The Diverse Suburbs Movement Has Never Been More Relevant

Lessons from—and for—this summer's tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri.

Image (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
People protest Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson. ((AP Photo/Charlie Riedel))

At a time when thousands of American suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri, are gaining more and more black and Hispanic families, the killing of Michael Brown this summer and the frustration that poured onto suburban streets afterward should prompt officials across the country to rethink their responses to demographic change.

“Ferguson is a cautionary tale,” says Jay Readey, executive director of the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and an advocate of fair housing policies and racially diverse communities. “The demographic wave that is overtaking America is brown. Less than half of the families looking for homes and communities to settle into over the next decade will be white.”

Readey and others argue that as the U.S. population, now only 63 percent non-Hispanic white, continues to evolve toward a “majority-minority” status, the memory of August in Ferguson should draw more attention to suburbs that have taken a dramatically different approach to addressing demographic change. In fact, a growing number of suburban jurisdictions are working to sustain diverse communities by actively addressing the types of racial issues that can lead to instability, police brutality and civil unrest.

Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb south of Chicago, for instance, has been thinking about how best to sustain a diverse community for 40 years. “In Oak Park, the community chose to embrace diversity and more importantly to embrace integration and inclusion,” says Rob Breymaier of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, a non-profit that works with renters and property owners to promote racially balanced neighborhoods. “As a result, Oak Park has prospered and our diversity is an asset, while Ferguson appears to be struggling.”

Suburbia at the Crossroads

Long before mortally wounded Michael Brown lay on the streets of Ferguson, the landscape of thousands of similar post-World War II middle-class and predominantly white suburbs was changing. Federal and state policies in the 1990s and 2000s supported “home ownership” for more American families, including black and Hispanic families that had previously lived in city apartments. These policies not only led to the subprime mortgage frenzy and eventual housing market crash by providing incentives to lower-income home buyers and their mortgage lenders. They also dramatically changed the racial identity of inner-ring suburbia like Ferguson.

As additional Clinton and Bush-era policies supported the tax-abated construction of luxury condos in cities, more affluent whites have moved back to the same cities their parents and grandparents fled 60 years ago. In addition to this white and affluent “return to urban,” other white Americans have left changing suburbs like Ferguson and moved to more remote, still predominantly white communities. Still other long-term white suburban residents, like 30 percent of the Ferguson population, stay put for a variety of reasons, including growing acceptance of neighbors of other races or lack of resources to leave.

According to a University of Minnesota report, in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44 percent of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, defined as between 20 and 60 percent non-white.

“Ironically, these inner ring suburbs, once considered ‘white flight’ communities, are now more reflective of the country’s demographics than the cities are,” says Paul Scully, executive director of Building One America, which advocates for policies that support diverse suburban communities.

A Movement Rooted in History

For Braymaier and others who have been doing this work for a long time, any uptick in interest in diverse suburbs signals not a “new” movement, but the resurgence of an old one whose time has finally come. Places like Oak Park; Shaker Heights, Ohio, which borders Cleveland; or Maplewood-South Orange near Newark, New Jersey, set out decades ago, working with local real estate agents, to ensure that as blacks and Hispanics moved in, white residents did not flee. Organizers in these communities knew that too much white flight too quickly would lead to a downward spiral of lower property values, tax revenue and local services.

Oak Park's A Day in Our Village community festival is held each year on the first Sunday in June. (Village of Oak Park)

In fact, when the Oak Park Regional Housing Center was founded in the 1970s, many Midwestern and Northeastern suburbs were working to stabilize diverse communities. Organizations such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, (now the National Conference of Communities and Justice), brought people from diverse suburbs and towns together to share strategies.

Momentum waned in the 1980s when many older, inner-ring suburbs became predominantly black and the federal government more or less stopped enforcing fair housing rules. But these issues have reappeared on the political radar in the last decade , as the long-term impact of post-1965 immigration policy and differential birthrates across racial groups has led more policy makers to pay attention to the increasingly diverse electorate and market of home buyers.  

The Obama Administration has been relatively more proactive in terms of enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws. A good example is a 2009 Westchester Countyfair-housing case that ultimately forced the suburban New York county to build more mixed-income housing in some of its more affluent neighborhoods. In 2013, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials withdrew about $7.4 million in federal grants earmarked for Westchester, accusing the county of failing to comply with the order. While Westchester officials argue that HUD is overreaching, the Obama Administration’s actions in this case have put local communities on notice about fair housing enforcement.

HUD has also developed programs to support stable, diverse communities. In the Philadelphia metro area, several southwestern suburban townships came together to found Building One Pennsylvania, a state chapter of Building One America, and worked with HUD officials to develop a “mobility program.” The program helps assure low-income recipients of federal rent assistant vouchers, known as Section Eight vouchers, are not concentrated in one or two townships, but spread across several suburbs.

Still, many of HUD’s most innovative programs were cut during the federal budget sequestration of 2013. One example is the Sustainable Communities Initiative, or SCI, which was a partnership between HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund communities across the country seeking to develop master plans for economically strong, environmentally sustainable, and “inclusive” communities. Salin Geevarghese, former Acting Director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (now the Office of Economic Resilience), confirmed that while the SCI communities made much progress during the initial planning stage of the program, the sequester left HUD with no funds for the next phase of the project.

As Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC), explains, the Obama Administration’s actions on fair housing enforcement in predominantly white communities have been significant. But the more proactive, regional approach to planning that SCI supported is what is needed most in suburban counties that are already diverse.  According to Tegeler, “What is missing are the program mechanics and incentives that create integration. Sequestration has been brutal to these efforts within HUD.”

