Special Virtual Issue of Journal of Urban Affairs

A quick note during a week when there’s not much else to talk about. My article Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta has been included in an accessible virtual online issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City” (or in my case, the metropolitan county).

Here’s the abstract:

The Reverend Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus sponsored a 2011 voting rights suit, Lowery v. Deal, that demanded the disincorporation of several majority-white cities in Georgia’s Fulton and DeKalb Counties and preemption against attempts by affluent and majority-white north Fulton to secede from the rest of the county. Secession would have severe consequences for racial equity in the metropolitan area. Lowery’s 2011 dismissal by the District Court reflects ascendant color-blind racial ideology that defends white privilege in metropolitan space by attributing it to culturally and legally legitimate race-neutral processes. Historical analysis challenges this color-blind interpretation, identifying the nominally class-based interests of north Fulton residents with systemic racial discrimination and the politics of secession with historic patterns of spatial politics that have sought not only to exclude but also to manipulate political space to limit the ability of black voters and officials to make decisions affecting whites and their property.

Although I’m sure anyone reading this has had their fill of election analysis, and academic writing moves slowly, I think that there is one key element in my article that resonates with the shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) results of Tuesday’s voting. I highlight the vehemence with which many affluent suburban whites insist on the one hand that their political behavior is not about race (and indeed fixing blame for racism on minority leaders) while on the other hand taking extraordinary measures to prevent Black voters from influencing decisions affecting their property and avoid participating in a political commonwealth with Black people. Maybe that sounds familiar.

For whatever it’s worth, compare the county-level map of Georgia with the results of Congressional races (a precinct level map would be better, and maybe I’ll update with one later). At the larger scale, it seems like Metro Atlanta is a bastion of Clinton support, which makes the final 51.3-45.6 percent Trump margin (231,323 votes) seem inexplicable in a state many talked about flipping blue.

But if you look at the results of several congressional races in metro Atlanta districts, you’ll see the region is starkly cleaved on an east-west line separating strong Dem and strong GOP seats that also roughly tracks the geography of support for suburban secession.

In District 6, which includes much of north Fulton, Tom Price defeated his Democratic challenger by 61.6-38.4 percent (more than 72,000 votes). Adding up the Republican margins in districts 6, 7, and 11 on the north side of metro Atlanta yields a total advantage of 244,672 votes (bigger than Trump’s statewide margin). Assuming most congressional voters cast ballots by party preference for the presidency, that means that Trump won Georgia in significant part by dominating the white suburbs of Atlanta. I’d also heartily recommend Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which remains as relevant and important a work as ever.

A coda to my article. Voters in south Fulton County yesterday approved a ballot measure to pursue incorporation as a city, which would pretty much complete the municipalization of Fulton County. A few brief points: while South Fulton would be poorer and have more Black residents than any of the north Fulton cities I discuss, this does not support the idea that cityhood and fragmentation give desired local control to all communities on an equal footing. I’d say it’s much more likely that south Fulton voters recognized the degree to which Fulton County has been weakened as a service providing government by the incorporations of wealthy areas in the north (and of the more affluent Chattahoochee Hills area in the south) and the risk of incorporating later after existing municipalities annexed valuable land. Going forward, different parts of Fulton County will be using the same tools of local government but with vastly different resources at their disposal.

This is Encouraging

The Intercept has posted what seems to be a leaked Pentagon video about the challenges, from a counterinsurgency and governing perspective, of mega-urbanization. If you’ve been keeping up on your dystopian futurism (my current favorite is Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the Pleeblands outside of the corporate compounds in her Maddadam trilogy, but YMMV) you will recognize a lot of this.


What’s interesting is that the broader alternate possibilities of promoting democratic and humane cities is completely outside the frame for the Department of Defense. If your only tool is a hammer, you start complaining about how many nails there are and wondering why they won’t sit still.

Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.

 

Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.

