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Choosing the Unwalkable Suburbs, or Settling for Them?

Suburban governments across the U.S. may be making it difficult for young families who want something different to find it.

Volt Collection / Shutterstock.com

Raise your hand if, like me, you bought more dried fruit strips in the years after you became a parent, grandparent, or caregiver.

Now keep your hand raised if you consider dried fruit strips optimal eating for yourself or others.

Anyone? OK, one last question. Raise your hand again if you believe Whole Foods or your local grocer stocks dried fruit strips near checkout because its leaders believe they are an ideal grab-and-go snack for a broad range of citizens, and not because they lure a narrow and reliably spendy demographic.

So it goes with the kinds of homes Americans buy when they start families. More Millennial couples are buying in the suburbs to raise their kids, as pulse-takers like The New York Times have noted. The motive can come down to simple arithmetic: cities with soaring housing costs are becoming increasingly untenable for families of four or more. Or, it’s public school struggles that drive parents of young children to the ‘burbs. Or both. In daily life for more families, the scales of where it makes the most sense to live are tipping once again to the cul-de-sac.

Are these decisions matching buyers’ goals, though? Do America’s working young couples—slightly grayer versions of the young adults who eschewed buying cars and flocked to walkable neighborhoods in the wake of the recession—actually want to raise their kids in communities that require them to drive everywhere? That’s less clear. Young families are settling in the suburbs for sure, but the housing stock they have to choose from often forces the choice: it’s either take fewer bedrooms, or live a lot farther from anything resembling a downtown. Many suburban governments in fact zone to curtail the kinds of tallish buildings and retail mix that tend to line vibrant, walkable main streets. And in two recent court decisions on such zoning laws, we can see how this logic additionally seems to discriminate against low-income minorities even to this day.

First, let’s review the broad data. The economist Jed Kolko broke down the latest American Community Survey data on CityLab in late March, which showed suburban population gains. The next week, writing for Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, Kolko sent the myth of a Millennial generation slavishly devoted to urban living to the mythical land of Ross-and-Rachel.

“Even among 25-49 year-olds with four or more years of college, those with kids age six or older were 6% less likely to live in urban neighborhoods in 2014 compared with 2000, and only a bit more likely (2%) to live in higher-density urban neighborhoods. Another way to see this is that the school-age kids themselves — 6-12 and 13-17 year-olds — were less urban in 2014 than in 2000.”

Right around the same time, the urban planner Adam Lubinsky was also noticing something about multi-family dwellings in suburban towns outside New York City. His firm, WXY, ran some numbers and found that the average number of bedrooms per housing unit in those towns rose between 2000 and 2004, then sank and never recovered to match the nationwide average—even at a time when price pressures sent families fleeing the Big Apple. Families are indeed buying detached houses with yards in places like Maplewood, New Jersey. (Some of my friends in fact fit this description.) But does that prove they want to live in those settings, or merely that they see no other choice?

***

Shortly before the new U.S. Census Bureau data Kolko cites became public, two federal courts issued zoning-related rulings that suggest a frosty and toxic cause for the low supply of multi-family dwellings in so many suburban towns. Evidence from these cases seems to show that in suburbs of New York and Phoenix, governments and neighbors openly zone neighborhoods to banish apartments that could accommodate children.

On March 23, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit partially upheld a fair-housing claim by nonprofits protesting that Nassau County, just east of Queens in New York City, had failed with a recent zoning decision to move forward on fair housing. The decision recapped how public objection thwarted a project to zone a publicly owned site in Garden City, a classic suburb, to allow apartments. It quotes Tom Suozzi, who was then County Executive, appealing for the apartments with the selling point that they would not in fact attract children, apparently contrary to local opinion.

“Multi-family housing will be more likely to generate empty nesters and single people moving into the area, as opposed to families that are going to create a burden on your school district,” the decision quotes Suozzi saying in a 2004 public hearing.

Someone unnamed in the transcript replies: “You say it’s supposed to be upscale.”

