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How to Stop Communities From Growing Farther and Farther Apart

Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state representative, is the author of "Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability."

There is an illusion that poverty, social instability and community decline stop at central-city borders and that U.S. suburbs are monoliths of affluence, social harmony and political unity. In truth, the suburbs are as diverse--and as plagued with problems--as the central cities they surround, and the Los Angeles region is no exception. Disturbingly, this diversity too often means that communities within a region are growing farther and farther apart, resulting in social and economic polarization. Older, inner-ring suburbs, satellite cities and many developing communities afflicted with low tax bases and low rates of job growth struggle to finance basic local services, while high-tax-base, affluent suburbs spend extravagantly on parks and other amenities that serve to perpetuate their economic advantages. A way to diminish this metropolitan disparity may lie in a form of regionalism that pools revenue resources to pay for necessary local services.

In this country’s metropolitan regions, 20% to 30% of residents live in low-tax-base inner suburbs and satellite cities that are rapidly looking more like central cities. As poverty and social instability cross into these suburbs or begin to grow in older satellite cities overrun by urban sprawl, they have a tendency to accelerate and intensify. Moreover, in contrast to central cities, these communities lack diverse and stable resources to pay for local services. For example, central cities often have significant downtown tax bases to help pay for police and social services; they are more likely to have stable and gentrifying neighborhoods that can add considerable value to the tax base; and they probably have park systems, high-culture and pop-culture attractions, universities and transit systems.

Another 20% to 40% of the U.S. metropolitan population lives in middle-class and developing suburbs with low tax bases. These include second-ring cities and townships as well as rapidly developing communities that lack a sufficient tax base to support the needs of their increasing households and growing student populations, and to deal with such problems as traffic congestion and ground-water pollution arising from large-scale septic-sewer problems.

When the populations of the low-tax-base inner-ring suburbs, satellite cities and middle-class developing communities are added to that of the central city, which typically represents about 20% to 40% of a region’s population, the total number of residents disadvantaged by regional polarization comes to well over 65%--and often as high as 85%. In the Los Angeles region, the figure is about 83%.

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The stable, secure, affluent places that we commonly think of as the suburbs really represent only about 15% to 30% of the population of most U.S. metropolitan regions. They enjoy high tax bases and few social needs; they also receive a disproportionate share of the region’s highway- and sewer-infrastructure spending; they absolutely dominate the region’s economic growth.

A look at two social and economic indicators, property-tax base and job growth, in the L.A. region underscores the diversity--and polarization--of the suburbs. These measures are important because they indicate potential revenues that can be spent on local services.

Overall, where social needs are greatest, the property-tax base is comparatively low. Regionally, the average property-tax base per household in 1996 was $168,382, compared with $147,307 for the city of Los Angeles. Eighty-six suburban cities had average property-tax bases per household lower than L.A.'s; 37 were below Compton’s $106,229. Among the lowest property-tax bases per household were Stanton ($99,042) and Bellflower ($90,235); among the satellite cities, San Bernardino ($61,924) and Fontana ($55,240).

At the other end of the spectrum, 18 communities had property-tax bases per household of more than $400,000. Among the highest were Laguna Hills ($681,456), Beverly Hills ($594,634) and Mission Viejo ($407,447).

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Between 1986 and 1996, the average property-tax base per household jumped 9.3%. In the city of Los Angeles, the increase was 7.1%. But in 17 cities, the property-tax base declined by more than 15%. Most of the affected cities are in far eastern Riverside County, in the San Bernardino area, or are middle-class developing communities in the Irvine area of Orange County. On the other hand, increases occurred where property-tax bases were already high, as in Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach and San Marino.

The disparity is repeated when job growth is examined. In the L.A. region in 1994, the last year in which comparable data were available, there were, overall, 42.4 jobs per 100 persons, a 12.3% decrease from the 1990 figure. The greatest job losses often occurred in inner-suburban and satellite cities. For example, Lynwood went from 25.2 jobs per 100 persons in 1990 to 17.6 four years later; Highland dropped from 17.9 to 10.5 jobs per 100 persons; and Long Beach fell from 54.5 to 39.9. By contrast, cities with the most jobs per capita in 1990 experienced the greatest percent increase in jobs over the four-year period--and they were almost always affluent communities. For example, El Segundo went from 327.6 to 351.7 jobs per 100 persons; Newport Beach from 93.1 to 101.6; and Irvine from 108.1 to 121.4. The economic recovery since 1994, however beneficial, is not likely to have altered these trends.

Job projections for the region see no significant departure from this pattern of disparity. According to projections by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, jobs per capita in the L.A. region are expected to increase 11.6% by 2020. But the city of Los Angeles and 26 suburban communities are not expected to participate in the job growth. Los Angeles, for example, is projected to decrease from 46.5, in 1994, to 44.9 jobs per 100 persons in 2020. The suburban communities expected to lose the most jobs per capita include Whittier, Huntington Park, Rancho Mirage and Temecula.

Repeating a familiar pattern, the greatest increases in jobs per capita primarily are expected to occur in fast-growing, affluent communities such as Simi Valley, San Clemente and Westlake Village. Already-job-rich communities, like Orange and El Segundo, are also projected to experience considerable job-per-capita growth by 2020.

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How can struggling communities possibly compete?

Given this pattern of metropolitan polarization, many communities across the country are beginning to believe that the solutions to their problems are larger than any one municipality can manage. What’s possibly needed is for neighboring cities and suburbs to pool their property- and sales-tax bases. Every city in a region would then contribute a certain percentage of its total tax base to a regional pool. The pool would then divided up and distributed back to jurisdictions according to a formula that gave preference to communities with more modest local resources. In the L.A. region, between 65% and 85% of the regional population would thus pay lower taxes and receive better local services.

Other regional policies necessary to reduce the social and economic burden on the core--and to curb sprawl--include attracting middle-income families and businesses back to the central city and older suburbs; creating affordable-housing opportunities throughout the region; and developing a regional vision and coordinated plan for transportation and land use.

For decades, many organizations, academics and politicians have preached the gospel of metropolitanism. Metropolitan regions facing their futures together have less racial and economic segregation, stronger central cities and superior economic growth. To achieve this, regional polarization needs a strong, multifaceted, regional response. Such reform is positively, although not always easily, attainable in any metropolitan region. Once residents recognize that suburban communities are not a monolith of shared needs and experiences, and are not all wealthy with few social needs, low-tax-base communities--the Hawthornes, Comptons, El Montes and Long Beaches--can identify each other as allies in regional reform and begin to work together for a stronger, more stable region.

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