Much has been written about the benefits that can flow from helping people in poor neighborhoods move to wealthier neighborhoods (see, e.g., Yglesias). Today, Alon Levy on Twitter retweets Tony Dutzik, who shares an article from the Boston Globe about the difficulties that this sort of program faces in the Boston area. Wealthy suburbs like Newton resist providing affordable housing; instead we get this:
It was just three years ago that he withheld federal housing funds for a nine-unit development for the chronically homeless planned for a long-decommissioned fire station in Waban, a wealthy village on the west end of town where the locals play tennis at The Windsor Club in the summer and sled at Brae Burn Country Club in the winter.
“We live in a community where our kids walk to school,” one neighbor said at a public hearing on the project, “and I want to know why we shouldn’t be worried.” Another suggested that the prospective tenants might be more comfortable, “I hate to say this, but in Waltham.”
The article opens with the story of one woman whom any neighborhood would pretty clearly be honored to house:
It took some time, but Brito managed to find a subsidized apartment in a better-off community. Much better off, in fact: Lexington, a suburb of gracious Colonials and lofty SAT scores about 15 miles northwest of Boston.
Brito has to take a bus and two subways to get to her job in the city now. But the lengthy commute is worth it, she says. Her daughter can play alone in the backyard without fear. And her son, who just started his senior year at Lexington High, is considering St. John’s University in New York. Many of her old neighbors in the city aren’t faring so well. “Some people,” she said, “their environment swallows them.”
She’s willing to sacrifice a lot to make a better life for her family. Isn’t this what we’re supposed to be encouraging?
The intuition is that a neighborhood has every right to determine its makeup, including who gets to live there. In the United States, membership in the suburbs, with their good public schools and quality housing stock, is determined by ability to pay. Growing up in Vermont, we fought over Act 60, which tried to rectify some of the imbalances between wealthy and poor towns by redistributing some of the property-tax money from wealthy towns to poor ones. Naturally those towns which couldn’t afford to spend a lot on their schools drew the ire of wealthier towns: “We [in the wealthier towns] shouldn’t be penalized because we value our schools more.” In this model, the wealthier towns were paragons of virtue, willing to scrimp and save for their kids; it wasn’t just that the wealthier towns had set up a financial wall around themselves.
Let’s grant that neighborhoods have the right to control their makeup. (This principle arguably is what helped Cambridge fight off the Inner Belt, though that’s really a story of neighborhood-versus-state rather than neighborhood-versus-newcomers.) Still, this principle conflicts with the right of people to live wherever they want to live, so long as those people follow the laws and generally make good citizens of themselves. Most of us would bristle at openly declaring that a community is allowed to exclude people based purely on their wealth, but that’s how we’ve organized our cities and our suburbs. Even more of us, I think, would bristle at the thought that children, in particular — people who have no choice in these matters — should have their choices constrained by their parents’ wealth.
One answer might be that this sort of financial wall around the suburbs creates aspirations: if you work hard enough and earn enough money, you too will be able to afford to live in Lexington and send your kids to school there. “Every American believes that he may one day be rich” is one of the common stories about why Americans hate the estate tax, even though it applies to the tiniest sliver of Americans; the story goes that we all think, “That could one day be me,” even though, statistically, that will not one day be me.
I’m a libertarian on this point. I believe that the barriers to moving to a new city ought to be minimal (follow the laws and pay your taxes, basically), as should the barriers to moving to a new country; I’m all for open borders. But I doubt either of these things will happen in my lifetime.
One solution that the Boston area has come up with is METCO, whereby children from poor areas can be bused out to schools in wealthier areas. I suppose this neuters some of the suburban opposition: there’s less concern that poorer folks will endanger their pristine suburban neighborhoods, because the poorer folks will go back to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan at the end of the school day.
Another option is to recognize that many of the financial walls around the suburbs come from zoning rules: forbidding multi-family buildings and requiring setbacks, among many others. Once we recognize this, start to chip away at those rules:
A bill approved earlier this month by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing would confront that problem head-on. The bill would require that every city and town plan for multifamily housing and designate areas where it is allowed as-of-right. It would also require every community to allow single-family homes clustered on modest lots in compact, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by open space. Cities and towns would be compensated for any net increases in school costs that result from their approval of multifamily and cluster developments.
Another alternative, which I’ll never tire of citing, comes from then-Harvard professor, now-Senator Elizabeth Warren’s book The Two-Income Trap, wherein she advises severing the link between “nice place to live” and “place with the good schools.” Ethically, this seems obvious to me: my children shouldn’t be allowed to get a good education solely because they were lucky enough to be born to middle-class white parents; they should be allowed to get a good education because they are American citizens, in the same way that their citizenship entitles them to protection against foreign invasion regardless of their parents’ income. But this is likely a minority viewpoint.
There’s a hand-wavy hope that the problem will solve itself as wealthy people move back into the cities. The mechanism by which this happens is always vague. Will the wealthy people who move back into the cities largely disconnect themselves from public infrastructure? Will they take Uber everywhere, for instance, rather than ride the subway, and send their kids to private schools rather than to the neighborhood comprehensive? Will they even have kids, or will the wealthy people be largely retirement-age boomers or childless married couples? And as the wealthy people move in, will the poor people be priced out? If so, then the we’ll see the wealthy people improve the public schools, but only for their own benefit — not for the benefit of those who really need the help. In short, assuming that the disconnected actions of wealthy people alone will take care of the problem seems to be praying for a micro solution to a macro problem.
My great fear is that rising inequality will only make this problem worse: the wealthy and the poor will inhabit increasingly disconnected islands, and the wealthy won’t even acknowledge that the problems of poverty are their problems too.