2014 February

How Far Can You Get in the Suburbs Without a Car?

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By Barbara Ray

Living in the suburbs without a car can be a problem. Though many suburban communities have bus or train access into the central city in the morning and back again at night during the work week, if your job is anywhere besides the central city or you work odd hours, you may be out of luck.

New tools from Mapnificent are pretty revealing.

The interactive mapping site outlines the area reachable by bus or train within a set time from any starting point—a public transit catchment area, if you will. Drop a pin on a map anywhere in a metro area, choose the time frame (within 30 minutes or 60 minutes, say), pick a time of day or day of the week, and it’ll show where you can go in that time frame using public transportation.

Because most low-wage workers are the ones working off-shift, part-time, and weekend jobs, I was curious to see how easy it is for them to get to work on public transit. So, on the assumption that airports employ a lot of lower-wage workers, I entered 60 minutes and dropped my pin on airports in Houston, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. All three are experiencing strong growth in population and jobs. Many of the lower-wage jobs in these areas are filled by recent immigrants, who tend to be major users of public transit.

Bad news. If you work at the George Bush International Airport  in Houston, you can’t get very far in an hour on public transport—and forget about weekends. That’s probably why only 1 percent of suburban commuters use public transit. (The percentage may be low, but that’s still 20,000 people.)

Take a look:



Salt Lake City is a little better. You can get almost anywhere in the metro area, except south of I-215, within an hour, even during off-peak hours. A recent report by Brookings scholar Adie Tomer and coauthors backs this up. In “Missed Opportunity,” they find that nearly 60 percent of all metro area jobs are reachable via transit in 90 minutes, much better than the 100-metro average of 30 percent.

In Atlanta, if you live in the southern tier, you can get to an airport job on public transit within an hour—from College Park or East Point, for example (but not Forest Park). If you live in a narrow band north of the city (up by the I-85 corridor), you might also be able to make it—if the connection gods are with you. “Missed Opportunity” shows that only 38 percent of working-age residents have access to public transit, and those residents can reach just 22 percent of area jobs  on average in a 90 minute commute. Those shares drop even further for suburban residents.

In New Orleans, Katy Reckdahl, writing in The Advocate, found that many low-income families in suburban Jefferson Parish, where jobs are migrating, were struggling with both the costs and headaches of transit. If a resident of Marrero wanted to get downtown, for example, “she would have to hop on a Jefferson Express Transit bus and pay one fare that would get her to the city. Then she’d have to pay another fee for the New Orleans bus, run by the Regional Transit Authority. There are no transfers across the two systems.”

Jefferson Transit Director Ryan Brown told Reckdahl that he’d be in favor of a more regional approach, but because the suburban and city lines are two separate entities, allowing transfers between them would mean “everyone would lose money.”

New Orleans is not the only place facing a lack of regional coordination. Detroit, for example, is the only metro area out of the top 30 largest without a regional transit system, and the only airport where you can land but not take transit to your destination. Yet transportation, by its very nature, is a regional issue, and it demands regional solutions. Detroit in fact is taking up the charge, having recently formed the Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan. The plan is to link Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties in southeast Michigan with a system of new rapid bus transit, and dedicated lanes for new express bus service across the county lines and to and from the airport. Funding, however, is not yet secured. The model they’re aiming for is Denver, which passed a regional tax for transit that qualified the area for federal matching funds. The result was a “complete renaissance in transit,” said John Hertel, the director of Detroit’s suburban bus system.

Regional solutions should also accommodate the rising demand for off-peak transit and intra-suburban routes. Efforts like this one in Denver to expand light rail and other transit options are great, but ideally they should also expand their hours of operation if they are to meet the growing demand for off-peak service. Doing so, according to Atlantic Cities, doesn’t cost any more. In fact, making service more regular might be cheaper. Interestingly, adding more off-peak routes also increases peak ridership. “If people know a train can take you back anytime you need, they’re more willing to take the train in during rush hour in the morning,” says Eric Jaffe writing in Atlantic Cities.

Understanding the emerging needs of low-income suburban residents to get to and from jobs no matter what the hours and where they are will be imperative if transit is to be effective.

The Squeeze is on for Affordable Rentals in the Suburbs

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Affordable Housing Image

By Barbara Ray

Families move to the suburbs for better schools, bigger yards, and safer streets. But increasingly, they’re finding it hard to pay the rent.

