#097 Jan/Feb 1998

Regional Coalition-Building and the Inner Suburbs

In response to growing social and economic polarization, between 1993 and 1997 Minnesota’s Twin Cities jump-started a long-dormant regional debate. In three years, the area reorganized its regional planning council, […]

In response to growing social and economic polarization, between 1993 and 1997 Minnesota’s Twin Cities jump-started a long-dormant regional debate. In three years, the area reorganized its regional planning council, moving it from a $40-million-a-year coordinating agency to a $600-million-a-year regional governance structure for transit and transportation, sewers, land use, airports, and housing policy. It enacted an important regional affordable-housing bill, strengthened the regional land-use system, and the legislature passed (but the governor vetoed) a major addition to regional tax-base sharing and a measure to elect the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning and operating agency. Energy for regional reform is growing.

In the process of reenergizing regionalism and ranging metropolitan issues on our negotiating table, we have discovered that our problems are not unique and that the suburban monolith, thought to prevent all progress on regional issues, is a myth. Every metropolitan region in the United States faces the same problems. Coalition-building efforts that emphasize the links between core cities and suburbs can bring about reforms to increase equity for an entire region.

Local Metropolitan Subregions

Over generations of urban growth, four distinct types of suburban communities have emerged in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The “inner suburbs” are a collection of fully developed working- and middle-class communities just outside the inner city, where 26 percent of the metropolitan population lives. Many of these communities are beginning to feel the effects of socioeconomic changes spreading outward from the city and are ill equipped to handle new problems. Politically, the inner suburbs house a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

Middle-class, and particularly working-class, inner suburbs are less stable than central cities for economic, organizational, and cultural reasons. Older suburbs are often a collection of smaller houses without a significant commercial industrial base and without the central city’s amenities, significant police force and social welfare presence.

“Mid-developing suburbs,” the low-tax-capacity but developing suburbs beyond the beltways, tend to be extensions of middle- and working-class neighborhoods. These rapidly developing communities, with a property tax base resting mainly on inexpensive single-family homes and apartment buildings, have insufficient resources to support basic public services. The older suburbs and mid-developing suburbs are classic swing districts, leaning toward Democrats on economic issues and Republicans on social issues.

The “commercial high-tax-capacity developing suburbs” in the Twin Cities form the “favored quarter” of the area’s south and west. To the east lie the “residential, high-tax capacity developing suburbs,” with a broad, rich property tax base and comparatively few socioeconomic needs. The crime rate is low in the south and west, and even lower in the east.

More than half the cities in this area had smaller concentrations of poor children at the end of the decade than at the beginning, possibly as a result of local zoning and metropolitan transportation policies restrictive to poor residents. Over time, households that cannot make it over suburban housing barriers tend to collect in the central cities and the older suburbs. The high-tax capacity suburbs have a median household income almost twice as high as in the central cities, 23 percent higher than in the inner ring, and 10 percent higher than in the mid-developing suburbs. They have about one-third more tax wealth than the other subregions.

Income Polarization and Politics

Underlying this spatial polarization has been the polarization of household income. Throughout the United States in the 1980s, those in the bottom three quintiles of household income lost ground, those in the fourth stayed even, and those in the top fifth saw their household income increase by nearly one-third.

These shifts in income have exacerbated tension between people in the second and third economic quintiles and those on the bottom. In the late 1960s, in older, larger regions of the country, poor people had rolled into these suburbs, fleeing the declining core city. People in the second- and third-quintile groups felt a deep threat to the value of their houses – their main assets – and to their neighborhoods – the center of their world. As residents resisted these incursions, they aligned with more conservative economic and political forces than their economic circumstances would normally indicate. These increasingly conservative, working class inner suburbanites outside of large cities feared for their homes and neighborhoods. Their racism was wrong, but their fear that disorderly metropolitan change would severely hurt their communities was well founded.

Spatial and income polarizations marry in unpredictable and angry politics. In the older, more divided regions of the country, the divide-and-conquer tactics of 1960s politics succeeded in working-class city neighborhoods and older suburbs undergoing social changes. In his book Middle Class Dreams, Stan Greenberg writes of the inner suburbs, the land of the second and third quintiles. While central cities have traditionally voted Democratic and white-collar suburbs Republican, many people in the middle groups, who had voted for Kennedy in 1960 and Johnson in 1964, switched to Nixon and the Republicans by 1968. These communities of middle-class whites, raised with the union movement and the New Deal, now had homes and neighborhoods to protect – homes and communities directly in the path of metropolitan decline.

Although this trend continued with the “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s, in 1992, during an economic recession, the middle class supported Bill Clinton and, to some degree, Ross Perot. In Minnesota, the lowest three income quintiles supported Clinton, but in declining numbers as income rose; George Bush’s strength lay in the top two quintiles. Perot took 20 percent of the vote of each group. The central cities, inner suburbs, and low-tax-capacity suburbs went Democratic in both statewide and legislative elections; the affluent, high-tax capacity suburbs supported Bush and the Republicans. But in 1994, many middle-income voters throughout the country again turned to the Republican Party, not so much because of the inherent force of the Contract with America – which few voters had even heard of – but perhaps because their economic prospects were not improving.