From Addressing Discrimination to Sustaining Diversity

In line with HUD’s defunded strategies, those working on these issues of diversity at the grass roots level say that addressing racial discrimination in terms of access to housing is not enough. In addition, suburbs such as Ferguson also need to proactively address racial profiling, equal access to infrastructure, economic revitalization, and school reform.

In Shaker Heights, Ohio, which has had clear policies on housing integration for decades, this shift is obvious. “We don’t talk so much about neighborhood integration anymore, we talk about stabilization and revitalization,” says Lisa Gold-Scott, Housing Attorney for Shaker Heights.

A long-standing home loan program called Fund for the Future was established in Shaker in the 1980s to assist home buyers in making “pro-integrative” moves into neighborhoods in which they would contribute to racial balance. But after the mortgage lending crisis in 2008, credit became tighter and more homes were converted to rentals units as the recession continued. By 2012, the Fund for the Future was no longer a viable model for sustaining a racially diverse and mixed-income community.

Now, Shaker Heights, with support from HUD and local non-profits, is focused on revitalization efforts including rehabbing vacant lots and foreclosed houses. They are building playgrounds and gardens in spaces where abandoned houses once stood and rehabbing old retail establishments that once housed auto repair shops to make office space for start-up tech companies.

According to Gold-Scott, the sustainability of older suburbs like Shaker Heights goes well beyond ensuring fair housing now that the demographics have changed so much. She notes that when you have safe, healthy homes and vibrant business districts, it has a ripple effect on the whole community. “It is a never-ending process, and you can’t just rest on your laurels,” she says.

Similar sentiments are echoed in other contexts, including Maplewood-South Orange in New Jersey, where Nancy Gagnier is executive director of the Community Coalition on Race. Modeled after the Fund for the Future, Maplewood-South Orange established a loan program in the late 1990s called Prism (Pro-integration Supplemental Money), which provided low-interest loans to homebuyers to purchase on streets where their racial/ethnic group was underrepresented. In recent years, Prism, like Fund for the Future, has evolved into a home improvement loan program to help community members hit hardest by the mortgage crisis and recession maintain their homes.

The Coalition also formed a Realtor Advisory Group to test how realtors reacted to prospective home buyers of different racial ethnic groups. This effort has evolved as well, as fair housing laws have greatly restricted what real estate agents can say to prospective buyers about race. Ironically, some of the same advocacy groups that once wanted the tighter restrictions on how realtors are allowed to talk about race now bemoan the fact that these restrictions forbid realtors who understand the benefits of diverse communities and schools to talk about diversity as a selling point.

So in Maplewood-South Orange, the Realtor Advisory Group now holds meetings with local real estate agents and school officials about which neighborhoods are the hardest to sell and how that relates to perceptions of public schools. They then recruit enthusiastic parents from those schools to give prospective buyers a tour. “These school tours are given by people who love the town and can say a lot more about racial diversity than a realtor can,” says Gagnier.  

Hope Springs Eternal

With so many obstacles working against suburbs’ efforts to remain diverse, stable and economically viable, these communities are increasingly seen as  bellweathers. Recent events in Ferguson suggest it is a model worth duplicating.

“We are at an interesting turning point in the suburbs of this country,” says Readey of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.  “It can go one way in to a blatant racial stratification scenario, with pockets of suburban affluent and everybody else. But if we embrace the idea of a strong middle class—a multi-ethnic and multi-racial multi-national middle—it will go another way.”

Interest in diversity today reflects the changing demographics of the country as a whole and a related shift in racial attitudes. More Americans than ever, especially younger, Millennial generation adults (age 18-34), say they are open to inter-racial marriage and interested in living in racially diverse communities. According to a recent Pew survey, a majority of these young adults also think that more needs to be done to address racial issues in the United States—55 percent of adults aged 18 to 34 agreed that more should be done, versus 40 percent of Americans over age 65.

Despite the views of this next generation of home buyers, sustaining racially diverse suburbs will be easier said than done. For one, property values for similar homes tend to differ in racially distinct communities. For example, my colleagues and I recently completed a study of demographic changes on Long Island, New York, and found statistically significant property value differences for the exact same houses on opposite sides of the suburban color line.

David Sabatino, a 20-something of Italian descent, grew up in Valley Stream on Long Island, where the population has shifted from more than 90 percent white and middle class in the 1980s to less than 50 percent white today. Newcomers include middle- and working-class blacks and Hispanics from Brooklyn and immigrants from the Caribbean, Central American, India, Pakistan, and Western Africa.

With a degree in urban planning and a commitment to his community, Sabatino recently bought a house in Valley Stream. He realizes that the question on many homeowners’ minds in suburbs like his is whether the whites will flee, as their parents and grandparents fled from Brooklyn decades ago. If they do, property values may well plummet. Or could it be that more white suburbanites will embrace diverse neighborhoods and stay put.

Sabatino is counting on the latter scenario. Founder of Envision Valley Stream, a community-based group focused on revitalizing and stabilizing his suburban home. Sabatino and Envision Valley Stream make planning proposals and host an annual Community Fest specifically designed to help residents feel more comfortable with their multicultural neighbors.

Property values are back up from their 2008 lows, and white residents are more willing to stay. Sabatino, who recently started working for the Long Island Planning Board, says a growing number of local residents— new and old— want to support diverse suburbs: “I finally feel justified. I’m not just some crazy person out there talking about Valley Stream. I feel a connection to other people.”

About the Author

  • Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focuses on the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. and how it affects our understanding of the "public."