With an additional 3 million households cast into the rental market after the housing crisis, demand is outstripping supply and rents are jumping. In some suburbs of Boston, rents rose upwards of 14 percent in 2012. Median rents are hovering around $2,000-2,500 a month. In the suburbs of Chicago, rents have risen so much that in some communities developers are going on a building binge after a ten-year dry spell. The median rent for a suburban apartment there is now about $958 a month for one bedroom and $1,152 for two.

Obviously, a $10 an hour job doesn’t go far with those rents.

Today, a stunning one-half of all renters, or about 21 million people, spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a traditional measure of housing affordability. That’s a new high, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, which also found that the issue of affordability is increasingly a suburban one. Today, 40 percent of renters are in the suburbs. In general, suburban renters are more likely to be parents and slightly older than city renters. Suburban rentals are more often single-family homes or larger apartment complexes.

Clearly, the nation needs more affordable housing. Researchers at the University of Minnesota go one step further and argue in a new report that federal funding is not meeting the need. In their case, they argue that too much federal funding for affordable housing is going to Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods at the expense of fast-growing suburbs. That’s not because there’s no demand. The study found that in one suburban county near Minneapolis more than 9,000 people are on wait lists for affordable housing. Yet the majority of affordable housing units in the region continue to be built in the city. In part, the focus on urban housing stems from the regional Met Council’s emphasis on locating affordable housing near transit lines to ensure connectivity. Many suburbs lack transit access, and thus end up missing out on affordable housing opportunities even if they want to develop more affordable units.

“It deprives families the opportunity to go to low-poverty, high-performing schools, if you build it all in very poor neighborhoods,” the study’s author, Myron Orfield told Minnesota Public Radio. “And it makes places like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are already very racially segregated, over time more and more likely to house a larger percentage of the region’s poor population.”

Part of the issue has always been one of exclusionary zoning restrictions that suburban jurisdictions have favored. The restrictions, for example, bar large lots (where large apartment complexes could be built) or restrict multi-unit housing. Often these regulations are thinly veiled efforts to keep the poor—and the crime they are thought to bring with them—in the city, as Dan Rodricks argues in an op-ed about Baltimore County’s opposition to a $13.7 million housing development for low-income families in eastern Baltimore County.

In part as a reaction to these restrictions, policymakers in some areas of the country have created inclusionary zoning policies, which mandate, or at least encourage, developers to build a proportion of homes in market-rate developments that can be sold or rented at below-market rates. More than 500 localities in the U.S. have inclusionary zoning policies. Yet these programs largely target owners, not renters.

For renters, two federal programs help millions of households each year access affordable options, and both are increasingly being used in suburban communities. According to a Brookings analysis of HUD data, in 2008 the nation’s 100 largest metro areas contained 1.1 million affordable units created through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a dollar-for-dollar tax reduction to investors who develop affordable rental housing, and half of those units were in the suburbs. In addition, recent research found that the Housing Choice Voucher program, a federal program that has grown over the last decade and that offers recipients portable subsidies in private, market-rate housing, served 3.4 million residents in that same year, half of whom lived in suburbs.

Expanding affordable housing in the suburbs seems smart, especially as suburban poverty rates increase.  But “more” is not enough. Where affordable housing is located matters too. Some developers are building affordable housing in unincorporated, far-flung areas with limited services and infrastructure, creating a different form of isolation for poor families. Many Housing Choice Voucher recipients end up in lower-opportunity suburbs, farther from jobs and good schools. While in the past, poor families were isolated in declining neighborhoods in central cities, today an increasing number may be isolated in out-of-the-way suburban developments.

Going forward, planners and policymakers must pay attention to the risk of re-segregation. In the suburbs, affordable housing must be located in areas that afford families access to high-performing schools and good jobs or we risk recreating the same trap of inner-city poverty. Likewise, they must work to create more economic opportunity in struggling suburbs that already have high concentrations of affordable housing.

Whatever the answer, the top-line issue is clear. The nation needs more affordable housing for its hard-working families, wherever they may live. The triple whammy of a foreclosure crisis (which is not over yet), long-term wage stagnation, and rising rents has left far too many families struggling to make ends meet.


The Metropolitan Geography of Low-Wage Work

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Cross-posted on Brookings Metro’s blog, The Avenue

By Jane Williams and Alan Berube

With increasing national debate and action around raising the minimum wage, particularly in several big cities (e.g., New York, Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago), now is a good time to ask: Where do low-wage workers live? 

In our recent blog post about the prevalence of low-wage work in the suburbs, we alluded to a new analysis regarding the share of low-wage workers who actually live in the suburbs.  This post further analyzes the data to learn the extent to which fights to raise minimum wages in big cities might affect the low-wage workforce in metro areas.

