Place and the Paul Ryan Poverty Plan

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

Elizabeth Kneebone

The new poverty plan unveiled last week by Rep. Paul Ryan has definitely sparked a conversation, generating a flurry of responses from positive to critical to somewhere in between (call it skeptical). By not engaging in a budget cutting exercise as in the past, Ryan has framed his proposals as an effort to start a conversation in Washington about real policy reforms to more effectively fight poverty and promote economic opportunity.

But for all of Rep. Ryan’s talk about the traveling he did over the past year to learn from people fighting poverty on the “front lines,” his new plan says very little about the importance of place in that fight. Whether it’s increasing access to opportunity or streamlining access to services, place matters.

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Confronting Suburban Poverty in Johnson County, Kansas

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Elizabeth Kneebone

Three years ago, I was invited to Johnson County, Kansas to speak at the county’s annual Human Services Summit about growing poverty in the Kansas City region’s suburbs. Earlier this month, United Community Services of Johnson County (UCS)—the event’s organizer—invited me back to revisit the topic at this year’s summit. I was immediately struck by how much the conversation has evolved in the region in recent years.
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In St. Louis County, Communities Join to Fight Suburban Poverty

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Sarah Jackson

In the St. Louis Region, because of a firm city boundary that was fixed by leaders here in 1876, much of the growth of the last two hundred years has had nowhere to go but into suburban communities that surround St. Louis proper. The region is highly suburban: 89 percent of the region’s residents live in the suburbs.

And although more than half of the poor population lives in suburbs nationally, the St. Louis region is ahead of this curve (or behind, depending on how you look at it) with almost three-quarters of its poor population living in suburban communities. The region saw poverty grow by 75 percent in only 12 years, and almost all of that growth (95 percent) took place in the suburbs. Today, nearly 119,000 poor people live in St. Louis County, almost 30,000 more poor residents than in the city itself.

The suburban county includes over 90 municipalities and more than 20 school districts, making cross-jurisdictional collaboration difficult. Despite these challenges, the region is piloting models that hold promise in combatting growing suburban poverty, thanks to some innovative local leadership here.

“None of this is splitting the atom or curing cancer,” says local leader Chris Krehmeyer. “The challenge is how do we direct resources in an integrated fashion in places, in geographies and then do that at scale.” Krehmeyer is the CEO of Beyond Housing, an organization that leads an innovative partnership among 24 inner-ring suburban communities, some with as few as five hundred or eight hundred people, located within the Normandy School District in St. Louis County.

The comprehensive initiative, called 24:1, began as an effort to address the foreclosure crisis and failing school district, and has since added the coordination of housing, jobs, economic development and health care.

We know how to solve some of these problems by themselves, Krehmeyer said on Stay Tuned, such as rehabbing housing, providing better health care, or improving social services. The challenge, he said, is whether “we have the political will and courage to say: ‘Can we provide enough?’”

For these small communities, like many across the country hit hard by foreclosures, the Great Recession, and growing suburban poverty, the ability to “provide enough” to effectively address these complex and related challenges hinges on capacity.

Unlike inner-city neighborhoods, which have dealt with poverty for decades, outlying suburban areas don’t have the same capacity to respond, both in terms of the local government and the nonprofits with community development expertise.

Some of these communities, Swanstrom said, “barely have a police force, let alone a housing planner.” Yet their collaborative work through Beyond Housing will allow them greater access to resources and comprehensive supports.

A targeted, comprehensive development strategy, 24:1 aims to facilitate collaboration across jurisdictional lines, to fight suburban poverty. Organizers are betting that their coordinated efforts will be more successful than single, fragmented interventions.

And they’ve had some notable successes.

The effort started in 2009 with a very community-driven planning process. Their website notes that they have held more than 52 community meetings as part of this process, with more than four hundred attendees. The partnership brings together mayors of the 24 municipalities, the school district, local nonprofits, UM−St. Louis, Washington University, and many other stakeholders in the region. Their community plan identifies 11 “impact areas” for future work including healthy residents, employment readiness and access, early childhood development, and community capacity building. They’ve helped bring community voice to recent controversies over school district governance and a controversial student transfer law.

Among their successes over the last 4 years include the investment of nearly $50 million in housing stock, the construction of a 16,000 square foot grocery store, and the creation of a youth impact continuum with the local school district including a universal college savings program. In 2014 they will begin construction on a movie theatre, health services facility and a 53 unit senior housing building.

Other models are worth noting in the region, including the work of the integrative workforce development initiatives at the MET Center with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Centers for Working Families, and the county’s data- and metric-driven strategic plan, which includes a specific focus on concentrated poverty and community development.

“Comprehensive approaches have much better outcomes than if you try to do these projects one at a time,” said the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s David Erickson, who spoke in St. Louis along with Elizabeth last month.

