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Viewpoints: Sustaining suburbs needs regional collaboration

Suburbs. Mention that word in polite company and you may hear some polarizing opinions.

For many, suburbs are attractive places, filled with new homes on large lots, with great schools and parks. For many, this constitutes the “American Dream” – an aspirational vision for a prosperous middle class. This vision saw home ownership in suburbia as the penultimate reward, resulting from a free market where people can choose where and how they want to live.

For others, the description of suburbia is made in derogatory terms. They often view it as a place built by those seeking to flee big cities. For them it is sprawl and a waste of resources.

For urbanites, the suburbs represent a distortion of the free market under federal laws that promoted dumb growth and unhealthy lifestyles. They desire a more European development pattern without the cookie-cutter homes, suburban chain stores and auto-dependent development patterns.

Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these polar views.

Suburban growth is the archetype of residential expansion in the United Sates following World War II. New building methods and affordable transportation made that suburban growth possible. There is no debating that life in new suburbs is attractive to many – nearly 75 percent of Americans who live in metropolitan areas live in suburbs. That’s roughly true here in the Sacramento region, where suburban growth still handily outpaces urban growth.

Amidst this debate, an often overlooked and serious question about suburban growth revolves around the economic health of these neighborhoods over time. What happens to that new suburban community after 20 or 40 years? Is it still an attractive and desirable community? These are critical questions for the Sacramento region.

As a suburb ages, the same market forces and consumer demand that created it can and often lead to decline. Newer subdivisions lure away residents with the greatest economic capacity to relocate, which creates competition with older suburbs. Over time, the older suburban properties age and decline in value. Homeowners leaving the older suburb are often replaced by owners with less economic ability and a lower median income.

But this is where a disastrous declining property value cycle can set in – one that has become established for about half of America’s older suburbs. In concert with declining incomes and property values, property maintenance standards often fall. That can spark a rise in crime and an increase in homes put up for rent. School test scores also may fall, making the community less attractive, and businesses begin to fail due to the lack of disposable income of the residents.

As median income and property values fall, so do local government revenues from sales and property taxes. Unfortunately, these revenues fall at the time they are most needed to repair much of the aging infrastructure. Economic development can become impossible as the financial barriers of updating old infrastructure like sewers, water and electricity drive up development costs. Remodel and reinvestment in housing becomes unlikely as owners fail to see a positive future for their community or a return on their investment.

These combined trends can create a downward spiraling pressure on a neighborhood, which, if left unchecked, can turn a once-thriving suburban community into something of a suburban slum. Old suburbs in this condition are a drain on the total resources of the entire region.

What can be done to avoid this negative cycle and find more balance for aging suburbs? Older suburbs do have real advantages over newer suburbs and urban centers – typically they have large lot sizes, mature tree canopies and a location advantage, with greater proximity to urban attractions and jobs. But these alone are often not enough to save all older suburbs from decline.

In our region, over the last several decades we have seen some large-scale community efforts to resist this negative cycle. The incorporations of West Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova all came about in part as a response to unchecked community challenges and suburban decline, and those cities are very active in finding ways to sustain their communities.

This is the crux of the matter for older suburbs seeking to maintain a healthy and sustainable quality of life for all of their residents. Real focus and investment in proactive government measures are necessary to save at-risk older suburbs from decline. These measures need to be comprehensive in nature, focusing on specific measureable issues that give the biggest bang for the limited tax dollars available and recognizing the long-term commitment necessary to maintain aging suburban communities. Half-measures, the same old programs and publicity-seeking programs will not make a substantial difference.

Property values and quality of life can be maintained through proactive tools such as effective municipal code enforcement, efficient community policing, creative partnerships with schools, real civic engagement with community volunteers and neighborhood leaders, creative economic redevelopment and infrastructure renewal.

While a few of these proactive tools have been identified and are in use in our region, other tools like those for fixing infrastructure and promoting economic development have been removed by recent state government actions, and will require substantial efforts to recreate.

Regardless of how suburbs are perceived, this issue of suburban sustainability is one of the most serious issues facing our region, and it should command some of our best work and regional collaboration in finding good solutions for sustaining our aging suburban and urban communities.

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