In the end, spatial polarization and income polarization augment each other. As social and economic polarization spreads throughout the Twin Cities, instability is growing. The intensity of debate on schools and crime is a good indicator of the scope and depth of middle-class anxiety. It is the rapid increase of poor children in local schools, however, that sounds the first warning of imminent middle-class flight.

In another part of suburbia, in their insulated, exclusive neighborhoods, people in the upper quintiles have watched those in the lower and mid-quintiles fighting among themselves. The more they have fought, the more insulated and affluent the top economic group has become. In some ways, the desperate struggle for exclusivity in the affluent suburbs is part and parcel an effort by the upper class to reduce its responsibilities to society in terms of a progressive tax policy. As the privileged have less and less contact with those less fortunate, their attitudes harden. Their intensely exclusive zoning practices may be a last-ditch effort to act through municipal government before opting for private “gated” communities, as the affluent have already done in many older, more polarized regions of the United States – and in the third world.

In light of this polarization of residential areas, the challenges of regionalism are substantial:

  • To unite the central cities with the middle- and lower middle-class voters in the declining and low-property tax value suburbs;
  • To show them that tax-base sharing lowers their taxes and improves local services, particularly schools; and
  • To convince them that fair housing will limit their commitment to poor citizens to manageable regional standards and thereby stabilize residential change in their communities.

For middle-class inner suburban neighborhoods – which have their fair share of the region’s poor residents already – regionalism promises to limit their commitment to affordable housing and end overwhelming waves of poor people arriving from the city. Once inner-suburban legislators understand this message, they can become powerfully supportive. For years, however, they have campaigned against the city in elections. At the outset, these inner suburbs are not disposed to believe that an alliance with their previous enemy is either wise or politically expedient.

Coalition Building in the Twin Cities

In the Twin Cities, the coalition built to pass recent fair housing and tax-base sharing bills included suburban leaders, church groups, environmental advocates, ‘good government’ groups, and concerned citizens. Though each group traditionally had different agendas, the issue of fiscal equity brought them together. Some of the older suburbs supported this legislation because they were overburdened with affordable housing and believed their decline would be more precipitous unless the newer suburbs stepped up to the plate. The churches supported it because of the moral dimension: many higher-income communities – particularly job rich communities – have restrictive zoning laws that keep large classes of people from social and economic opportunity. Environmental advocates supported the legislation because affordable housing gets people closer to jobs and requires less commuting. ‘Good government’ groups backed the measure for all these reasons, but with less passion than those with a more direct stake in the process.

As the debate continued over three legislative sessions, which heightened public awareness on these issues, a particularly restrictive Twin Cities suburb, Maple Grove, went through convulsions over the siting of an affordable housing project. The scenes on the evening news, much like the early civil rights movement, galvanized the public and local officials in support of a plan to equitably distribute tax burdens and benefits throughout the region. Finally, after the governor vetoed two bills, came the Livable Communities Act of 1995.

The Fair Tax Base Act was designed to redistribute taxes collected from high valued homes in the region. The bill would benefit 83 percent of the area’s population. These communities, particularly the property-poor northern suburbs, unified with the central cities to support this measure, and along the way religious and ‘good government’ groups joined in. The issue was intensely controversial, as the high-property wealth suburbs – about one fourth of the region – strongly opposed the bill. However, self-interest and strong public policy carried the day, and the legislature approved the bill after a lengthy debate. Although it was vetoed in 1995, it signaled the growing strength of the coalition and led to a significantly more equitable school funding formula, and the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts are now spending significantly more per student than the suburban averages.

Such issues are difficult and controversial but of mutual concern to inner-cities and suburbs. And efforts to find solutions that will unite communities within the Twin Cities region hold lessons for other regions facing similar circumstances.

Lessons in Coalition Building

Understand the Region’s Demographics and Make Maps

Develop the most accurate and comprehensive picture of the region possible. Look for the declining older, low tax-base developing, and favored-quarter suburbs. Understand the local fiscal equity issue and the local barriers to affordable housing. Measure road spending and land use. Finance and conduct regional studies, and seek other regions’ studies. Bring in the best scholars from area universities.

Use color maps to show trends. Politicians, newspaper reporters, citizens groups, and other potential allies will not necessarily read reports or speeches, but they will look at color maps, over and over again.

Reach Out and Organize on a Personal Level

Political reform is about ideas, but individuals who organize others bring it about. Political persuasion is about selling an idea to another person or group that has power. Once regional trends are satisfactorily described, some individual or group of people has to reach out, person to person, to make contact with the individuals and groups affected by these trends. Do not announce problems and disparities until after meeting with the groups who will be affected by your work.

Invite broad input from these individuals. Then lay out broad themes and the areas where regional progress is necessary – namely, affordable housing, tax-base sharing, and land-use planning. Talk about the experience of other states. Engage all affected constituencies in crafting legislation. This gives them all ownership and allows for adjustment to the peculiarities of the local terrain they know best – economic, physical, cultural, and political.