Systems aren’t set up to work cross-sector, and Erickson says it takes one entity to act in a quarterback role to work with existing systems as they are and “cajole and bring them together so they can provide that type of intervention that’s so effective.”

Elizabeth and Alan borrow the quarterback concept from the 2012 book Investing in What Works for America’s Communities, a joint project of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF) and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. In the book, Erickson and coeditors Ian Galloway and Naomi Cytron envisioned quarterbacks as high-performing local organizations whose job was to “identify and build on . . . areas of leadership and strength, as well as to build capacity in the gaps.”

In St. Louis County, Beyond Housing—which sees its role as that of facilitator, convener, and doer—is an example others should look toward.

Homepage photo credit: Beyond Housing

Making Promise Zones Work for Suburbs

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Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube, and Alicia Berenyi

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently sought comments on the selection process for the second round of Promise Zones. We submitted the following feedback on the proposed criteria.

The Promise Zone initiative offers an opportunity to better integrate federal funding flows and make place-based investments more effective in communities with high levels of poverty and a demonstrated commitment to revitalization. However, due to the current application process design, the program risks excluding communities that have become home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in recent years—the suburbs.

Between 2000 and 2012, the poor population in suburbs grew by 65 percent—more than twice the rate of growth in large cities (30 percent) and rural communities (28 percent). By 2012, more than 16.5 million residents in suburbia lived below the poverty line, surpassing the poor population in cities by 3 million people and exceeding the number of poor residents in rural areas by almost 8 million. To be sure, in 2012 the poverty rate in large cities (22 percent) and in rural communities (18 percent) remained higher than the suburban rate on average (12 percent). But today one in three poor residents in the United States live in suburban communities, outstripping cities (28 percent) and rural areas (16 percent) and marking a significant shift in the geography of American poverty compared to just a decade ago.

At the same time that poverty has become more regional in its reach, it also has become more concentrated in poor neighborhoods. While the majority of high-poverty neighborhoods remain located in large cities, suburbs account for a growing share of distressed census tracts. In 2000, 27 percent of the suburban poor population lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or more—the level at which research has shown the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge. By 2008-12 that share had climbed to 38 percent.

The increase in suburban poverty is due to a confluence of many factors: population growth, new immigration patterns, the continued outward shift of employment, the growing prevalence of low-wage jobs, and changes in the location of affordable housing. Due to these demographic and structural changes, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country even prior to the Great Recession. The downturn only served to exacerbate these trends as it pushed the number of people living below the poverty line in the United States to record levels. Between 2007 and 2010, highly suburbanized industries like manufacturing and construction lost the most jobs among major industries. Following the collapse of the housing market and onset of the recession, overall unemployment rates in cities and suburbs rose by nearly equal degrees.

As the nation has moved into economic recovery, poverty has not abated. According to the National Employment Law Project, low-wage jobs made up just 21 percent of jobs lost during the downtown but 58 percent of the recovery’s gain. Many of these jobs are located in suburban communities and filled by suburban workers. By 2012, within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas 67 percent of workers in low-wage occupations lived in suburbs. Due to the intersection of complex economic and social dynamics, even amid economic recovery, poverty is and will continue to be a challenge shared by suburban communities.

The suburban poor face unique obstacles to economic stability and success. These include: limited access to transit; patchy, thinly-spread, and financially tenuous safety net services; and increased stresses on schools that are often ill-equipped to respond to rapid demographic and economic changes among their student populations and communities. Furthermore, both governmental and philanthropic funding for suburban communities has often lagged behind the rapidly shifting trends. The fragmented federal funding system—which was largely designed with distressed inner-city or rural communities in mind—has proven inflexible and difficult to navigate and adapt to the suburban context. These challenges reinforce the hardships the poor face, including unemployment and underemployment, lack of adequate housing, limited educational opportunities, and communities with insufficient resources to begin stitching together stronger support systems for the suburban poor.

Promise Zones could be an important tool for helping suburbs to overcome some of these obstacles. However, as currently written, the application process largely overlooks struggling suburbs. To make this program an effective tool for confronting suburban poverty, the following three issues should be addressed.

  1. The language of the Promise Zone application should be clarified to explicitly recognize suburban eligibility.

Applications are currently divided between Urban and Rural/Tribal Zones. Suburbs are excluded from the Rural Promise Zone designation, since Rural Promise Zones may not include any part of a metro county, but are not explicitly included in the Urban Zone application. A key challenge the suburban poor face is that perceptions about the magnitude of the problem are out of step with today’s reality. By not clearly incorporating suburban poverty into the application language, the Promise Zones initiative perpetuates an outdated perception about the geographic distribution of poverty in the country. By not specifically soliciting applications from suburban communities or coalitions, it is not clear to these prospective applicants that they are qualified to even apply for the designation.

