It's been one month since police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The aftermath of this tragedy has shined a spotlight on an issue that many in the housing community grapple with every day—the continuing shift of poverty from the nation’s inner cities to the suburbs.
The numbers are startling. Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the population of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods (where at least 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line) grew by 139 percent. That’s almost three times the pace of growth in cities, according to a recent Brookings Report.
In 2000, 18 percent of the poor residents living in concentrated poverty in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas were in suburbs. By 2008-2012, that number hit 26 percent.
“One of the important trends of recent years, really the last several decades, has been the movement of poor people to what were once the inner suburbs,” says former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. “It’s a function of many things, but obviously people are trying to have a better life, making decisions to move themselves, the workings of a Sec. 8 [voucher] program that allows people to live where they can get apartments.”
Cisneros points to a number of places like Prince George’s County in the Washington, D.C., area, Dundalk in Baltimore, San Gabriel Valley southeast of Los Angeles, and Garland near Dallas as areas that have been transformed over the last decade or so. As more low-income residents moved from the city out to the suburbs, those areas haven’t always been ready, willing, or able to handle the influx.
“The result is then that many of these suburban communities were not prepared and didn’t have the same governmental and nonprofit infrastructure to train, house, employ, and educate these new populations,” Cisneros says. “There have been tensions at the point in which different populations interfaced.”
In Ferguson, that situation tragically manifested itself with a largely white police force that was ill-equipped to handle the shifting demographic in its city limits. As the area’s unemployment rate rose from around 7 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2010-12, the number of households using housing vouchers climbed from 300 to 800 and the city’s poor population doubled, according to Elizabeth Kneebone at the Brookings Institution.
By 2012, “one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level,” according to Kneebone.
“Ferguson is the result of a community that had not reflected preparation for a changing demography in their governance, nor in its police department (training),” Cisneros says. “As a result, there was a mismatch between the composition of the police department, the way they treated young African Americans in the community, and the realities of a new population.”
But it didn't have to be this way, Cisneros says. By representing the new populations in government institutions, increasing training for jobs, and funding for school programs, communities can increase the opportunities for low-income populations and, hopefully, limit the chance of another tragic conflict like the one that occurred in Ferguson.
“I don’t think Ferguson had to happen simply because there’s a population change,” he says.
Starts with Housing
It’s clear that Ferguson is much poorer than it was just 10 years ago. That’s true of many communities. What’s also common is the lack of affordable housing across the nation. In many of these suburbs, the affordable housing infrastructure may not be in place to support a new group of low-income residents..
“I believe the reaction in Ferguson is unique to Ferguson, so we need to be careful about drawing any inferences about overall housing and poverty from the situation there,” says Rick Lazio, head of the affordable housing and housing finance practice at the Jones Walker law firm and former congressman from New York. “Having said that, I do feel as though there is a fragile social compact now. The ailment of housing insecurity in communities like Ferguson contributes to people feeling powerless, who then look to nontraditional ways to express themselves. The severe housing instability causes anxiety, and our political system needs to accommodate this issue.”
Half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, adds John Weld Peck, partner and leader of Jones Walker’s Cincinnati office.
“The crazy thing is that utilities or other expenses may or may not even be included in this number,” he says. “More and more families are approaching 50 percent direct housing cost, and there is no way for them to survive in this economy with that housing instability. It’s really a disaster for the population overall.”
Sheila Crowley, president and CEO, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, sees the shortage of decent affordable homes in neighborhoods throughout the country.
“That is a recipe for being stressed, a recipe for homelessness, a recipe for people living doubled up, a recipe for parents working more hours every week,” she says. “The lack of affordable housing contributes to a host of problems.”
She also notes that neighborhoods with policies supporting community policing and police officers who are part of the community have better outcomes.
In Georgia, Renee Glover has given much thought to what makes a healthy community. The former CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, she worked on the development of 16 mixed-income, mixed-use communities while at the agency. Those projects followed the principles of HOPE VI, a federal program that aimed to eliminate severely distressed public housing developments and reduce concentrated poverty by creating mixed-income communities. The program recently transitioned into the federal Choice Neighborhood initiative.
“If you were to ask the question which is worse, racial segregation or income segregation, I would say that income segregation is worse,” Glover says, explaining that much progress has been made in outlawing racial segregation as a result of the hard work of civil rights leaders. “The next phase is tackling income segregation.”
Solutions were offered through HOPE VI, mainly the development of diverse communities. In these new neighborhoods, the economic mix became important because commercial developers count the rooftops of families with disposable income. Without a good income mix, commercial developers will not bring their stores, restaurants, and other businesses, which provide amenities and jobs.
For Glover, the key to creating strong communities was to think and act on a comprehensive basis, but there was a core.
“It’s stepping back and saying, let’s envision what a healthy community is,” she says. “Obviously, you’ve got to have an economically integrated housing strategy. You’ve got to have rental housing that’s economically integrated, for-sale housing that’s economically integrated, housing for seniors. Housing is at the center.”
Cisneros, the former HUD secretary and founder and chairman of CityView, agrees that housing can play a big role.
"The best of the housers, both public, nonprofit and private housing, know that housing is more than four walls, a foundation, and a roof," he says. "Housing is the platform from which people plan their ambitions, but they need help. Many housing communities are putting in place everything from learning and computer labs and establishing relationships with training organizations and transportation systems."