Trumpism’s Urban Roots

It’s tempting, though inaccurate, to look to articles like this weekend’s Washington Post piece following Jim Cooley, a downwardly-mobile former trucker on disability who packs an AR-15 to the local Georgia Wal-Mart while his wife uses Facebook to alert the local sheriff that his intentions are benign and unworthy of forcible response (illustrated thusly, a bit on the nose),

botsford160915gunsatl67701473964095

Photo Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

and conclude that Trumpism is a tide that laps the edges of metropolitan areas, but properly belongs to some here-be-dragons space off the map.

While this perception is largely based on the use of “non-college educated” as a shoddy statistical proxy for “working class” and ignores the higher-than-average incomes of Trump supporters, as well as their ample (if, perhaps, electorally insufficient) presence in American suburbs, it’s also worth noting that the key professional basis for Trump’s claims to the presidency (whatever their merit may be) is his career as a real estate developer. And, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that that career would be nothing without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and elsewhere.

Charles Bagli has that story in the New York Times. The long and short? Trump’s New York properties were built using tax abatement programs that lowered costs to Trump during development and shielded buyers of luxury condos from the full tax rate, allowing Trump to charge (and receive) higher prices to make more immediate profits. As Bagli writes, Trump’s Grand Hyatt hotel, which opened in 1980,

set the pattern for Mr. Trump’s New York career: He used his father’s, and, later, his own, extensive political connections, and relied on a huge amount of assistance from the government and taxpayers in the form of tax breaks, grants and incentives to benefit the 15 buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings in New York, according to city tax, housing and finance records.

As a product of public subsidies that have created luxury for a privileged elite, starved the public sector, and stinted on obligations to provide affordable and integrated housing, while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of competitive enterprise, Trump’s empire reflects the trajectory of urban America, uncomfortable though it may be to recognize.

Cities Versus States

I ran across this piece by Abby Rapoport on Politico (which sponsors some good long-form investigations when it’s not playing DC Gossip Rag), by way of Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money. It’s a good analysis of the significance of the conflict between state legislatures and municipal governments, particularly as the former have been gerrymandered to include more seats where Republican primaries decide who’s elected.

Since I’ve studied and written about this issue in some depth, I would point out that this is one of the best popular accounts of the history of preemption and the legal status of municipal power I’ve read. Rapoport gets into the technicalities of municipal home rule, gets quotes from two of the leading academic legal scholars on the subject, and explains why the subject, which even many civically engaged Americans may not understand, is critically important for democracy, by letting the local activists whose work has been preempted by state governments in Texas and elsewhere tell their stories.

What’s particularly important is Rapoport’s summary of the distinction between “minimum” preemption, where state governments establish minimum levels of regulatory or other action that city governments must meet, and “maximum” preemption, where state governments actively prohibit local governments from taking action. Many critics accurately note that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an incubator for maximum preemption bills that specifically target corporate or social conservative boogeymen like local fracking bans, living wage laws, and anti-discrimination laws. What I hadn’t recognized before reading this account was that the strategy of maximum preemption actually goes back to the lobbying efforts of the tobacco industry:

The strategic use of maximum preemption laws dates back to the 1980s, when localities began passing smoking bans and smoke-free requirements. As court documents later revealed, R.J. Reynolds began promoting preemption because, in its own words, “state laws which preempt local anti-tobacco ordinances are the most effective means to counter local challenges.” Although further grim research findings eventually dealt the tobacco industry’s campaign mortal blows, other groups learned from its efforts. The National Rifle Association used similar tactics in the 1990s when concerns about crime prompted local gun regulations; 43 states now have some form of maximum preemption preventing localities from passing additional gun regulations on top of state law.

Which makes sense in a head-to-desk sort of way. The tobacco industry pioneered many of the denialist and doubt-seeding tactics thathave proven useful to thwart climate change action, ignore the need for gun control, and slow environmental and consumer safety laws (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe it in Merchants of Doubt. If you’re really lazy about reading, there’s now a film).

As Americans (rightly) pay attention to the presidential election, it’s important to remember that the battles that define what kind of society we live in will be fought closer to home, in the space between state and local governments. Which space is, sadly filled with lobbyists and hacks operating largely without scrutiny because the state houses are actually far less visible to the typical person than either the Capitol or City Hall.

