Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Despite bleak forecasts, families of color are finding more equitable conditions in suburbs. But the type of suburb matters.
The history goes something like this: White families left inner cities in droves during the white-flight era of the 1950s and 60s. Now they are returning to—have returned to—the metro centers that their grandparents once called home. Families of color called these inner cities home during decades of depopulation. Now they, in turn, are leaving for—have already left for—the suburbs. Drawn by the promise of safer schools, larger homes, and better lives, or alternatively, pushed out by rising property taxes, it doesn't matter: What minorities found in the suburbs was the subprime mortgage crisis, followed by the collapse of the global economy.
That's the theory behind "slumburbia," the notion that the dark conditions that once characterized the Inner City are following minorities as they pursue the American Dream to the suburbs. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan used the label to explain rising suburban poverty. The New York Times's Timothy Egan applied the term to the Inland Empire.
There's a flaw to this theory of a growing "slumburban" America, and to the notion that the suburbs are contributing to ever-downward social and economic mobility for minorities relative to whites. A new study finds that, in fact, minority households are faring better in some suburbs, specifically those suburbs that have "matured" after the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Most of the gains in these places—what the study describes as "post-civil rights suburbs"—are accruing to low-income and African-American households.
Using data from the 2000 Census and the 2012 five-year American Community Survey, Deirdre Pfeiffer at Arizona State University compared neighborhood conditions over time for 88 U.S. regions. Compared with central cities and older suburbs, the housing markets in "post-civil rights suburbs" identified by Pfeiffer exhibited distinct characteristics. For three factors—neighborhood poverty, college-education attainment, and homeownership rates—these post-civil rights suburbs served minority households better than central-city or older-suburb neighborhoods.
"Living in the post-civil rights suburbs during the 2000s and early 2010s usually meant having better and more racially equitable neighborhood conditions than living in the central city or older suburbs," Pfeiffer writes. "Gains were greatest for African Americans and low-income households and smallest for whites and higher-income households. With few exceptions, they persisted over time."
In Houston, Richmond, and Tulsa, for example, post-civil rights suburbs exhibited greater racial equity than either the central city or older suburbs for 100 percent of the indicators, incomes, and periods that Pfeiffer studied. The same was true for Latinos living in post-civil rights suburbs in Los Angeles and Houston, as well as for Asians living in Minneapolis.
All told, for 57 of 88 regions, "neighborhood conditions in the post-civil rights suburbs were more racially equitable for minorities the majority of the time," the study explains. "Nine regions had more racially equitable conditions in the post-civil rights suburbs close to or fully 100 percent of the time."
This study doesn't dispel every fear associated with "slumburbia." It does help to put those fears in proper context, though: Controlling for housing age is key in assessing racial dynamics and suburbanization.
"The newer the housing and greater the residential integration and income parity among racial groups in the post-civil rights suburbs as compared to the central city and older suburbs, the greater their racial equity," Pfeiffer writes.
The future of suburban development isn't so bleak as some of the darkest indicators might suggest. Indeed, newer suburbs demonstrated better parity and lasting equity than other neighborhood typologies over a difficult decade. For black families and other minority households who have only ever been hurt by U.S. housing policy, post-civil rights suburbs may be the dream right now.
Places like Tinley Park and Bolingbrook near Chicago, Frisco and McKinney near Dallas, and Palmdale and Irvine near L.A. aren't the slumburbs. These places are proof of concept for fair housing—and potentially models for future development.