First-Suburb Summit

Yesterday, I attended a symposium at the Brookings Institution that accompanied the release of a ground-breaking report on America's "first suburbs." Researchers with ...
by | February 16, 2006

Yesterday, I attended a symposium at the Brookings Institution that accompanied the release of a ground-breaking report on America's "first suburbs." Researchers with the Metropolitan Policy Program examined similarities and differences among 64 counties representing older, inner-ring suburbs across the country. The full report, which documents trends from 1950 to the present, is available here.

Equally interesting were the comments by five county leaders and two members of Congress who spoke at the event. They shared a wide range of common concerns--ranging from high housing costs and property taxes to changing demographics, traffic congestion and sprawl. When the discussion turned to addressing such challenges, there was consensus on two major obstacles: fragmentation among governments at the local level and a lack of understanding by state and the federal officials about the distinctive status of first suburbs.

As program director Bruce Katz noted, "First suburbs are caught in a policy blind spot between the attention long directed to central cities and new attention focused on fast-growing exurban areas. They're not poor enough to qualify for federal Community Development Block Grants, while at the same time, other federal and state policies undermine them."

More comments from the symposium after the jump.

U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: "A big issue we've got to deal with, although it is dicey politically, is fragmented government. That leads to competition instead of cooperation regionally. On Long Island, for example, there are 902 independent governments, the vast majority of which have taxing authority."

In 2005, Clinton introduced the Suburban Core Opportunity, Restoration and Enhancement Act. "Obviously, the first suburbs don't qualify for dramatic federal intervention, but we don't currently have any kind of assistance before blight takes over. The purpose of SCORE is to help preserve our aging communities that have been frozen out of most of today's federal support programs."

County Executive Thomas Suozzi (Nassau, NY): "One thing all of these areas have in common is that they are 'donors' in terms of giving more money to the federal government than they get back. We are funding growth in the rest of America at the expense of our first suburbs. The feds and the state perceive Nassau County as a wealthy place because our home values are among the highest in the country. Most of the older population, though, is house rich but income poor, so that money is not available to us to address problems."

Chief Executive Dan Onorato (Allegheny Co., PA): "As the state and federal government reconsider affordable housing, the current reality is that vouchers are concentrating low-income residents rather than being dispersing them among a wider area." Allegheny County has 130 municipal governments, more than any other county in the United States. "We've considered abolishing municipalities or consolidating services and functions. The latter has proved to be more realistic, because people are protective of their local governments, especially school districts."

County Judge Margaret Keliher (Dallas Co., TX): "With 25 cities, Dallas County doesn't have as much of the redundancy problems, but people moving into surrounding counties are creating transportation and air-quality issues, and they are not paying a share of the costs for using our trauma centers. Meanwhile, we are watching all of the federal money--for things like homeland security and homeless services--go to the primary city [Dallas]."

County Board Vice Chairman Christopher Zimmerman (Arlington, Co., VA): Although we have a single government and school district, we are limited to property tax revenue; income and sales taxes go to the state of Virginia. This creates a paradox: being a high-income community doesn't help those at the low end. Our index on the school-funding formula is very low, and we're paying for schools in other parts of the state."

County Executive Ron Sims (King Co., WA): "The federal government, especially HUD, never really acknowledges urban regions--many of which are more populous than their primary cities--or urban leadership. It's a metropolitan century; the feds don't recognize or reward that. When King County applied for a federal homeless grant, we wanted to spread the money around the whole urban area, not just downtown Seattle. I had to come to Washington with the mayor to persuade them to let us do it."

U.S. Representative Michael Turner of Ohio, who served as the mayor of Dayton for eight years: "When I first came to Congress, I was trying to find my niche. A person with an urban agenda must go trick-or-treating across the spectrum of congressional committees. There's no one place, no in-box, where that legislative agenda can go." As a result, House Speaker Dennis Hastert set up the "Saving America's Cities" working group within the Republican caucus in 2004. Turner serves as chairman.

My colleague Rob Gurwitt, who wrote a Governing feature on inner suburbs in 1998, says, "What's most interesting to me is that, judging from these comments, nothing much has changed."

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Anne Jordan  |  Former Editor
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