Politics

What Happens When a Suburb Begins to Die?

For older, inner-ring suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest, the best hope often lies in merging with the city.

East Cleveland, a suburb contiguous to Cleveland, Ohio, has lost 36.7 percent of its population just since 2000. Its population is 93 percent black and its poverty rate is 42.6 percent. The city is classified as fiscally distressed by the state of Ohio. Its budget has fallen from $16 million to $10 million in about six years, and nearly half the city’s workforce was laid off during that time. In 2016, the city petitioned the state to be allowed to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Last winter, the state department of transportation had to lend the city two salt trucks because its own fleet was inoperable. The nearby community of Oakwood Village donated an ambulance to East Cleveland, whose last ambulance broke down. Facing serious chronic challenges, East Cleveland considered a previously unthinkable solution: merging with the city of Cleveland.

Merger with the central city is an option more physically contiguous inner-ring suburbs should consider: That’s the argument I lay out in a new Manhattan Institute study.

I look at major post-industrial metro areas 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. Data including population loss, high and rising poverty rates, and declining inflation-adjusted household incomes reveal many suburbs of these cities are facing distress. I highlight several that are potential candidates for merger, such Dolton, Illinois (outside Chicago); and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh).

According to the Brookings Institution, a fifth of the United States population lives in what they label America’s “first suburbs.” Some of these communities, such as Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, are prosperous and successful; many others, like East Cleveland, have fallen into serious decline. Their populations are shrinking and aging, and middle-class residents are moving further out. Their main corridors are pocked with retail vacancies and “dead malls,” and abandoned homes haunt their tree-lined streets.

In some ways, struggling inner-ring suburbs face are harder to revive than central cities. For one thing, they are often “out of sight, out of mind.” Downtowns have the spotlight of the local media on them, and they attract attention from business and community leaders and local and national lawmakers. Inner-ring suburbs rarely get much attention until some serious problem emerges, as in the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, or the pay scandal in Bell, California.

These communities are also seeing increases in concentrated poverty and isolated minority groups. Black residents leaving central cities in the Midwest and Northeast often end up in these suburbs. 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.

But unlike inner-city neighborhoods, inner-ring suburbs often have additional serious structural challenges. They often lack of good transit access, for example. They also sometimes are dominated by older, smaller Cape Cod or ranch-style housing that in need of repairs and out of favor in the market. And they don’t have the distinctive assets of central city downtowns to draw on. Central cities are frequently the regional seat of government, either a county seat or state capital. They have major institutions like universities and hospitals; they contain regional attractions such as zoos, museums, and sports teams; and many still boast legacy corporate headquarters, among other assets. This is true even in struggling places like Detroit and Cleveland.

What originally seemed like the American Dream becomes a mirage or a nightmare as opportunities recede there.

But inner-ring suburbs usually don’t have these. As former East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton put it: “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 diversification, that’s a bad situation.”

There are no easy answers to these challenges. 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 simply providing life support through subsidies might be viable politically in the short term—until an eruption happens as in Ferguson. And even before then underlying problems continue to fester. A state takeover comes with its own risks—just ask Flint.

Merging with the city is no silver bullet, but does have the potential to help ease these structural problems. 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.

Mergers are always difficult to make happen politically, and things would be no different with these inner-ring suburbs. East Cleveland is again the example. Its mayor and city council president were recalled as the city pursued the merger, and the option appears to be dead for now. To accomplish such annexations, state governments will likely need to offer transition assistance, potentially absorb some of the suburbs’ legacy costs like pensions, and offer funding for capital improvements. Getting capital improvements is historically and still today a prime reason unincorporated areas agree to be annexed. And any merger should improve public services in the suburb while not lowering them in the city.

Let’s be clear: There are genuine trade-offs to be made with merger. City Lab’s Brentin Mock recently passionately argued against 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. That’s a legitimate value to consider. But the flip side can’t be ignored. By not merging, those black residents are cut off from the tax base being created by the technology and medical industry booms happening in the city of Pittsburgh next door. Black control in many of these suburbs has meant 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.

Should regions be able to wall off minorities in jurisdictions with limited tax bases? What solutions are there for inner-ring suburbs facing serious structural challenges? Ultimately these are questions these communities, regions, and states need to wrestle with. Merger may not be the best answer in every case—but it needs to be on the table as a serious option.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab’s newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.
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