We define “low-wage work” as occupations in which, nationally, at least one-quarter of all workers make less than $10/hour.  The major low-wage categories include: (1) sales and related occupations; (2) food preparation and serving related occupations; (3) building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations; (4) personal care and service occupations; and (5) farming, fishing, and forestry occupations.

Not all workers in these low-wage occupations earn “low wages” (and vice versa), but much of the nation’s low-wage workforce fits into one of these five sectors.  In fact, as the table below shows, more than half of workers in two of these occupational sectors (food preparation and serving related occupations; and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations) make less than $10/hour.  (In order to give a sense of what these occupational groupings mean, we have also included a non-exhaustive list of jobs that fall within these sectors).  Altogether, there were over 23 million workers in the five low-wage sectors in the 94 largest metropolitan areas in 2012, with the largest share working in sales and related occupations (10.5 million).

Minimum Wage Table 1 cropAbout two-thirds (67 percent) of workers in low-wage occupations live in suburban communities, just below the share of total workers who live in suburbs (69 percent).

Min-Wage Graph 1Some types of low-wage workers are more likely to live in suburbs than others.  While only 63 percent of workers (2.3 million) employed in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations are suburban, 71 percent of workers (7.4 million) in sales and related occupations—the largest low-wage occupational sector in metropolitan America—live in the suburbs, evidence that most of America’s retail jobs and workforce have moved to suburbia.

Min-Wage-Graph 2The geography of low-wage workers varies across metropolitan areas, too. Not surprisingly, in highly suburbanized metro areas, large shares of workers in low-wage occupations live in the suburbs, led by: Atlanta (92 percent), Miami (89 percent), Providence (89 percent), Greenville (88 percent), and St. Louis (88 percent).  Conversely, these figures are lower in less suburbanized metro areas, including: El Paso (16 percent), San Jose (30 percent), Colorado Springs (31 percent), Wichita (35 percent), and Albuquerque (35 percent).  Notably, in three metro areas—Bakersfield, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas—low-wage workers are disproportionately located in the suburbs compared to the overall workforce.

Minimum Wage MapAs municipalities across the country examine ways to boost workers’ wages, these data indicate the geography and scale of low-wage work in America.  Big-city campaigns to raise minimum wages might affect millions of workers, but would still miss the majority-suburban low-wage workforce in metropolitan areas.  Conversely, coordinated efforts to push these increases beyond cities into surrounding suburbs (as has recently occurred in the Washington, D.C. area) acknowledge the new geographic realities of low-wage work.

An Anti-Poverty Policy That Works for Working Families

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Cross-posted on Brookings Metro’s blog, The Avenue

By Elizabeth Kneebone and Jane Williams

In his State of the Union address, President Obama remarked that few steps are “more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.” The latest Census Bureau figures on the anti-poverty effects of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) confirm their substantial impact on the well-being of families and communities across the country.

According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)—a more nuanced measure of poverty than provided by the official definition—the poverty rate would have been 3 percentage points higher in 2012 without the EITC and the refundable portion of the CTC. For children, the impact of these credits was even greater, effectively lowering the child poverty rate by 6.7 percentage points.

The poverty alleviation effects of these refundable credits are shared across the country, benefiting every state and the District of Columbia. The map below illustrates the average number of people kept out of poverty by the combined impacts of the federal EITC and CTC using the most recent data available. (Due to sample size issues, the map presents estimates of the average annual impact of these credits based on three years of Current Population Survey data, from 2010 to 2012.)

Less populous states like Vermont and Alaska each saw more than 10,000 residents lifted out of poverty by these credits (13,000 and 16,000, respectively). In 31 states, the number of residents lifted out of poverty by the EITC and refundable CTC exceeded 100,000, reaching as high as 1.3 million in California.


The anti-poverty impact of the EITC alone ranged from 9,000 residents in Washington, D.C. to 831,000 in Texas, where more than half of those residents were children. (See this table for detailed state data.)  In addition, for the many states that have their own version of the EITC, the combined anti-poverty impact of the federal and state credits would be even greater than what is captured by the SPM, which currently only accounts for the federal provision.

Part of what makes the EITC effective as a poverty alleviation tool is its responsiveness to changes in the economic cycle (bolstered in recent years by targeted expansions) and to the changing geography of poverty in the United States. Because this benefit is administered through the tax code, the distribution of EITC recipients has tracked closely with shifts in the location of the low-income population over time. As the low-income population rapidly suburbanized in recent years, so, too, did the geography of EITC recipients, providing an important benefit to working families in struggling suburban communities that are otherwise ill-equipped to address growing need.

