The blog of the Urban Institute
September 11, 2020

The Suburbs Aren’t Under Attack. They Can Be Places of Opportunity for All.

President Trump’s recent appeal to “suburban housewives”—that he will preserve suburban communities and that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will “destroy your neighborhood”—has sparked national conversation. But the contentious debate around suburban housing is not new.

Trump’s rhetoric is consistent with decades-old efforts to paint policies that aim to make suburbs more inclusive for people of all incomes as a threat to the suburban way of life—including unfounded claims about affordable housing’s effects on property values (PDF) and crime. As a result, many American suburbs have relied on exclusionary zoning and land-use policies that prevent and slow development with the explicit goal of excluding low-income people of color. In effect, this hoards opportunity (PDF) by limiting access to resources and amenities. But America’s suburbs are changing naturally.

Trump misunderstands what America’s suburbs look like today. Suburbs are more racially and economically diverse than they have ever been in our country’s history. And local leaders can take steps to foster even more racially and socioeconomically diverse communities that benefit all residents, not just predominantly white middle- and upper-class families, by providing access to transit, homeownership, good schools, and jobs. All suburban residents benefit from racial and socioeconomic diversity through reduced traffic, economic stimulation, better outcomes for children, and a stronger workforce.

Every family should be able to live in a community filled with opportunity. Several proactive suburbs and metropolitan areas across the country have already taken steps to dismantle discriminatory policies and build strong communities of opportunity for people who want to live there. Here are three evidence-based policy commitments that other areas could take to begin realizing that vision.

1. Build affordable rental housing in suburban enclaves

This vision of suburbia—one that welcomes households of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—requires the construction of rental housing affordable to people of low incomes in suburban, low-poverty areas. We’ve had the policy tools to create such housing in wealthier suburbs for decades but often don’t use them to their fullest potential. To increase inclusivity, suburban areas should consider expanding the use of federal subsidy tools in suburban communities and unraveling local resistance to affordable housing.

Affordable housing is already being built in suburbs across the country. The Ethel Lawrence Homes development in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, was one of the first of its kind. It took 30 years to complete because of local resistance, but it eventually provided affordable homes for 140 families earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median income. Research shows that the development did not hurt surrounding property values or increase crime. The residents of the Ethel Lawrence Homes experienced improved mental health, reduced unemployment, and increased educational opportunities for their children, among other benefits.

The Ethel Lawrence Homes were made possible in part by the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC), available to private developers. The LIHTC program may not be the best tool for every development, but suburbs can make greater use of it. North Carolina’s Housing Finance Agency has used the program to bring more affordable housing to their suburbs; half of the state’s LIHTC projects were built in the suburbs between 2009 and 2019.

2. Reform restrictive zoning laws

In many parts of the country, suburbs are growing rapidly, in part because renters and homeowners are being pushed out of cities by increasing housing costs. COVID-19 may spur even more relocations from urban centers to the suburbs. To meet increasing demand, several localities are reforming regulations that block the development of denser, moderately priced housing through zoning restrictions or high development costs—namely, single-family zoning.

Single-family homes are a staple of American suburbs, and communities have used single-family housing restrictions as a tool to resist growth and change. In 2019, Minneapolis and the state of Oregon largely banned single-family zoning. Minneapolis’s plan legalizes duplexes and triplexes, eliminates off-street parking requirements, and adopts “inclusionary zoning” rules, all of which will facilitate the construction of more multifamily affordable housing in wealthier suburban communities. Oregon’s ban on single-family zoning increases renters’ choice in cities with populations of at least 10,000 residents.

Minneapolis and Oregon are working toward the same goal. By taking steps to dismantle overly restrictive zoning, both jurisdictions aim to open suburban communities to more housing and lower housing costs so more families can afford to live there.

3. Make it easier for low-income renters to use housing assistance

Along with dismantling restrictive land-use regulations, suburban communities are expanding access to existing housing. Housing vouchers are intended to help families with low incomes find and afford housing outside of underresourced neighborhoods, but research shows that landlords in low-poverty communities routinely refuse to rent to families with vouchers. In response, some suburbs, such as Webster Grove outside Saint Louis and Woodland outside Sacramento, have recently barred landlords from refusing to rent to families with vouchers. More voucher protection laws in suburban communities could further increase access to housing for the lowest-income families.

Evidence shows, in general, families with low incomes stay in low-income neighborhoods because of barriers in access to well-resourced communities. In King County, Washington, the suburbs of Seattle, housing authorities are supporting residents with low incomes in moving to opportunity-rich neighborhoods by partnering with nonprofits who provide pre- and postmove counseling, financial support, and relationship building with landlords. The federal government has allocated an additional $50 million for similar mobility programs, which will support a greater number of households in moving to high-opportunity suburban communities.

Changes to the suburbs are already underway. Building more housing for families of all incomes and increasing access to affordable housing in resource-rich places will help communities meet their growing housing needs and benefit all residents. To foster inclusive, thriving, and diverse communities, suburban residents, leaders, and housing advocates should push for these innovative solutions.

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

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