And Suozzi responds: “It’s going to be upscale. Single people and senior-citizen empty nesters. If you sell your $2 million house in Garden City and you don’t want to take care of the lawn anymore… .”

This exchange played out in the context of officials insisting they would forbear from building “affordable housing,” which the county acknowledges it needs to do.

The case ultimately turned on nonprofit groups’ insistence that zoning to forbid apartments made it impossible for them to bid on the site. In the court’s decision, you can find mentions of racially coded phrases and statements that had appeared in the public record prior to the rezoning, including the apparent spectre of the community becoming “another Watts.” It also relates how citizens insisted to Suozzi and others, ignoring clear studies to the contrary, that apartments would cost the community more than single-family homes.

Cases like these can’t help but leave one thinking that low-income or ethnically mixed neighbors are still unwelcome in many strains of suburban U.S. politics, and that some voters conflate smaller dwellings and higher density with poverty. This suspicion only grows upon reading another court decision that came down only two days later.

In this second case, out of Arizona, the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s finding. In the reversal, the federal court held that local zoning rules could be struck down if they unfairly block housing access for minorities. In this case, the city of Yuma had rejiggered its zoning map after it saw a proposal by a real estate developer to build “moderately priced” units on a parcel next to a mainly white, mainly single-family home area.

Uproar over the proposal raised familiar objections, according to the decision. Previous construction by the same developer “tended to have large households, use single-family homes as multi-family dwellings, allow unattended children to roam the streets, own numerous vehicles which they parked in the streets and in their yards, lack pride of ownership, and fail to maintain their residences,” argued a resident of a nearby property.

Another wrote: “These homes… turned into multifamily dwellings, which in turn led to more unattended juveniles and crime.”

The rhetoric swayed elected officials there.

Cases with such common patterns, thousands of miles apart, serve as a reminder that “children” can be deployed as code to block access to any disempowered outsider. They also show that suburban land forms, despite having arrived on planet earth much later than cities, can still lock in feelings of safety for people who know them well. And feeling safe can make people leery about change.

And you don’t even need to invoke kids to object to diversity. You can also cry tax. Doings in Westchester County, New York, where I recently reviewed a computer game that aims to help resolve a fair-housing settlement, shows that political philosophy can just as easily thwart mixed-income development. A recent report by the court monitor managing Westchester’s settlement reveals how Yorktown, which in 2011 took steps to accommodate more high-density development in its zoning, last month declared such zoning tantamount to an illegal tax.

The town supervisor, Michael Grace, told the monitor that he believes zoning that’s designed to steer some housing toward people of certain incomes comprises a tax. He discussed it in a public meeting this way:

“Is [the court monitor] going to beat me up? Let him try… I can control a project’s area and bulk, but I can’t control operations. I can’t tell you, if you’re a pizzeria, to only sell Sicilian. And nor can I control what you charge for your property. If I do, that’s a tax.”

Taken together, cases like these make it clear that all the money and genuine interest in the world devoted to developing more walkable, inclusive suburbs can quickly evaporate if a vocal minority of residents and local officials see fit to block them. And so it can be that today’s young families, headed by Millennials who might very well have invested in more urban-style communities if they could afford them, instead find themselves forced to choose single-family homes far, far away from their jobs—they’re literally the only option.

Kolko presents one more calculation you might want to read after putting on a jacket: “The poor, who traditionally have depended most on urban public services, and seniors, who are by far the nation’s fastest-growing age group, have become less urban as the young and educated have moved in [to city centers].”

There’s a raspberry in that finding. If we believe that urban life confers value by its form, we believe that people and institutions grow stronger in closeness to people of many ages, styles, and incomes. Any zoning that assigns families, the poor, and seniors to sprawl makes the urban experience a perk for only the childless or the wealthy.

Thinking of dried fruit strips as a status symbol for young parents is a little silly, but cordoning urban life off to only those with relatively lots of cash and few needs is harder to swallow.

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