  1. Communities should be able to use a combination of poverty rates and poor population counts to determine eligibility.

The focus on rates to determine potential zones and “Need” disadvantages suburban applicants. Potential Zones are required to have a poverty rate or Extremely Low Income rate of 33 percent. In addition, applications are scored according to various criteria out of 100 points, including ten points awarded based on “Need,” which is determined by poverty, crime, employment and vacancy rates. A suburban county may have more poor residents than its central city or other parts of the region, but may not register the same rates as smaller, urban neighborhoods. While counties could narrow in on high-poverty tracts for their Promise Zone application, they will be limited by the requirements that the proposed zone has a contiguous geography and a population of at least 10,000 residents. Drawing the boundaries of a potential suburban Promise Zone that could be competitive with inner-city applicants may result in a more fragmented and less-effectively scaled intervention. These issues could be addressed by introducing different parameters in a joint Urban/Suburban Zone application or by creating a third application process for non-principal city metropolitan jurisdictions. Rather than focusing exclusively on rates, in a suburban context it may make more sense to use a combination of rates and population counts, which could extend eligibility to potential zones that have poverty rates below the 33 percent threshold but are home to significant numbers of poor residents.

  1. The current application process should more explicitly encourage cross-jurisdictional, collaborative approaches.

While the application does state that Promise Zone activities can be carried out by a variety of organizations and organization types, this is only an implicit recognition of the type of multi-sector, multi-jurisdictional partnerships that are forming around the country to more effectively combat suburban poverty. The application should contain language that explicitly describes these types of collaborations as eligible entities. This is especially important in suburbs where limited local capacity would preclude many jurisdictions from being able to compete for or participate in this program on their own.

President Obama envisioned Promise Zones as a partnership between the federal government and local communities to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to adequate housing, and improve public safety. To ensure that this program has the opportunity to reach some of the communities most in need of the technical assistance and capacity building the Promise Zone initiative promises to deliver, the application language and process should be revised to explicitly recognize and include struggling suburbs.

Suburban—and Poor: The Changing Landscape of Race and Poverty in the U.S.

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Elizabeth Kneebone and Cary Lou

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Planning magazine.

Download the PDF

The year 1964 was a watershed year in American politics. In his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson placed civil rights and combating poverty at the center of his agenda when he said, “Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

The ambitious agenda he went on to outline ushered in the War on Poverty and his vision of a “Great Society” and led to the passage of several significant pieces of legislation. They included the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and racial segregation in schools and other public accommodations—as well as the creation of a bevy of programs aimed at alleviating poverty and increasing opportunity, particularly in distressed communities.

These laws still resonate 50 years later. Every year millions of residents are lifted out of poverty by programs that emerged in that era—from Medicare and Medicaid to food stamps—and others that followed after, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

However, five decades later, 15 percent of the nation’s population—a record 46 million people—lives below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012). Today, the nation is much more racially and ethnically diverse than in 1964—and people of color remain disproportionately poor.

African Americans accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s population in 2012, but more than 20 percent of the poor population. Similarly, Latinos—who make up 17 percent of the total population—accounted for 27 percent of individuals in poverty in that year. Both groups continue to register poverty rates above 25 percent, compared to nine percent for non-Hispanic whites, who comprise 63 percent of the total population but only 41 percent of the poor population.

Many of the challenges that President Johnson targeted in his speech—like the need for better schools, jobs, and healthcare—persist for many low-income residents and communities. But the landscape of race and poverty has changed markedly from the one he evoked in 1964. Five decades ago, the front lines of the War on Poverty were in distressed inner-city neighborhoods and remote rural communities. Today, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in suburban communities than in big cities or in rural areas, and the same is true of the poor.

Changing landscape: race and poverty

Shifts in the demographic and economic geography of the U.S. have been unfolding for decades, but the 2000s witnessed historic tipping points on both fronts. Within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the share of African Americans living in suburbs rose from 44 percent in 2000 to 51 percent by 2010, so that for the first time more than half of every minority group in large metro areas lived in the suburbs. (These figures, like most of the others noted in this article, were derived from recent reports by the Brookings Institution.)

In that decade, the number of suburban poor surpassed that of the urban poor. Between 2000 and 2012 the suburban poor population grew by 65 percent—more than twice the pace of growth in cities. By 2012, the suburbs were home to 16.5 million poor residents—or 55 percent of the poor population in large metro areas—outstripping the urban poor population by three million.

Whereas the poor population in suburbs is more likely to be white than in cities (43 percent versus 23 percent), the share of poor residents of color living in suburban communities rose at a much faster pace compared to whites during the 2000s: By 2012, 47 percent of racial and ethnic minorities in poverty lived in the suburbs, up almost eight percentage points from 39 percent in 2000. Among poor whites, almost 70 percent lived in suburbs in 2012, an increase of almost four percentage points over 2000.

