Why Suburbs May Become the Next Slums
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But the positive benefits of moving to a neighborhood of less poverty diminish as the number of poor relocating there increases, new research suggests. In other words, families are far less likely to pull themselves out of poverty when their exposure to other poor families reaches a kind of tipping point. George C. Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, has quantified this poverty threshold as roughly 15 to 20 percent of a neighborhood. If the poverty rate exceeds that, Galster said, "All hell breaks loose" in the form of crime, drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, drug use and, in turn, declining property values.
Galster's working paper for the National Poverty Center, Consequences from the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990s: A Cautionary Tale, warns that polices to break up concentrated poverty may be backfiring. While the number of Americans living in the poorest neighborhoods has notably declined since 1990, by about 25 percent, poverty elsewhere has inched up. Galster worries that the rush to relocate the urban poor, through Section 8 and other poverty redistribution programs, has pushed many less-desirable suburban neighborhoods to this tipping point.
And when they tip, he added, neighborhoods tend to spiral deeper into poverty: Declining property values attract more poor residents, gradually displacing the middle-class families that provide stability, further depressing prices.
Miami real estate broker Adrian Salgado said he's witnessing the spiral, even within newer tract-home development in the region's southern and western fringes. With many areas overbuilt, and foreclosure rates high, Section 8 tenants and other low-income renters are finding deals too good to pass up. "I know everybody needs a place to live, but we're creating a social disaster," said Salgado, noting that many early middle-class buyers in these transition neighborhoods are desperate to sell but can't.
Although national data is thin, local officials across the country are reporting an increase in violent crime, gang activity, drug use and other social breakdowns within suburban neighborhoods. In places like New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, urban crime rates are dropping while rising on the outskirts of town. Crime is also rising in the fast-growing sunbelt communities hit hard with foreclosures. Leinberger noted that in Lee County Fla., where nearly 25 percent of the homes stand empty, robberies were up nearly 50 percent last year.
Indeed, police in some cities are monitoring suburban foreclosures to identify neighborhoods at risk for increased crime, while others look at Section 8 relocations, arguing that a sudden rise in low-income rental densities is among their most reliable indicators of a coming crime spike.
Such tactics rankle some anti-poverty advocates, but a growing body of research is challenging suburban relocation as a remedy for poverty. Ed Goetz, a housing policy specialist at the University of Minnesota, said the suburban dream often fades for poor families because old support systems are severed, and access to programs and services — day care, after-school programs, job training, drug treatment and counseling — are greatly hampered by shear distance.
"The isolation can be both physical and emotional," Goetz said. "The frequency of interaction with neighbors declines, social networks break down. We haven't considered that carefully enough." Goetz said studies show a surprising willingness among the suburban poor to return to urban, high-poverty neighborhoods where services are more accessible and mass transit more convenient.
But the suburban diaspora of America's poor is unlikely to subside, most experts agree, posing complex challenges for policymakers. If anything, added Alan Berube, a housing expert at the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty will grow not just from in-migration of the poor but from within as the financial crisis "pushes middle-class families down the economic ladder."