Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Charges that Obama wants to ‘burn’ the suburbs aren’t true

REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Barack Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, arriving at a campaign event at the Village of East Davenport in Davenport, Iowa, on Wednesday.

President Obama’s detractors have made a lot of charges: He isn’t a U.S. citizen; he got lousy grades at Harvard; he’s ruined the economy; he socialized health care; he leaked secrets; he wants to impose Shariah law; and he’s planning to raise everybody’s taxes.

Now comes the latest: He’s going to burn down the suburbs.

Making this allegation is Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which describes itself as “Washington, D.C.’s premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

According to SourceWatch, which documents information about groups trying to influence public policy, the outfit receives funding from several right-wing foundations: the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Koch-backed Castle Rock Foundation. The less-controversial Pew Charitable Trusts has also given it about $3 million.

Kurtz’ accusation, which he made in The National Review Online, and in a new book called “Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities,” left me a bit confused.  The last time I was out in the suburbs, which was — hmm — the day before yesterday, I didn’t see anything amiss. No flames, not even smoke.

OK, OK I know that Kurtz isn’t saying that Obama will literally torch millions of single-family houses — although Kurtz did use the word “burn.” He means that the president will try to squelch them. Even that would be hard to do, since more than half of the nation lives in suburbs and will be voting in an election only a couple of months away. 

Kurtz’s case

So what’s Kurtz’s case?

Well, way back in the 1980s, it seems, Obama was in cahoots with a batch of community organizers who blamed the deepening poverty of city governments (and cities themselves) on taxpayers’ flight to the suburbs. Their animus toward suburbs took the form of a crusade against sprawl. Kurtz puts the word “sprawl” in quotes, as though the unplanned spread of Pizza Huts, Walmarts, shopping malls, housing and highways across the landscape were a fiction.

Anyway, Kurtz says that Obama and his allies have been working quietly during his first term via an organization called Building One America to “abolish the suburbs.”

SourceWatch doesn’t have any listing for the group, but BOA is a coalition that aims to “promotes the goals of social inclusion, sustainability and economic growth by addressing regional housing policy, land use, municipal and educational fiscal structures and major infrastructure investments.” Oh, and it trains community organizers, too.

The first item on the agenda of this unholy alliance is “to force suburban residents into densely packed cities by blocking development on the outskirts of metropolitan areas and by discouraging driving with a blizzard of taxes, fees and regulations.”

I don’t know how the president, even backed by the power of the federal government, would be able to force people to move back to cities. At least, I haven’t witnessed or heard about any long marches of suburbanites. There has been a small trickle of population returning to cities across the country. The Twin Cities have seen an increase in density in the development of residential land — from 2.16 households per acre in the 1990s to 2.27 in the 2000s.

That change may be partly caused by a subpar economy. But preferences have shifted as well. Increasingly, young people want to stay in the city (my theory is that they want to be near their favorite bars), and many retired folks are seeking to ditch the obligations of their big old houses and big old yards. 

I haven’t seen any evidence that Obama is taxing people out of their cars either.

Most efforts are local ones

The federal gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993. Initiatives to discourage driving — limiting parking on major streets, raising parking meter fees, prodding people to use public transit — have come mostly from mayors and local officials.

And the one effort I know of to bring London-style congestion pricing to the U.S., backed by New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, failed, even though it was endorsed by hundreds of political and business leaders. So much for that.

Next, Kurtz charges that Obama and his cronies want to “move the poor out of cities by imposing low-income housing quotas on development in middle-class suburbs.”

That does sound inflammatory. So far, however, the federal government’s efforts have been pretty wimpy.

A lawsuit filed by activists against New York’s Westchester County for taking federal housing money but failing to provide any affordable housing in its wealthier suburbs resulted in a settlement requiring the county to mend its ways. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has done nothing more than say that it would like other communities to do something along those lines, but that’s about as much as it’s done.

Lest you think such a policy is radical, the Twin Cities had one back in the ’70s. Called Policy 1339, it mandated that affordable housing be scattered in the suburbs. No huge upheavals occurred, but the initiative ended in the mid-1980s anyway.

Interestingly, the only such project that has been studied thoroughly was Ethel Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, N.J., a lily-white Philadelphia suburb. Its construction in 2000 was the result of a decades-long court battle. A team from no less than Princeton University found that its placement in Mount Laurel had not brought the world to an end.

Their report declared: “Trends in home values, crime rates and taxes were the same in Mount Laurel as in similar townships nearby. Even in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the project, we found no effect on crime, property values or taxes. Indeed, in a survey we conducted among neighbors, one-third didn’t know affordable housing even existed in the neighborhood.”