Poverty has not grown evenly across places. Overall poverty rates remain higher in cities than suburbs, reaching 22 percent versus 12 percent in 2012, respectively. However, even as poverty has spread outward—touching inner-ring, older suburbs as well as lower density, exurban communities—it has also increasingly clustered and concentrated in high-poverty suburban neighborhoods.

While the average neighborhood poverty rate in the suburbs remains lower than in comparable urban neighborhoods, in the last half of the 2000s, one-third of the suburban poor population lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of at least 20 percent—the threshold at which research by George Glaster and others has shown the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge.

Multiple forces at work

Almost every major metro area, whether Sun Belt or Rust Belt, growing or declining, saw its suburban poor population grow during the 2000s—from Austin and Atlanta, to the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, to Cleveland and Detroit. Across these major metro areas, the growth of suburban poverty, and its particularly rapid rise during the 2000s, stems from a combination of economic and demographic factors.

On one hand, suburbs continued to add population at a faster pace than large cities over the decade, becoming more demographically and economically diverse in the process. To some extent, this reflects shifting immigration patterns, as new immigrants increasingly bypassed cities and moved directly to suburban communities. Roberto Suro and his colleagues at Brookings found that, while immigrants accounted for 30 percent of suburban population growth during the 2000s, on average they contributed just 17 percent to the increase in the poor population in suburbs.

Regional housing markets also helped shape these trends, from changing home prices (suburban housing stock aging into affordability or increased housing prices in redeveloping urban neighborhoods) to shifts in the use of portable subsidies. By the late 2000s, Kenya Covington and her colleagues found that nearly half of Housing Choice Voucher recipients in the nation’s largest metro areas lived in suburbs.

Suburbs also bore the brunt of the subprime lending boom and foreclosure crisis that followed. Almost three-quarters of subprime loans originated in the easy credit boom of the mid-2000s were located in suburban communities, and suburbs have been home to nearly three-quarters of foreclosures after the housing market collapse.

The 2000s also saw employment continue to shift outward in almost every major metro area. By 2010, 43 percent of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas were located more than 10 miles from downtown; 23 percent were located within three miles of downtown. Industries including manufacturing, construction, and retail services tend to be even more suburbanized, with at least half of each industry’s jobs located 10 miles or more from downtown. These industries were also among the hardest hit during the Great Recession. Together they accounted for 60 percent of job losses in the nation’s largest metro areas between 2007 and 2010, with half of those losses occurring more than 10 miles away from downtown.

Those figures underscore that, even more so than low-income residents moving to suburbia, growing suburban poverty has been fueled by shifts in regional economies that have pushed many long-term suburban residents down the economic ladder. The 2000s brought two economic downturns, followed by sluggish and uneven recoveries. Partly because of the housing-led nature of the Great Recession, suburbs bore the brunt of the downturn more than they had in past recessions. Growth in the suburban unemployed population outstripped that in cities in the first year of the recession and rose by similar degrees in the second, pushing urban and suburban unemployment rates up by similar margins—4.7 and 4.4 percentage points—between 2000 and 2010.

Cyclical changes in the economy, though dramatic and disruptive in recent years, were not the only economic forces to drive suburban poverty. Structural changes to the economy, as middle wage jobs in productive sectors like manufacturing gave way to an increasing share of lower-wage service sector jobs, contributed to declines in the typical household income even before the onset of the recession.

These structural changes continued in the economic recovery following the Great Recession. The National Employment Law Project found that, although low-wage jobs accounted for just 21 percent of jobs lost during the downturn, they made up 58 percent of the recovery’s gains. Today, about two-thirds of workers employed in lower wage occupations—like sales, food preparation and service, and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance—live in the suburbs.

Together, these trends suggest that economic recovery alone will not suffice to reverse the shift of poverty toward suburbia. Instead poverty, and its challenges, will continue to be a regional issue, affecting cities and suburbs alike.

Unique challenges

Just as suburbs are diverse, the experience of suburban poverty differs depending on the community in question and the opportunities (or obstacles) it presents. Whereas a suburb that offers access to safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, and good jobs, schools, and services can provide pathways to economic stability and success, many poor suburban residents find themselves in communities that lack the infrastructure and support systems that central cities have put in place over decades.

Finding reliable and affordable transportation can prove challenging for many poor residents in the suburbs, where public transit options are often limited. Even residents with access to transit in a low-income suburban neighborhood can reach only 25 percent of the region’s jobs within a 90-minute commute—and only four percent within 45 minutes. However, many low-income individuals cannot afford the costs of buying and maintaining a reliable car, making it that much more difficult for suburban workers to reach employment opportunities in other parts of the region.

Limited transit options can also make it difficult for low-income suburban households to access safety net services—such as food pantries, subsidized child care, affordable health care, or job training and employment programs—which tend to be thinner and patchier than the array of services typically available in large urban centers. Many suburban providers have seen demand for services climb in recent years, with a growing number of residents coming in for assistance who have never had connections with the safety net before.