Loomis offers a good summary of the federalism-of-convenience for the right that I may as well quote here, since I’d be saying the same thing in different words:

There’s a very specific reason why conservatives fetishize state government, even to the point of calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. All the talk about devolution that came out of the 90s stops right at the state capitol. It’s not about principle. It’s about conservative control. The federal government is too big for corporations or movement conservatives to easily control. Cities are too small. States are just right. State legislators can be bought off for incredibly small amounts of campaign donations. So making the federal government powerless, unless it wants to do corporate bidding, and making the cities powerless is part the conservative game to maintain power. And it’s been that way since at least the 1930s, when corporations complained about federal control and wanted power to reside at the state level. That’s what these wars on liberal cities are about in red states. Some of these cases, like the Denton fracking ban or Austin’s rejection of Uber, are about corporate control, others like HB 2 in North Carolina, are not. But for each type of conservative group, the state is where they see power residing precisely because that’s where it’s easiest for them to control that power.

Local Voting Rights?

I’ve written before about the ways that metropolitan fragmentation affects not only the ability of citizens to cast ballots, but on the effects of those votes. Regarding metro Atlanta, I’ve argued that the formation of affluent and majority-white suburbs in north Fulton County has both removed significant resources from a countywide public where voters of color hold a slight majority and denied those voters the ability to influence the decision to form cities. The dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal in 2013 (which I wrote about in a study of metropolitan fragmentation and contemporary racism in Atlanta) closed the door on that line of argument, but the question of voting rights within the nested jurisdictions of states, counties, and localities, and the effects of those geographies on urban democracy, looks to become even more significant in coming years as states like Michigan (emergency management) and North Carolina (state pre-emption of local civil rights ordinances) allow state voters to override the will of locals–particularly when race, class, and partisan identifications separate an urban constituency from the rest of the state (this article by Campbell Robertson and Richard Fausset about the perilous position of gays and lesbians and social liberals in southern cities is a great example).

In Citylab, Brentin Mock points out some of the mental gymnastics required for a federal judge to accept the State of Michigan’s argument that its emergency manager law does not violate the Voting Rights Act. In essence, that argument is that as long as Flint residents have the ability to cast ballots for their preferred municipal officeholders, the nullification of those officeholders’ power by state voters is immaterial.

Public Act 436 transfers all governing powers from mayors and city councils to an appointed emergency manager for cities that Michigan has determined to be in financial crisis. This effectively erases residents’ voting rights in those cities, the lawsuit argued, since the politicians who residents elected to run the city no longer have any authority. A U.S. District Court disagreed, however, in its November 2014 ruling. Judge George Caram Steeh wrote that there was nothing wrong with Michigan replacing an elected mayor in a city like Flint with an un-elected, state-appointed custodian because city residents have no real voting rights in this manner. From Steeh’s order:

Public Act 436 seeks to put local governments on better financial footing. It does this by appointing an [emergency manager] in jurisdictions where the Governor and State Treasurer have determined that the local government was experiencing a financial emergency. The Act does not take away a fundamental right to vote, because such a right has never been recognized by the courts.

What Mock tartly points out is, that if this ruling stands, it would mean that

If Michigan’s argument holds up—that city residents have no such right—then that means the state could appoint the cast of Saturday Night Live in charge of a city. And the state would be legally covered in doing so as long as it still allows people to vote for the officials who they actually want in office—even if those elected officials would have no governing power whatsoever and would have to defer to the SNL cast.

The initial ruling in the case is under appeal, and seems headed for rehearing. Unfortunately for residents of Michigan cities with significant populations of poor minorities (52 percent of Black Michiganders have lived under emergency management, versus two percent of whites), the Flint water crisis, which has demonstrated the negligence and indifference of state authorities, constitutes evidence that emerged after the filing of the original lawsuit. It should be technically inadmissible in court, though Mock notes that it would be difficult to imagine the events in Flint not influencing a judgment.

