Management & Labor

The Residency Rebellion

On the far west side of Detroit, between the murky River Rouge and the suburb of Dearborn, sits a little neighborhood called Copper Canyon. It's a pleasant community of modest brick bungalows, manicured lawns and peaceful streets. It's also one of the few integrated neighborhoods remaining in the city.
by | May 2000

On the far west side of Detroit, between the murky River Rouge and the suburb of Dearborn, sits a little neighborhood called Copper Canyon. It's a pleasant community of modest brick bungalows, manicured lawns and peaceful streets. It's also one of the few integrated neighborhoods remaining in the city.

Copper Canyon's name doesn't have anything to do with its architecture, or with mineral deposits located anywhere nearby. It got its name from the hundreds of police officers who live there--a significant percentage, in fact, of the city's 3,000-member force.

The cops are there for one reason: Detroit's local residency law. For more than two decades, police officers and many other municipal employees have been required to live within the city limits. Most of them have chosen to be as close to the border as possible, but they are still inside it, making substantial contributions to the tax base and to the middle-class population, black as well as white.

If you look closely, you will find a version of Copper Canyon in virtually every big city that has had a residency law--Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Boston. Sometimes they are dominated by police and fire fighters; in other cases, depending on how the law works, teachers live there. Often, as in Detroit, such enclaves serve as a bi-racial buffer standing between all-white suburbs and an all-black inner city.

The future of these neighborhoods, however, is very much in doubt, because states are mounting an assault on the laws that created them. Copper Canyon may be the most endangered of all. Last year, with the enthusiastic support of Governor John Engler, Michigan's legislature passed a new statute barring Detroit and 90 other towns from requiring their employees to live there. All the workers have to do is reside within 20 miles of the border. They could live in Ohio and still work for the city of Detroit.

There hasn't been any mass exodus from Copper Canyon in the two months since the law took effect. The city maintains that unionized workers whose current contracts require residency can't leave until the contracts expire. Legal challenges lie ahead, and possibly a public referendum. So the demographics of Detroit's far west side may not change dramatically for quite a while. Still, the momentum seems to be on the side of rethinking residency, whatever the impact on particular neighborhoods and on urban tax collection might be.

A similar reevaluation is taking place just about everywhere a residency law is on the books. Most states haven't gone as far as Michigan, but quite a few legislatures have been talking about this issue in their sessions this spring. In many of them, a new anti- residency coalition has formed, and cities are hard-pressed to resist it. It's a coalition of labor and the educational establishment.

Municipal employee unions, of course, have never liked residency laws, even though they have acquiesced to quite a few of them. This is natural. City workers don't like to be told where to live, any more than other people do. But as long as it remained strictly a battle between unions and city government, and city hall could claim that residency laws are an effective weapon against middle-class flight (which they are), the balance of power lay largely on the government side.

But in the past couple of years, residency laws have become embroiled in the much broader debate over school quality. School boards, superintendents and parent activists have joined organized teachers in arguing that a residency requirement for teachers makes it difficult to recruit and keep the best talent.

The central exhibit in this debate right now is Rhode Island, several of whose cities have had strict residency laws for many years. Pawtucket is a good example. An old jewelry-making town whose population has been steadily shrinking, it passed a law in 1994 requiring that teachers and other city employees move inside the city limits within six months of starting work. The voters approved the law overwhelmingly that fall in a binding referendum.

But six years later, the law is in trouble. The school system is complaining that it has created a teacher shortage, because new teaching recruits want the freedom to live wherever they choose. A city hall forum on the issue in mid-March drew 60 speakers, virtually all of them demanding that the law be repealed. A group called Parents Against Residency is collecting signatures to put the issue back on the ballot this November.

If Pawtucket does junk its residency rule, it will join nearby Woonsocket, which abandoned a similar rule by referendum last year. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for a repeal effort in Providence, whose schools contain one-sixth of the pupil population of the entire state.

In Rhode Island, as elsewhere in the country, elite opinion seems to be on the side of repealing the laws. Indeed, the Providence Journal has been rabid on the issue. In an editorial last month, it called residency laws not only uneconomic and difficult to enforce but also un-American. "People in the land of the free," the Journal wrote, "should, barring overwhelming public need, be able to live where they want.... What does it say about a community when it must force people to live there?"

Here's where I have trouble. Nobody is being forced to live in Pawtucket. If they were, the town wouldn't be losing population. They're merely being asked to live there if they want to be on a city payroll. Should that requirement prove onerous, they are free to work anywhere else they wish--including the entire private economy, which currently has a few openings. I'm sorry, but I just don't see what's so un-American about that.

It seems to me that residency laws are simply being added to a long list of factors and institutions selected as scapegoats to take the blame for educational failures whose source lies somewhere else. "If only the towns in Rhode Island could have the freedom to hire teachers from the outside," the argument goes, "schools would improve." Well, maybe they would. But if I were a mayor of a little factory town somewhere struggling to hold on to its population and its tax base, I don't think I'd be convinced. I'd want to keep the requirement.

But regardless of what I--or most even most mayors--think, the movement against residency laws is gaining strength all across the board. And it's not just because of the education issue. It's happening in lots of places where schools are not a factor.

One such place is Boston. The city has had some form of live-in-town requirement for most of its employees since before World War II, but it was enforced only sporadically until 1993, when Thomas M. Menino campaigned successfully for mayor on a platform that called for a tough new residency law. As soon as he took office, Menino made a deal with the key municipal unions, including police and fire fighters. They would get a sizeable boost in benefits, starting the next year. In return, they would agree to a residency rule. Those hired after July 1994 would be required to live within the city of Boston.

Now, many of the union contracts are up for renegotiation, and so are the residency requirements that were written into them. And it appears quite possible that the requirements will not survive. In this case, it has nothing to do with education--teachers are not part of the deal in Boston. They can live where they want. The issue is the cost of living for those covered by the contract.

Boston has done well in the years since Menino put in the residency law, so well that decent housing at an affordable price has become very difficult to find. Police, fire fighters and others subject to the 1994 agreement now argue that they are being ordered to live in a city whose property they simply cannot afford--either to buy or to rent. They want a new contract with the residency rule taken out.

This argument is more persuasive than the one about teacher shortages. Indeed, it doesn't seem fair for a local government to insist that a police officer with a four children choose between an expensive downtown loft and a grimy flat somewhere in the slums. If affordable housing isn't available, maybe a rethinking of the rules is in order.

I would only argue that if a city is truly in this position, there may be other options besides dispersing its work force to the suburbs. It may be possible to offer subsidies or low-interest loans to employees willing to commit themselves to live and work there. Some combination of carrot and stick should be feasible even in a community where economic boom times have inflated the real estate market. And the fact remains that most of the places with residency laws don't have any such problem. They're more like Pawtucket than Boston-- leaking residents out of every corner. The last thing they have to worry about is sky-high property values.

In the end, one has to wonder whether the anti-residency movement isn't part of something larger: a subtle reaction against the idea of old-fashioned geographical community. We keep hearing over and over again that in the years to come, a community will no be longer a collection of citizens who live together, or even necessarily see each other. Communities will be virtual--America will really just be one big chat room. In that case, what's the difference whether the cop on your neighborhood beat lives in your city, or in a suburb 20 miles away where his family can have a bigger yard?

A few years from now, that may well be the way most people feel. For now, however, I don't think it reflects the majority view in Detroit, or Pawtucket, or dozens of other communities where it has long seemed reasonable to ask government employees, in exchange for a paycheck, to live and pay taxes nearby. "Un-American" is a pretty strong word to use in describing it.

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