Build a Broad, Inclusive Coalition

The coalition should stress two themes: It is in the long-term interest of the entire region to solve the problems of polarization, and it is in the immediate short-term interest of the vast majority of the region. The first argument is important for the long haul; the second gets the ball rolling.

A regional agenda, at the beginning, finds few elected altruistic supporters. The early political support for regional reform in the Twin Cities came entirely from legislators who believed their districts would benefit immediately or soon from part or all of our policy package.

“It’s the Older Suburbs, Stupid”

Regional reformers should tape this message to their mirrors: The inner and low-tax-base suburbs are the pivot point in American politics and are the reformers’ key political allies. They were instrumental in electing Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton and an endless procession of officials in state office. The support of these suburbs alters the political dynamics. When regionalism becomes a suburban issue, it becomes possible. As long as regionalism is portrayed as a conflict between city and suburbs, the debate is over before it starts.

Do not accept early rejection by working-class, inner, older suburbs. These communities have been polarized for over a generation. Residential turnover and the growing impoverishment of their communities, the downturn in the U.S. economy for low-skilled workers, and relentless class- and raced-based political appeals have made many residents callous. Underneath they will soon realize that they need regionalism to have healthy, stable communities. They will come around as they come to see that a better future is possible, their alternatives are limited, cooperation will produce measurable benefits, and they have long-term, trustworthy friends in those who promote regionalism.

Reach into the Central Cities to Make Sure the Message is Understood

Central cities have a volatile political landscape. Without person-to-person contact in the inner city, the message will be misunderstood. Regionalism, if misperceived, threatens the power base of officials elected by poor, segregated constituencies. In this light, as in the older suburbs, the patterns of regional polarization must be reemphasized and the hopelessness of the present course revealed. Metropolitan reforms must not be presented as alternatives to existing programs competing for resources and power. Instead, they need to be seen as complements that would gradually reduce overwhelming central-city problems to manageable size and provide resources for community redevelopment through metropolitan equity. Fair housing is not an attempt to force poor minority communities to disperse but to allow individuals to choose – whether to remain or seek opportunity, wherever it may be.

Seek the Religious Community

Politicians and arguments appealing to people’s self-interest can move the agenda forward in the city and older suburbs, but they will not build a base of understanding of affluent communities, whose determined opposition will slow progress. Churches and other houses of worship and religious organizations can bring a powerful new dimension to the debate – the moral dimension. How moral is it, they will ask, to divide a region into two communities, one prospering and enjoying all the benefits of metropolitan citizenship while the other bears most of its burdens? How moral is it to strand the region’s poor people on a melting ice cube of resources at the region’s core or to destroy forests and farmland while older cities decline? Churches will broaden the reach of a regional movement. They can provide a legitimacy for its message in distrustful blue-collar suburbs, and understanding and a sense of responsibility and fair play in more affluent ones. Without the churches, the Twin Cities housing bill would not have been signed.

Seek the Philanthropic Community, Established Reform Groups, and Business Leaders

Every day philanthropic organizations face the consequences of regional polarization, and their mission statements are often in line with regional reform. They can be important sources of financing for research and nonprofit activities in support of regional solutions. The League of Women Voters can be helpful, as can the National Civic League and established reform groups. These groups can confer establishment respectability to the regional cause. Many of these groups, by themselves, have been working on regional reform for a generation. Seek their counsel as well as their support. Business leaders, particularly in the central business district and the older suburbs, can also be helpful and influential.

Include Distinct but Compatible Issues and Organizations

In addition to the churches, communities of color have a deep stake in this agenda, as do land use groups and a broad variety of environmental organizations that can reach into affluent suburbia. Women’s and senior citizens’ organizations, for example, want a variety of housing types in all communities for single mothers and retired people who cannot remain in their homes. These groups also want better transit. Regionalism is a multifaceted gemstone. In the power of its comprehensive solutions, it can show a bright face to many different constituencies to build broad support.

With the Coalition, Seek Media Attention

Using factual information, suburban officials, churches, philanthropists, reform groups, and business leaders, seek out editorial boards, which by necessity must have a broad, far-reaching vision for the region. Reporters who have covered the same political stories over and over will be interested in something new and potentially controversial. They will like the maps, and straightforward news releases without too much theoretical discussion will get the message across.

Prepare for Controversy

Over the years professional regionalists have explained away Minnesota’s and Oregon’s success with reforms as being the result of people having reached some happy consensus. This is not true. Each reform was a tough battle, and each group of leaders had to build coalitions to weather intense opposition and controversy. This is how any important reform in politics comes about – from labor reform, to civil rights, to the women’s movement. Reform never happens effortlessly or overnight. It entails building coalitions, creating power, and engaging in strenuous political struggle.
The agenda sketched here to deal with growing regional instability and disparities will evolve in the negotiation, reformulation, and synthesis that make up the political process. Essential to this discussion is the realization that our metropolitan areas are suffering from a set of problems too massive for an individual city to confront alone – the same problems that have caused the decline and death of some of our largest urban centers. Unless we concentrate on finding new solutions, we can expect no better outcome in the future.


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