Schools have also experienced this growing need. Over the last half of the 2000s, suburban schools saw the number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches increase at a faster pace than in urban districts, climbing 22 percent and eight percent, respectively. In a resource-strained environment with limited safety net options, many districts—like those involved in the Road Map Project in Seattle’s South suburbs or Mapleton Public Schools in the Denver suburbs—have stepped in to meet the needs of their low-income students and community members by offering wraparound services like food and clothing pantries, and mental health, dentistry, and medical services, often partnering with service providers and raising philanthropic funds for additional resources to supplement strained budgets.

Part of the challenge for suburban service providers and school districts alike has been a lag in philanthropic funding to respond to these trends. In many major metro areas, philanthropic funding for services targeted to low-income populations remain disproportionately targeted to cities, and relatively few resources have been dedicated to building suburban capacity. In addition, local perceptions of where poverty is located and whom it affects are often out of step with today’s reality, complicating efforts by suburban providers to attract resources for the growing suburban poor population.

Policy and practice have also lagged behind the shifting geography of poverty. In his State of the Union speech, President Johnson called on Congress and the nation to pursue poverty “wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations. . . in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.”

Place-based anti-poverty programs have proliferated in the decades that followed, but they remain largely targeted to distressed inner-city neighborhoods or struggling rural communities. None of these programs was designed with suburbs in mind.

Moreover, the roughly $82 billion that the federal government invests annually in place-based anti-poverty programs is spread across 10 agencies and 81 programs, creating a fragmented and often inflexible policy framework that does not easily map onto the suburban landscape—itself a fragmented mix of communities with varying levels of capacity and ability to navigate the current system.

Moving toward solutions

The answer to these challenges is not to try to recreate in suburbs the community development and service infrastructure that has been built up in cities since the War on Poverty. Given the urgency and scope of today’s need, the time and resources required to undertake such a proposition simply do not exist. Rather, as suburbs increasingly grapple with the challenges of poverty alongside cities, policy and practice need to focus on strategies that operate at a more effective regional scale, using limited dollars strategically to do more than one thing in more than one place at the same time and improve outcomes for urban and suburban residents alike.

If the best anti-poverty program is a job, then the goal of place-based anti-poverty policies should be to better connect residents to the kinds of economic opportunities—including quality education and good jobs—that offer a path out of poverty. Making that goal a reality for low-income urban and suburban residents requires strategies that cut across jurisdictional boundaries and policy silos, and link up decisions around affordable housing, transportation, services, and community and economic development at the regional level.

One approach won’t work everywhere. On the contrary, while interventions should be targeted to diverse local needs and assets, those efforts will be more effective if they are linked to and grounded in a regional context.

Major metro areas across the country, including Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have crafted regional planning strategies that encompass housing, transportation, and jobs. As regions increasingly pursue these types of integrated strategies, equity should be a stated priority. Without an explicit focus on how these decisions affect outcomes for low-income and minority residents, regional strategies may fail to make critical connections between these residents and areas of economic opportunity, or may even isolate them further.

In the Denver region, Mile High Connects—a local collaboration of more than 20 banks, foundations, and nonprofits—formed with the mission to ensure that all residents in the metro area, including low-income and disadvantaged communities, benefit from the build-out of the regional FasTracks transit system by better connecting transit to jobs, education, affordable housing, and services. Other tools have emerged in the region to help realize that goal, including the Denver Region Equity Atlas and the Denver Transit Oriented Development Fund.

The Equity Atlas provides critical data resources to help stakeholders identify where job, housing, education, and health care options are located in the region and where gaps or barriers to opportunity might exist. The TOD Fund, which will be expanded region-wide in 2014, leverages public and private funding to increase access to affordable housing, jobs, and services around transit sites.

These initiatives are examples of the kinds of scaled, collaborative, and outcome-focused strategies emerging in major metro across the country. Fifty years after President Johnson’s seminal speech, the innovations taking place in these regions point the way toward a modernized policy and practice agenda to more effectively connect low-income and minority residents to opportunity regionwide.

In Suburban Atlanta, New Models Build Capacity to Address the Housing Crisis

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Barbara Ray

When the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP) was formed in the early 1990s, its focus was on building affordable housing in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Atlanta proper—part of a national trend among community developers in the United States to aid urban dwellers.

Then in the late 2000s, the foreclosure crisis hit, leaving roughly two-thirds of Atlanta homeowners underwater on their mortgage and thousands more losing homes to foreclosure.

However, the housing crisis was not confined to the city. The vast majority of foreclosures in the region occurred in Atlanta’s suburbs, and contributed to rising poverty rates there. Today, more than 80 percent of the region’s poor individuals live in the suburbs.

