Critics of urban sprawl blame suburbia for a plethora of modern societal ills, including pollution, traffic congestion, inner city poverty, even obesity.
However, a recent study by Matthew Kahn at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy identifies one important benefit of sprawl: it reduces the housing consumption gap between white and black Americans.
Historically, there has been a gap between black and white Americans in almost every aspect of housing consumption, including homeownership rates and average housing sizes. But this gap has been closing in recent decades.
Kahn found that the black/white homeownership and housing size gaps close as a metropolitan area’s sprawl level-measured as the share of area jobs located outside of a 10-mile ring around the area’s central business district-increases.
Moreover, the study found that black households living in sprawling metropolitan areas live in larger homes, are more likely to be homeowners, and are more likely to be located in the suburbs than otherwise identical black households in less sprawled areas.
As an example, Khan predicted housing consumption for two identical black households: one living in a high-sprawl metropolitan area and the other living in a low-sprawl area. Assuming the households had two adults (including a 40-year old head of household), two children, and an annual household income of $35,000, Kahn found that the black household in the high-sprawl metro area consumed 0.5 more rooms and 10% more square footage, was 12% more likely to live in the suburbs, and was 9.3% more likely to own its home than its counterpart in the low-sprawl area.
Kahn suggests two possible explanations for these findings. First, sprawling areas tend to have a greater supply of developable land on the urban fringe, which helps to moderate land prices and keep housing affordable. Second, inner-city housing becomes cheaper as jobs gravitate from cities out to the suburbs. In short, suburban growth provides opportunities for black households to move into newly constructed housing at the urban fringe or to move into center city or older suburban houses vacated by white households that relocate.
Perhaps the study’s most important conclusion was that “[housing] affordability is likely to decrease in the presence of more antisprawl legislation.” A growing body of research is providing evidence that growth controls-such as urban-growth boundaries that limit the supply of developable land and impact fees imposed on developers to recoup the costs of infrastructure and public services—can have a very real inflationary effect on housing prices and tend to decrease affordability.
Advocates of anti-suburban growth management policies should stop and consider this point. Measures to limit sprawl are likely to have the unintended consequences of reducing economic opportunity for black Americans and other minorities, and slowing or reversing the socioeconomic gains they have made in recent decades.
For example, an article by David Whelan in the July issue of American Demographics magazine pointed out that more blacks than ever (17 percent) hold college degrees, and that median black household income is at record levels, with 51 percent of black households earning over $50,000 annually. Concurrently, the percentage of blacks living in the suburbs has jumped from 34 percent to 39 percent between 1990 and 2000, and median black suburban household income totaled over $37,000 in 2000, almost 44 percent higher than income earned by counterpart black households in cities. Similar trends were identified for other minority groups.
Looking at the bigger picture, a recent Brookings Institution study found that racial and ethnic minorities made up over 27 percent of the total suburban population in the 102 most-populated metro areas in 2000, up substantially from 19 percent in 1990. It also found that the bulk of suburban population gains in many of those metro areas could be attributed to minorities.
These figures may surprise those accustomed to thinking of the suburbs as the bastion of “white flight” émigrés. Whelan describes the black suburbanization trend succinctly: “Like whites, affluent blacks head off to the suburbs with their good fortunes.”
In other words, the American Dream of homeownership, backyards, good schools, and safe communities is still alive and kicking. In fact, it’s within the reach of a more diverse body of people than ever before.
Planners and policy makers should remember this as they continue to address the challenges posed by urban and suburban growth and development. In the pursuit of a new and improved American Dream, the policies advocated by the anti-sprawl movement may ultimately help to perpetuate the socioeconomic inequities that generations of Americans of all races and ethnicities have struggled to overcome.
Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation
William H. Frey, “Melting Pot Suburbs: A Census 2000 Study of Suburban Diversity,” Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, June 2001), pp. 1-17.
Matthew Kahn, “Does Sprawl Reduce the Black/White Housing Consumption Gap?,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 12, no. 1 (2001), pp. 77-86.
David Whelan, “Black Boom in the —Burbs,” American Demographics, July 2001, pp. 20—21.