However, the EITC could work better for some workers, both as a poverty alleviation tool and as a work incentive. Of the more than 26 million taxpayers who claimed the EITC in Tax Year 2012, 6.1 million were childless workers or noncustodial parents. Under current law, only workers between the ages of 25 and 64 can claim the so-called childless worker credit, and both the anti-poverty impact and work incentive aspects of this credit are dampened by its comparatively small size ($487 maximum in Tax Year 2013, compared to $6,044 for families with three or more qualifying children) and the fact that these workers phase out of eligibility much sooner (at $14,340 for single filers and $19,680 for married filers, compared to $46,227 for unmarried filers or $51,567 for married filers with three or more kids).

Accordingly, in his State of the Union address, President Obama also called for strengthening the EITC for workers without qualifying children (as have policymakers on both sides of the aisle) to make it more effective at incentivizing work and making work pay. As proposals evolve and are debated, we will release estimates of the impacts of potential expansions to the credit in the coming weeks, and how they would play out across different states and metropolitan areas.

Homepage photo/John Morgan

Smart Regional Planning Can Help Struggling Suburbs

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Smart-Growth-HomesliderSomerville, outside of Boston

By Sarah Jackson

Poverty today has become a regional challenge. It affects a wide range of places, which have varying and uneven capacity and infrastructure to help low-income residents cope and to connect them with economic opportunity.  These changes have forward-thinking planners and community groups around the country asking: Now that we understand how places are changing over time, how can we can effectively plan for those changes? What strategies make sense to ensure all residents can share in future prosperity?

The Denver area may have some of the answers. The region has been struggling with one of the most rapid shifts in the location of jobs to the suburbs in the country. By 2010 only about one in five jobs in the region was located within three miles of downtown. And as Elizabeth Kneebone and Melinda Pollack note in a recent op-ed, even when suburban residents can use transit, “they can only reach one-third of the region’s low- and middle-skill jobs on average in a 90-minute commute.”

To address this, the region is in the midst of a transit expansion project to build new commuter and light rail and improve bus services across eight counties. But most impressive are the ideas developers have come up with to ensure all residents of the region can benefit from this investment.

The new Mile High Transit-Oriented Development Fund, for example, is leveraging public and private dollars to increase access to affordable housing, jobs, and services around transit sites. The Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), Enterprise Community Partners, and the City and County of Denver partnered with public and private funders to create the fund. The fund aims to create and preserve at least 1,000 affordable homes along current and future high-frequency bus and rail corridors. The plan is to take the model region-wide in 2014.

“Locating affordable housing in transit corridors allows households to reduce expenses, while increasing access to employment, educational opportunities and services,” organizers write on ULC’s website.

Recognizing the intersection of housing, transportation, and jobs, the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have put together a new location affordability portal that aims to help residents make better decisions about how housing and transportation costs affect the affordability of a given area.

In Boston developers are also working to connect neighborhoods and promote principles of smart growth, like coordinated planning around affordable housing, transportation, and economic development decisions, which, they say, also promote equity.

Speaking at a recent conference there, Larissa Brown, director of community planning at the local firm Goody Clancy, laid out the smart growth design principles that planners designing for today’s suburbs should incorporate:

  • Design for people first, then cars.
  • Promote connections between towns, rather than isolation from adjacent areas.
  • Balance open spaces with high-density development.
  • Orient buildings to the public realm and to the connecting streets.

Planners like Brown advocate developing a variety of housing types and promoting mixed-use development where feasible, allowing housing to coexist with retail, work places, and recreation; enabling people to live closer to their jobs or transit; and making it easier for struggling residents to access needed services.

Planners say zoning reform—improving the way communities allocate land, zone, and permit—is also a key piece of the puzzle. Communities that allow higher density neighborhoods and more affordable housing can ensure poor residents are not priced out of developing neighborhoods and communities entirely as they change.

As Elizabeth and Alan argue in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, communities need to work together to plan regionally. As Alan noted with Natalie Holmes last month, developing “quarterbacks,” or lead organizations that operate across multiple communities and programs to coordinate resources and market expertise is another smart model for change.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance’s Great Neighborhoods program is a good example of a quarterback. The program has partnered with five communities in the Boston area to better support affordable housing development, preserving open space, and building alternative transportation infrastructure that encourages walking and biking. They’ve worked to help local residents, community leaders, and municipal and state officials achieve their goals more quickly by providing resources and technical assistance.