It was this spreading crisis that led ANDP to begin to rethink its focus, John O’Callaghan, president and CEO of ANDP, told me. In the suburbs, the demands were different. They couldn’t simply replicate the models they’d used in the city.

“Strategies are different in the suburbs,” O’Callaghan said. For starters, ANDP would have to work at a much wider scale, geographically, than in the city.

Many Atlanta neighborhoods had citywide expertise and nonprofit organizations on the ground to help residents navigate the crisis. The situation in the suburbs was a stark contrast. “These municipalities had never managed a federal housing program like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program,” one of the main federal initiatives targeting foreclosures, O’Callaghan said. “They lacked the capacity and were looking for strong nonprofit partners.”

Another strategy change was ANDP’s shift from building new affordable housing to rehabbing existing housing. Where in the city they might build affordable townhomes to counteract gentrification, in the suburbs, that kind of concentrated, single-project approach wasn’t the right tool to bolster neighborhood-wide property values.

“A scattered approach [in housing and community development] over a larger geography is more effective than it is in inner-city neighborhoods,” O’Callaghan said.

Developers at ANDP focused their efforts on lower-middle-class, African American, suburban-style neighborhoods (including some in the City of Atlanta) that had been targeted by subprime lenders. They assumed that if they could slow the neighborhoods’ decline and stabilize the area, other factors such as school performance and declining property tax revenue would rebound.

ANDP started with a six-home rental pilot, but quickly saw the value of using their model for homeownership. In some neighborhoods or subdivisions where ANDP had a small cluster of three to four homes, the value of each climbed even amid a stagnant housing market. After initial declines in value, the properties began to turn around.

Developers at ANDP also examined the property values systemically. It was becoming apparent that throughout the region there were problems with property value assessments. As the housing market tumbled, valuations weren’t keeping pace, and property taxes were no longer aligned with the market value of the home. Many residents were paying overly high property taxes—which is often the final straw for vulnerable homeowners.

But not everyone was overpaying, says O’Callaghan. “Research revealed that if a person lived in a low-income neighborhood in the metro area, the appraised value of his or her home was often higher than market value, whereas in higher-income neighborhoods, it was below market value.”

Indeed, as research commissioned by ANDP was beginning to show, in the ZIP codes where foreclosures were concentrated, residents overpaid by significant amounts.

As real home values and tax valuations were increasing, ANDP and others took another step. They advocated for, and received, an increase in the local Homestead Exemption, which helped keep lower-income families in their homes.

But it wasn’t enough. Nine months into the foreclosure crisis, ANDP knew the problem was greater than they alone could address, and larger than the foreclosure crisis. Poverty in the suburbs was exposing systemic issues that needed to be addressed. Addressing these growing problems would require greater collaboration with other organizations and interests to keep families in their homes and neighborhoods strong.

Therefore, ANDP helped create a collaboration of for-profit, nonprofit, and government agencies to focus on solutions. ANDP took on the much-needed quarterback role.

“We wanted to be sure that locally and regionally focused businesses were changing their game plan to respond to the quickening foreclosure crisis,” said O’Callaghan.

“Housing groups could better coordinate getting the word out on resources. Local governments, which didn’t always have a great track record with federal housing programs, got together with the metropolitan planning commission to share best practices and plan together and support one another,” he said.

The result of all of these efforts, O’Callaghan says, is incremental change at a regional level rather than targeted neighborhood change. That said, incremental change is nothing to sniff at.

“ANDP has purchased and rehabbed homes in about one-quarter of Douglas County neighborhoods,” said O’Callaghan.  “The sale of our homes in these neighborhoods has significantly lifted market values, in some cases by as much as $15,000 or more per property.”

Most recently, ANDP has joined with The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a national community investment group that works across the mid-Atlantic region. TRF will provide needed back-office expertise so ANDP’s community development financial institution (CDFI) loan fund can continue to grow. “A year ago, we had little capital to lend and we couldn’t invest in our own growth,” said O’Callaghan. “TRF has all the skill sets we need and the systems in place.” In turn, ANDP can help TRF and its lending resources get to critical community development projects.

“TRF has a tremendous track record in serving at-risk families and their communities,” said O’Callaghan, “and that’s going to help us be better in every way.”

Nearly six years and 440 rescued homes later, ANDP has learned some key lessons about how to most effectively tackle systemic problems in the suburbs. It’s not an easy feat, given the scale of the problem, the lack of capacity, and inexperience in this new field of suburban poverty. Ultimately, however, it took an experienced organization with roots in the city—with a little help from its friends—to create tailored suburban solutions.

