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Suburbs of a certain age: the post-racial frontier

Officials from older  suburbs grapple with housing and education challenges.

Houses on the 6400 block of Humboldt Avenue South, Richfield, in 1957.
Minnesota Historical Society/Norton & Peel

Big challenges are facing those comfy old suburbs where many of us grew up.

Only a few decades ago, towns that mushroomed up along urban borders were more homogenous than milk. Everybody who lived there was white. Except for paint color, the tract-built houses looked pretty much the same, and keeping up with the Joneses lay in the realm of possibility because your neighbors’ incomes weren’t too much higher than your own. “There really wasn’t much diversity,” says John Stark, Community Development Director of Richfield, “unless you count living in a 962 square foot Cape Cod instead of a 964 square foot Cape Cod.”

Those older suburbs have changed dramatically. Their populations are now a racial, ethnic and linguistic mix. More than 40 percent of school kids in Brooklyn Center, Richfield, Robbinsdale, Fridley, Burnsville, Roseville, West St. Paul, Maplewood and Eagan are non-white. John Thein, Roseville School District Superintendent, notes that the children in his schools speak 65 different languages. The latest he discovered was Icelandic.  

The changes can be exhilarating. Integrated suburbs offer families formerly stuck in low-income urban neighborhoods the chance to send their kids to good schools in safe communities where jobs and incomes are on the rise. But there are big problems too: aging housing, depleted tax bases; fear and racism; achievement gaps; and unstable school enrollments.

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Both the opportunities and the challenges were the subject of a forum on developed suburbs held by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School yesterday. Some 132 officials from most of the Twin Cities’ older suburbs attended along with some representatives of the Metropolitan Council.  

Featured on two panels—one on schools and another on housing—were school administrators, city managers and even a mayor (Debbie Goettal of Richfield).  They represented Robbinsdale, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Roseville, Brooklyn Park, Richfield, St. Louis Park and Oakdale. To Myron Orfield, Institute director, they are local heroes. “They are doing the hard, good job of managing multi-racial communities,” he said.    

To kick off each discussion, he posed a question: should low-income housing be built in the more developed, diverse suburbs where there are jobs and public transit or should it go to newer, possibly wealthier suburbs where schools are newer, of higher quality and unsegregated?

The issue is a conundrum and maybe for that reason panelists couldn’t seem to come to grips with it. Instead they engaged in a lot of free-form topic-hopping that included the digital divide; the flight of white families to charter schools; the flight of white families to whiter suburbs; the subsequent erosion of the tax base; open enrollment; unstable school populations, private sector disinvestment in diverse suburbs and so forth and so on. Clearly, these folks have a lot on their minds.

Some themes, however, did emerge. One that came across to me is that these suburban officials, dedicated for the most part to realizing the dream of a post-racial America, toil without much help. Jason Aarsvold, director of community development for Brooklyn Park, pointed out that Minneapolis and St. Paul both receive a great deal of attention not only from the state but also from nonprofits. The suburbs, still stereotyped as bastions of privilege, feel like orphans.    

From the schools panel came these ideas:

  • Integrated schools are an absolute plus. Melissa Krull, former Eden Prairie District Superintendent, pointed out that in integrated settings, minority students tend to stay in school longer, to go on to college and to choose higher-paying occupations. But, she added, parents of white students fear that the presence of minority students will lower achievement—even though many studies have found it doesn’t. Educating parents about that fact should be a priority.
  • Minnesota’s $108 million in integration aid (used for programs to address learning disparities) should reward communities that are actually in the process of integrating schools. Currently, most of the money goes to St. Paul ($445 per student) and Minneapolis ($480 per student), where minority students are concentrated in segregated schools. Other districts receive only $90 to $130 per student. 
  • Open enrollment allows white families to flee to predominantly white school districts with the consequence that some integrated suburban schools re-segregate. (Call me crazy, but it seems ridiculous for the state to spend $108 million to integrate schools and then encourage less integration.)
  • State desegregation rules should apply to charter schools. While they attract minority parents looking for a choice beyond public schools, in many of them the kids wind up in segregated classrooms.  

Both the schools and the housing panel agreed that the Met Council’s housing policy, which it is only now starting to revamp for the first time in decades, should support the creation of integrated schools. “We have to create ways for families to find good housing near high-performing schools,” said Krull. Decent housing would provide stability. “We have kids bouncing around to four to five schools a year,” added one official. Other points:

  • The affordable housing goals set by the Metropolitan Council do not take into account the affordable housing already in older suburbs. A great deal of the housing in Richfield and other older suburbs was built just after World War II. It’s now aging and, as Stark described it, “crappy.” But it is affordable, without any public subsidy. Though panelists did not say so explicitly, I thought that the Met Council should help finance the updating and rehabilitation of some of these existing structures. As St. Louis Park city manager Tom Harmening pointed out, land costs make new affordable housing in his town prohibitively expensive.
  • Richfield Mayor Goettal complained that Met Council housing goals would require her to put multi-family affordable housing into “viable” single-family neighborhoods. The result was neighborhood uproar “which is not gonna take us where we want to go,” she said.
  • A couple of panelists suggested that new suburbs on the outer fringe of the metro should have to boost their share of affordable housing. The thought was that if taxpayers were providing them with new infrastructure—roads, sewers and so on—they should have to take greater responsibility.
  • Although it took some prodding from Orfield, whose preoccupation it is, officials admitted that racial steering of minority families to particular towns and neighborhoods by real estate agents was common. The practice intensified housing segregation and school segregation. Similarly, bank  lending discrimination—charging African American and Hispanic families higher mortgage rates than they would otherwise merit—confined them to lower-cost areas and to lower-performing school districts. Both problems call for state intervention.

At the mention of the word “state,” Paul Thissen (D-Minneapolis), the newly designated Minnesota House speaker, turned up as if by magic to announce that in the next legislative session he planned to revive the now defunct housing committee. He said, “If we could solve the housing issue, we could ease a lot of other problems.”  One can only hope.