What is more unfortunate is that the lower court’s judgment is well in line with Dillon’s Rule, the 1872 doctrine that municipalities are “creatures of the state,” without independent constitutional status and subject to limits on their operations determined by the state governments that created them. I’ve written (an award-winning article!) about the ways that this state-city conflict impacts democracy in the age of austerity, and how today’s city-state conflicts reflect a century-old conflict, expressed in urban reformers’ demands for home rule powers to deal with the stresses of industrialization, immigration, and growth.

It’s Dillon’s Rule that constructs municipal voting rights as a category apart from, for example, voting rights at the state level. Per Mock’s summary of the plaintiff’s appeal, Michigan’s policies “dilute and debase” the votes of local voters under emergency management in comparison to residents of other municipalities in the state, who can vote to govern their own communities and those under emergency management through the election of the state’s Governor. Michigan’s response (per Mock)

doubles down on the notion that city residents have no established voting rights when it comes to local elections. It also reinforces the idea that Charney referenced: that the right to vote only means you have the right to physically cast a ballot, nothing more and nothing less. Reads the brief:

Here, Plaintiffs are still free to vote in federal and state elections. And they offer no adequate support for the proposition that the right to vote in local elections, once extended, becomes a fundamental right as opposed to simply a right to participate on equal footing. …Nor do Plaintiffs’ cited cases offer support for a recognized right to participate in local political processes, even where the local unit is a legislative body.

Plaintiffs’ alleged injury really rests on the fact that the local government elected officials may not (at least temporarily) perform the duties of their elected office while under emergency management. This alleged injury is not a recognized violation of the right to vote.

Before the Roberts Court’s Shelby County decision, when the United States had a functioning Voting Rights Act, the political work of making ballots cast meaningless was known as vote dilution. When it was practiced by a municipal government in creating its own legislative districts, it could be prosecuted (although, as with most voting rights jurisprudence, the application of strict scrutiny doctrines have been used, as Heather Gerken writes in Harvard Law Review, to limit the use of racial statistics for the purposes of ensuring minority empowerment). It’s a situation unique to the structure of American federalism that similar work can be performed by the imposition of a state government onto a city with impunity.

It’s worth revisiting a quote from the legal scholar Gerald Frug, who wrote in City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls that

A city is the only collective body in America that cannot do something simply because it decides to do it. Instead, under American law, cities have power only if state governments authorize them to act.

Normalizing this proposition by extension means that the residents of cities can’t expect to exercise normally protected rights if that exercise conflicts with the prerogatives of state governments (and I’d be remiss in not pointing out the great influence of Frug’s scholarship on my work, notably his attention to the ways that the relative powerlessness of cities can reinforce racial and class inequalities in metropolitan America).

An irony of Michigan’s insistence on disciplining the governments (and indeed the voters) of cities like Flint and Detroit is that the seizure of power that emergency management represents is ultimately contrary to the stated goal of ensuring responsible local government. As Frug and David Barron write in City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation,

Cities can retain their ability to enable people to learn the skills of self-government only if they are given sufficient power to make decisions that have tangible consequences. (49)

I’d suspect, of course, that beneath the rhetoric of responsible government, emergency management and state austerity regimes have little intention of allowing such power in the future.

Perlstein on Chicago School Grifters

This piece by Rick Perlstein at Jacobin is a fantastic exegesis of the dense and incestuous network of non-profits, for-profits, and mayoral appointees that have spent the last two decades preparing to essentially privatize Chicago’s public schools. I had known that Illinois’ austerian Republican Governor Bruce Rauner gave current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel his start in investment banking between Congress and City Hall. I hadn’t known that Rauner was a member of an education committee of the Chicago Commerce Club which, ignoring reports by local universities that charter schools did not outperform neighborhood public schools, demanded the expansion of charters in a 2009 policy brief. It was after this report came out that, Perlstein writes,

a set of interlocking institutions quite more self-interested, ideologically stubborn, and sclerotic than the educational establishment it sought to “disrupt” had come into being to do just what the iron law of bureaucracy predicted they would do: grow, grow, grow.

You can read the rest. Make sure your kids are out of earshot.