Suburban Poverty: A Year of Lessons

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Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube

Today marks one year since the release of our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Over the course of the last year, we’ve traveled to dozens of communities across the country to talk about the rapid rise of suburban poverty, a trend experienced by almost every major metro area in recent years, and what it means for residents, communities, policymakers, and practitioners grappling with the shifting geography of poverty. Here are our top five reflections from those travels:

1. Numbers are powerful, but only if they are known.

Local leaders and residents often don’t know the extent to which poverty has grown in their communities, or fully understand the complex challenges facing new arrivals and long-time suburban residents who make up the growing poor population. Fortunately, we have seen communities make significant strides by bringing together diverse stakeholders for conversations grounded in data and evidence. In November, Elizabeth participated in a Homeless Education Network summit that highlighted the increase in student homelessness in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. Media coverage of the event led a local YMCA to reach out to the suburban Penn Hills school district to explore ways they could work together to target services to the poor and homeless families in that community. Efforts like Navigating the New Normal in Minnesota are similarly helping to bridge the divide between research, perceptions, and on-the-ground realities.

2. Forget the cookie cutter.

The vocabulary we use to tell a national story—for instance, the word, “suburb”—often falls short of capturing the nuance of local identity and experience. In Houston or Phoenix, the landscape looks suburban well before you pass the city limits, and nearby communities may feel more like rural areas than suburbs. In contrast, a region like Boston may need a more nuanced framework to understand and guide policy decisions across older, densely populated small cities and towns that make up the metro area. This diversity within and across places carries a wider lesson for national practitioners, who succeed most when they partner with local and regional actors who understand the histories, identities, and varying levels of capacity that exist on the ground.

3. Small amounts of capital help build critical capacity.

In their new brief, Robin Snyderman and Beth Dever point to the importance of early investments from local philanthropy that allowed Chicago’s suburban collaboratives to boost their capacity by hiring dedicated coordinators. That staff capacity was critical to attracting and implementing federal funds. Whether it’s multi-jurisdictional collaboration, collective impact models around education (like the Road Map Project in Seattle) or community development (like Great Neighborhoods in Greater Boston), or expanding high-performing nonprofits into suburbs (like Mary’s Center in the National Capital region), local philanthropy is consistently critical for building capacity to confront the challenges of poverty in suburbs. As Robin and Beth point out, however, traditional government funding streams will be needed to sustain these models in the long run.

4. Growing jobs and fighting poverty are not separate initiatives.

While there is still a lot of work to be done to update perceptions, conversations shouldn’t just focus on the problem. Framing the discussion in terms of economic opportunity and regional competitiveness can help engage more partners—particularly the private sector—in efforts to improve outcomes for low-income people and places. In our recent visit to South King County, Washington, we learned about several promising initiatives underway to help communities struggling with rising poverty. Those conversations also revealed an appetite to leverage the sub-region’s assets to grow better jobs, and more strategically coordinate efforts to help prepare local populations for those opportunities.

5. Recovery did not hit the reset button.

The severity of the Great Recession caused policymakers and practitioners in many parts of the country to think differently about how to address shared challenges with limited resources. A few years into the recovery, the crisis has abated, but need remains high and resources haven’t rebounded. Some places are still experiencing rapid increases in their low-income population—like suburban Williamson County, Texas where more than 200 civic and nonprofit leaders recently gathered for a summit on the swift demographic and economic changes underway there. But for many other communities across the country, they are trying to adjust to a “new normal” and the reality that poverty in suburbia is here to stay. Without the urgency of a crisis, however, it can be harder to spur partners across sectors and jurisdictions to do things differently. To help communities catalyze and sustain action that improves outcomes for low-income residents over the long term, it is important as ever to align public and private funding to support more regional, cross-cutting anti-poverty strategies.

Covering Suburban Poverty

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Natalie Holmes

Since Confronting Suburban Poverty in America was released last May, we’ve witnessed a proliferation of news articles about suburban poverty. Here are ten of the best in-depth pieces—including both local and national coverage—from the past several months (in chronological order):

1. Suburban PovertyChicago Tonight, November 4, 2013

In the Chicago region, the number of suburban poor increased 99 percent over the past decade. Job losses and high foreclosure rates have meant mounting problems in many South Cook County municipalities.

2. Hidden In The Suburbs: America’s New PoorFronteras Desk, November 5, 2013

The housing bubble drew families to the Las Vegas region—and stranded many, poor, in the suburbs once the bubble burst.

3. A Region Redefined Part III: Poverty shifts to the suburbsThe Advocate, November 30, 2013

Hurricane Katrina accelerated the decades-long shift of New Orleans’ poor to the suburbs.

4. Poverty grows on Maple Street, PBS NewsHour Weekend, January 11, 2014

A house, a car, and a job don’t provide a guarantee that a family in Suffolk County, New York can escape poverty.

5. Poverty rates grow in suburban communitiesThe Winchester Star, March 15, 2014

For many of the poor living in Boston suburbs, their “safety net” is a hodgepodge of local government and nonprofit services.

