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Salvaging Suburbia

How to Stop Communities From Growing Farther and Farther Apart

November 15, 1998|Myron Orfield | Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state representative, is the author of "Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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