But here’s Kurtz’s most damning allegation: Obama’s cohorts are encouraging an alliance between city politicians and their inner-ring suburban counterparts to “force regional tax-base sharing on middle-class suburbanites. That is how the practice came in Minnesota.”

A couple of corrections are in order before we even get into Kurtz’s notion that tax-base sharing is creeping, or rather, gallivanting socialism. There was no such urban/inner-suburb alliance.

Minnesota’s Fiscal Disparities Act was passed in 1971 by a Republican-controlled Legislature (technically, at the time, lawmakers caucused as conservatives and liberals but generally aligned with the two parties). It was championed by Charles Weaver Sr., a Republican state rep from Anoka and the flamingly un-radical Citizens League.

In another editorial in Forbes, Kurtz claims that Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, is “the father of tax-base sharing.” Orfield himself says he’s all for it, but he can’t claim to be its father since “I was only 10 years old when it was passed.”

The law, if you recall the history, requires all communities in the seven-county metro area to share 40 percent of the annual growth in their commercial-industrial tax base. The money is then handed out to communities under a formula based on their fiscal capacity. 

Twin Cities “socialism”?

Why did staid Twin Cities business leaders back what Kurtz calls socialism?

 Well, as I remember (I wish I could say that I was only 10 when the measure passed), our suburbs had been warring with each other as fiercely as medieval principalities to win businesses that would build their anemic tax bases. At one point, Bloomington tried to annex Burnsville just to get its power plant. It’s a miracle that troops weren’t involved.

Comments Orfield: “Tax-base sharing was designed by the business community to make Minneapolis and St. Paul nationally and globally competitive, and it has. Tax-base sharing creates incentives for all cities and suburbs to compete together in the global economy, not fight among themselves about the location of the new Walmart.”

Further, he points out, our cities and a few poor suburbs have not always been the biggest recipients of the law’s largesse. In 2011, Minneapolis gave more than it got; 122 suburbs, many of them on the far-flung fringes of the metro, got more than they gave.

Kurtz’s argument, says Orfield, is “baloney.”

I would say that, too, but I don’t want to insult baloney.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/17/2012 - 01:41 pm.

    Inflammatory prose

    Speaking as a former planning commissioner, someone not likely to be recognized by President Obama unless I were waving a multi-million dollar check (it would have to be lottery winnings, and I don’t have any), labeling Mr. Kurtz’ allegations as “baloney” is far too polite.

    He has no idea what he’s talking about.

    Regional tax-sharing is a sensible response, usually by local political and economic heavy lifters, to the problem Ms. Harris has delicately described: the cutthroat competition between/among local municipalities over who gets to be the site of the next Walmart, or Ikea, or unimaginatively-named shopping mall. In the years since the Fiscal Disparities Act was passed, it’s become more and more apparent that economic activity is largely regional, and not tied to a specific business or neighborhood. That’s been the case all over the country, and regional tax-sharing is practiced similarly – all over the country. In some states, it’s widespread, while in others, it’s relatively rare, but it’s not difficult to find examples.

    In Colorado, there’s very little of this regional approach, unfortunately, and because Colorado – to a far greater degree than Minnesota so far – relies upon the sales tax to provide the funding for most of what government does at every level in the state, the result is exactly as Ms. Harris describes – figurative bloody knife fights between municipalities over who gets the sales tax from business ‘x’ or the “Whatchamacallit Mall.” In some cases in Colorado, communities have given away so much in the form of tax breaks to the prospective new business that the increase in their tax base is almost nonexistent, a policy position that makes no sense at all.

    If suburbs are going to be done in, and I confess I don’t expect to see that happen during my remaining years, it won’t be by a President, no matter what his political party. Suburbs will be done in by the failure of the industrial model as a basis for our economy, specifically when oil becomes so expensive that production, worker transportation, transit of products, all become prohibitively expensive because we’ve run out of cheap energy. If it happens at all, it won’t happen for a while yet, and it certainly won’t be something that can legitimately be laid at Mr. Obama’s feet.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 08/17/2012 - 02:02 pm.

    It is strange that Mr. Kurtz, a “senior fellow” at “Washington, D.C.’s premier institute dedicated to … critical issues of public policy,” seems never to have heard of this thing called “the market.” Orthodox market failure theory identifies the many and profound economic and social externalities associated with sprawl development and thoughtful “public policy” has concerned how to internalize these costs so that development patterns will reflect the operations of the market.

  3. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 08/18/2012 - 04:24 pm.

    Manhattan is green

    Manhattan is the greenest metro area in the US. It’s citizens have the lowest carbon footprint. They walk and ride public transport. They live in efficient apartment buildings, etc. Let’s hear it for higher density housing.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/20/2012 - 04:07 pm.

    Yeah well…

    Alls I know is Obama will have to rip my suburban paradise out of my cold dead hands!

Leave a Reply