The Great Neighborhoods program has helped cities and towns collaborate across issue areas and agencies to work at a regional scale, creating hundreds of affordable housing units and miles of new parks while engaging thousands of community members. As we respond to changing demographics, that’s a future plan more suburban communities across the country should get behind.


Confronting Suburban Poverty in Park Forest, Illinois

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We are pleased to share with you a recent review of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America by Mayor John Ostenburg of Park Forest, IL, a suburb in South Cook County facing rising poverty. In it, Mayor Ostenburg connects the challenges presented in the book to the experiences his community is facing:

Thirty years ago, few would have envisioned the day in Park Forest when one of its churches would operate a food pantry that feeds approximately 350 local families per week. But that’s what St. Irenaeus Church does today.

Likewise, few would have thought it necessary for two local churches to provide homeless shelter twice a week from October through April, but today both St. Irenaeus and Holy Family Church do just that through participation in the PADS program.

And who, thirty years ago, would have believed that it one day would be necessary for Habitat for Humanity to renovate Park Forest homes that had gone into foreclosure and disrepair, and subsequently make those homes available to families in need of housing, giving them the opportunity to use “sweat equity” as a part of their down-payment? But that’s happening right now.

The reality is, poverty has come to the suburbs.

That’s the basic message of a book by Brookings Institution researchers Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is the result of their research in major municipal regions across the nation. It presents the startling conclusion that “today more Americans live below the poverty line in the suburbs than in the nation’s big cities.”

At the outset of their text, Kneebone and Berube draw an illustration that could be a picture of early Park Forest.

“In many ways, suburbs have been central to the particular brand of the American dream that developed rapidly after World War II. Moving to suburbia signaled a step up—a house with a yard, a car to drive to work, good schools, and safe streets.”

Wasn’t that what William H. Whyte was writing about in the chapters of The Organization Man that focused on Park Forest?

But today, in many ways, Park Forest is illustrative of a different type of American suburb, the one Kneebone and Berube are talking about when they write the following.

“The economic tumult of the 2000s not only helped propel the size of America’s poor population to record levels but also contributed to its broadening geographic reach. Rising poverty touched all kinds of communities around the country, moving well beyond the declining and at-risk suburbs.”

The Brooking researchers not only document how, and to what extent, poverty has increased in suburban America, but also point out that the major programs intended to address issues of poverty now are fifty years old, having been born of the “Great Society” legislation signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, they also explain that the great majority of those programs remain concentrated in the inner city, far removed from where an increasing need for them exists today.

But all is not doom and gloom. The Brookings folks point to a number of activities that have occurred in communities across the U.S. as local leaders seek to find ways out of the poverty malaise. The key to the success of these efforts, they say, is collaboration. Two of the primary examples they reference are found right here in Chicago’s south suburbs.

“To the south of Chicago, stretching into suburban Cook and Will counties, lies a series of suburban municipalities collectively referred to as the Chicago Southland, including the likes of Blue Island, Dolton, Harvey, Lansing, Park Forest, and South Holland,” they write. “As manufacturing and steel jobs began to disappear in the 1970s, many of these communities experienced income declines and poverty increases more typical of the city’s South Side than of its suburbs.”

But, they continued, under the auspices of the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association (SSMMA), two entities have emerged that are seeking solutions to the loss of jobs, the need for workers to be re‐trained, and the challenge of deteriorating housing conditions. One is the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation (CSCDC) and the other is the Chicago Southland Housing & Community Development Collaborative (CSHCDC).

“The [Southland] suburbs joined forces around issues such as municipal management and planning, bond issuance and purchasing, brownfield remediation, public safety, infrastructure, and transportation,” Kneebone and Berube write. “As the foreclosure crisis began to strike, they turned again to this model to access the first wave of Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funding—emergency assistance for state and local governments aimed at stabilizing home values in neighborhoods hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.”

I’ve had the opportunity to serve on two panel discussions regarding the work of the Brookings researchers—with Kneebone in a program at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, and with Berube in a session at the National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Seattle—and I have found both of them to be realistic about the economic decline that has hit so many American suburbs, but also optimistic about the opportunities we have to put things right. This book details their thinking. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to see America’s suburbs thrive once again.

Mayor John Ostenburg


Learn about suburban poverty in your community, how innovators around the country are addressing it, and what you can do locally and nationally to take action.