morrill indicates that the less dense suburban areas tended to have “generally less inequality” than the denser core cities; Riverside-San Bernardino, for example, is far less unequal than Los Angeles; likewise, inequality is less pronounced in Sacramento than San Francisco. Within the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people, notes demographer Wendell Cox, suburban areas were less unequal (measured by the GINI Coefficient) than the core cities in 46 cases.

And why is that?  Is that just a law of nature? No- its because of NIMBYism (that keeps housing prices high in central cities) and exclusionary zoning (keeping the more out of suburbia).

In the coming year, suburbanites should demand more respect from Washington, D.C., from the media, the political class and from the planning community. If people choose to move into the city, or favor density in their community, fine. But the notion that it is the government’s job to require only one form of development contradicts basic democratic principles and, in effect, turns even the most local zoning decision into an exercise in social engineering.

For most of the past 80 years, the kind of development required in 90 percent of America has been suburban.

As America’s majority, suburbanites should be able to deliver a counterpunch to those who seem determined to destroy their way of life. Irrespective of race or generation, those who live in the suburbs—or who long to do so—need to understand the mounting threat to their aspirations  Once they do, they could spark a political firestorm that could reshape American politics for decades to come.

Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was “The New Class Conflict” (Telos: 2014).


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