Monday, October 23, 2017

Merge?

http://www.citylab.com; September 19, 2017


Hello Everyone:

Welcome to a scorching hot week on the blog.  Mother Nature turned up the heat in Southern California and has Blogger hiding in the nearest air conditioned space.

Hot weather aside, Blogger wants to chat about dying suburbs.  Suburbs, like their urban and rural counterparts, are organic creatures-they expand and contract over time.  Take the example of East Cleveland, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.  Aaron Renn reports in his CityLab article "How to Save a Dying Suburb," "...Cleveland, Ohio, has lost 36.7 percent of its population just since 2000.  It's population is 93 percent black and its poverty rate is 42.6 percent (next city.org; Sept 12, 2016: date accessed Oct. 23, 2017)."  East Cleveland is classified as financially distressed by Ohio.  The city's budget dipped from "$16 to $10 million and nearly half the city's workforce was laid off during that time."  In 2016, the city requested state permission to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy (assets.documentcloud.org; April 27, 2016; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017). Further, this past winter the state of Ohio was obliged to lend the city two salt trucks (clevescene.com; Dec. 15, 2016; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017) when East Cleveland's fleet was rendered inoperable.  The neighboring village of Oakwood donated an ambulance (wcpn.ideastream.org; Oct. 3, 2016; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017).  Given these dire challenges,"East Cleveland considered a previously unthinkable solution: merging with the city of Cleveland."

Mr. Renn writes, "Merger with the central is an option more physically contiguous inner-ring suburbs should consider: That's the argument I lay out in a new Manhattan Institute study (manhattant-institute.org; Sept. 12, 2017; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017)."

Mr. Renn's study, Mergers May Rescue Declining Suburbs, looks at "...major post-industrial in the Midwest and Northeast, ones that have experienced significant economic transition in recent decades, and which have major geopolitical fragmentation local leaders already generally see as a problem."  The study's data set included: population loss, high and increasing poverty rates, and decreasing nflation-adjusted household incomes which reveal many of the suburbs in the study are facing distress.  Mr. Renn spotlighted several candidates for merger such as: Dolton, Illinois (outside Chicago) and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh).

According to a Brookings Institute study, One Fifth of America, A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs by David Warren and Robert Puentes (brookings.edu; Feb. 1, 2006; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017), "a fifth of the U.S. population lives what they [the authors] label America's 'first suburbs.'"  Some of these communities-e.g. Evanston, Illinois, north of Chicago-are well off while others, like East Cleveland, have declined.  Their populations are contracting and aging, middle class residents are moving out further.  "Their main corridors are pocked with retail vacancies and 'dead mall,' and abandon downed homes haunt their tree-lined streets."

In one respect, inner-ring suburbs in dire straits are harder to resuscitate than central cities.  To begin with, the prevailing attitude about inner-ring suburbs is typically out of sight, out of mind.  City centers take up all of the local media's attention.  They also attract the attention of business and civic leaders, local and national legislators. Rarely do they get any attention until something serious happens like the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri or the continuing pay scandal in Bell. California (latimes.com; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017).

Aaron Renn reports, "These communities are also seeing increases in concentrated poverty and isolate minority groups."  African American residents moving away from the city centers in the Midwest and Northeast frequently end up in these suburbs.  He continues, "As with previous moves into urban areas that were once off-limits what originally seemed like the American Dream becomes a mirage or a nightmare as opportunities recede."

However, unlike inner-city neighborhoods, inner-ring suburbs frequently have additional major structural issues.  One of the issues is the lack of good transit access.  While Cape Cod and ranch-style houses may be charming, they are often neglected and out of fashion in the real estate market. They lack the amenities of city centers.  Additionally, city centers are typically the county seat of government-the City of Los Angeles is the county seat of Los Angeles County-or the the state capital.  They are home to major universities and hospitals; they have cultural attractions, sports teams, and "legacy corporate headquarters" (i.e. Automoblie companies).  This is a real fact even in struggling cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Inner-ring suburbs usually lack some or all of these features.  Former East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton spoke with Alexia Fernandez Campbell of The Atlantic in June of 2016,

A smaller place can do very, very well if the right elements are within its borders, or it can do very, very poorly if the right elements leave.  The right elements left our borders, and without all the assets that a big city has, without the diversifications, that's a bad situation.  (theatlantic.com; June 8, 2016; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017)

There are no quick and simple solutions to these ongoing problems.  Mr. Renn writes, "A financial control board or even a bankruptcy can potentially address debt or pension problems, but they won't help with a declining tax base that can't fund basic services."  Neglect or life supporting subsidies might be a viable short-term political option, until a cataclysmic event, like in Ferguson, happens.  Even before the explosion, the underlying problems continue to simmer.  Another option is a state takeover but that comes with its own set of risks, ask the City of Flint, Michigan (citylab.com; Feb 3, 2014; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017).

Another option, posed at the top of today's post, is merging with the city.  Merging with the city is not he cure-all but it does hold the potential to ease some of the structural problems.  The benefits of joining with a city are: "Once part of the central city, the suburb gains a high-profile mayor in the public spotlight who is now responsible for what happens there.  It becomes part of a city with diverse neighborhoods and housing types that will rise and fall on different cycles. And there are the assets of a big city downtown to draw on to help finance services."

Merging cities politically difficult to pull off and things would remain status quo with the inner-ring suburbs.  Once again, we can use East Cleveland as our case study.  Aaron Renn reports, "It's mayor and city council president were recalled as the city pursued the merger, and the option appears to dead for now."  In order to complete an annexation, state governments would most likely have to offer transition assistance, possibly take on some of the suburbs' legacy costs-i.e. pensions-and offer funding for capital improvements.  Receiving funds for capital improvement is historically and today the main reason why unincorporated areas agree to annexation.  Regardless, any merger should improve public service in the suburbs without compromising them in the urban areas.

To be fair: In order to make a merger happen, there has to be real compromises.  Mr. Renn writes, "City Lab's Brentin Mock recently passionately argued against [citylab.com; Aug. 9, 2017; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017] merger for one of the suburbs I flag, the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, arguing that its status as an independent majority black city should be preserved."  This is a legitimate argument to consider.  However, the opposite cannot be ignored.  "By not merging, those black residents are cut off from the tax base being created by the technology and medical industry booms [citylab.com; Aug 8, 2017; date accessed Oct. 23, 2017] happening in the city of Pittsburgh next door."  African American control in the majority of these suburbs translates into "...inheriting a community where previous generations of residents did the equivalent of running up 250,000 miles on the odometer, then handed over the keys to what's now used-up jalopy and walked away."

Interesting but appropriate metaphor.  Yours Truly wonders if the 'previous owner' thought that the next 'owner' could wave a magic wand and magically fix whatever ails it.  

Here is another solution to consider: "Should regions be able to wall off minorities in jurisdictions with limited tax bases?"  They could do that but the consequences would be too dire.  "What solutions are there for inner-ring suburbs facing serious structural challenges?"  Ultimately, these are the questions that these municipalities, regions, and states must face and honestly deal with.  Merging an inner-ring suburb with the city center may not always be the best possible answer in each case but it should be seriously considered.