Our Inverting Cities

November 2015
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

The central idea of Alan Ehrenhalt’s 2012 book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City is expressed in the title: the concept of a major demographic flip. He wrote that the changes happening in many cities that are routinely described as gentrification are actually more complex and more profound in their consequences.

Ehrenhalt, a Governing senior editor, may have been among the first to recognize that the typical pattern of development of American cities in the latter half of the 20th century -- with minorities and the poor living in the urban core and a whiter, wealthier population in the suburbs -- was an aberration. Historically, the normal pattern is to have the most affluent population living closest to the center of the city. And that’s the pattern we’re returning to today. As Ehrenhalt writes, “The problem for major cities in the coming decade will not be finding people who want to live in the center. It will be finding places to accommodate them.”

His prescience is evident in Mike Maciag’s cover story this month on the increasing shortage of affordable housing in many of America’s big cities. (That’s just one of the consequences of the great inversion. Not long ago, Governing convened a dozen big-city chief financial officers, and I was surprised by the main topic they wanted to discuss: rapidly growing homelessness. Recent Census data showed that between 2000 and 2012, renters’ incomes declined by 13 percent even as median gross rents climbed by 6 percent. It seems clear that the increases in homelessness that the CFOs are seeing are the result of economic dislocation related in part to the great inversion.)

As Maciag writes, several mayors, including Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston, have set out ambitious goals to increase the availability of affordable housing through the use of development incentives, tax credits, inclusionary zoning and similar tools. Those efforts are worthwhile, but it seems to me that there are real limits to what governments can do. Transit is a clearer fit for government action. Let people live where they can afford to live but give them access to all that the city has to offer in terms of jobs, quality food, education and health care through efficient and affordable transit.

Ehrenhalt writes that where millennials want to live “is the demographic question that will determine the face of metropolitan America in the next twenty years.” I think they will want to live in metropolitan areas with cities and close-in suburbs that are vibrant, lively, safe for children and made affordable by excellent transit.