6. Does sprawl matter for social mobility?Washington Post Wonkblog, April 2, 2014

A majority of metropolitan poor live in suburbs, and recent evidence suggests that suburban poverty may inhibit intergenerational mobility.

7. Sprawled Out in Atlanta: What happens when poverty spreads to a place that wasn’t built for poor people?Politico, May 8, 2014

Cobb County, Georgia has long been a symbol of red-state suburban comfort, but in recent years, it has also become a symbol of the nationwide spike in suburban poverty.

8. Hardship Makes a New Home in the SuburbsThe New York Times, May 9, 2014

Throughout suburban California, aspiring middle class families who fled urban areas find themselves separated from social services and job opportunities.

9. Trouble Spreads Out, The Economist, May 17, 2014

The latest trends from England show that social problems are rising most rapidly in the suburban communities outside the nation’s big cities.

10. Agency report on poor people sparks feud with Oakland CountyDetroit Free Press, May 19, 2014

Metro Detroit offers an important reminder that suburban poverty often coexists uncomfortably with suburban politics.

Updating Anti-Poverty Policy for the Suburban Age

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Alan Berube

This year, 2014, is rife with 50-year retrospectives of the War on Poverty. More than just a round-number anniversary, the topic is attracting a lot of attention thanks to growing rates of poverty and inequality in America, as well as a nostalgia for a time when the federal government did “big things,” like establishing Medicare and the Food Stamp program. In today’s gridlocked Washington (and notwithstanding the Affordable Care Act), that seems like ancient history.

Courtesy of Maureen SillAs we’ve noted previously, many of the retrospectives are simply an occasion for arguing about whether we “won” or “lost” the war. For all the economic struggles that millions of American families continue to face today, evidence clearly demonstrates that many of the anti-poverty policies and programs we’ve adopted over the past five decades have significantly materially improved the lives of lower-income people.

Yet the evidence seems more mixed when it comes to poor places. More than one in five big-city residents is poor. And of those poor residents, nearly one in four lives in a neighborhood of “extreme poverty,” where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent. When community poverty rises to that level, it multiplies the negative consequences of individual poverty, and can mute the effectiveness of programs intended to help the poor.

This was the stark backdrop against which a collection of researchers (including me) and practitioners came together at the University of Southern California last month, to discuss “Innovating to End Urban Poverty.”

Yet as we know by now, poor people are not confined to urban areas. Neither are high levels of community poverty exclusively urban. The latest Census Bureau data indicate that fully one-quarter of poor individuals who live in extremely poor neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are in suburbs. And suburbs account for four in ten poor individuals in those regions who live in areas of high poverty—a neighborhood poverty rate exceeding 20 percent. (We’ll be releasing a more detailed analysis of the latest data in the coming weeks.)

True to the name of the conference, however, the presenting researchers and practitioners advanced ideas and spoke about innovations that, for the most part, were rooted in poor city neighborhoods. To be sure, they advanced many cutting-edge practices, including helping parents navigate school choice options, re-engaging the previously incarcerated, expanding community-based health care, and using community organizing to give voice to politically under-represented groups. Yet these solutions are largely built on the infrastructure, expertise, and lessons borne of decades of work in low-income urban neighborhoods. School choice, for instance, isn’t really an option in most struggling suburbs. Political organizing is nascent at best.

Courtesy of FutureAtlas.comOnly one panel at the conference focused on “place” as a context for addressing poverty. A short paper I wrote for that panel argues that contemporary anti-poverty strategies must recognize the different needs of poor families in both cities and suburbs. The suburbs, for example, often lack the density to deliver services in a distinct area. Poor families often spread over greater distances in the suburbs, and they face different barriers (transportation, for example) than city dwellers do.

Moreover, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, it becomes less a neighborhood problem and more of a regional or sub-regional problem—affecting the south sides and suburbs of Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, or the east sides and suburbs of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.

Investing our existing resources in organizations and strategies that are less tied to one particular place, and more collaborative in their execution, represents one important way forward. In Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Elizabeth and I propose a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge. The Challenge would reward regional and sub-regional strategies via competitive funding, create new forms of partnerships, and, above all, create more comprehensive networks to achieve scale and spread the most highly effective programs.

Angela Blanchard, CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., represented this approach on the panel I participated in. That organization’s work throughout the Greater Houston area also captures well what Marge Turner, another panelist, termed in her paper “place-conscious” anti-poverty strategies—those that grapple with the important context that place creates in addressing the needs of low-income families, but are not circumscribed by the boundaries of those locales.

There’s no question that in an era of flat resources and growing needs, we simply must innovate to address the enduring challenge of urban poverty. But we should strive to innovate in ways that ensure 50 years from now, we won’t need to hold a conference on innovating to end suburban poverty, too.

Photos courtesy of Maureen Sill and, respectively.