Poverty in the United States grew to record levels in the 2000s and has left its mark on the suburbs. Between 2000 and 2014, the poor population in the suburbs of the nation’s major metro areas ballooned by 65%.
“For the first time, suburbs became home to not only the fastest-growing poor population in the country but also the largest,” Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, told attendees at the second annual AHF Live: Housing Developers Forum in Arlington, Va., on May 11. “That’s more than twice the pace of growth in big cities and faster than growth in small metro areas and rural communities as well.”
Kneebone said almost every major metro area saw its suburban poor population grow since 2000, with all types of communities experiencing this trend. This includes stronger marketplaces like the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as well as industrial cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, where poverty previously had been associated with the inner cities.
This trend is driven by a number of reasons, according to Kneebone, who co-authored “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” She pointed to more people moving to the suburbs and long-term residents in suburban neighborhoods growing poor over time.
Housing is one main reason of this shift. Price pressures in some cities have pushed many to look for affordable housing in the suburbs, while many residents in older suburbs with means are either moving back to cities or further out to more desirable locales, leaving aging housing stock that has become naturally affordable. Housing subsidies, such as Housing Choice Vouchers, also are being increasingly used in the suburbs. In addition, the housing crisis played a role, with three-quarters of subprime loans and foreclosures occurring in the suburbs.
The regional economy also has contributed to the shift, with the suburbs bearing the brunt of the recession alongside cities more so than they had in previous downturns. But Kneebone cautioned that this is not a recessionary blip. Prior to the Great Recession, better-paying middle-wage jobs in the suburbs were lost while lower-wage jobs were being added.
“Being poor no matter where you live is difficult, but there are things about being poor in the suburbs that can raise particular issues,” Kneebone added.
Many suburbs experiencing rapid growth aren’t equipped to handle wraparound support that low-income families need and lack basic infrastructure, such as public transportation.
“The safety net in the suburbs is a lot thinner and less robust. It’s a daunting picture. We have a scale of need today in an era of limited resources that makes it a real challenge,” said Kneebone. “The silver lining is some innovative solutions emerging from players on the ground. Local leaders and regional practitioners are finding ways to bring public and private dollars and make them stretch further.”
Three common themes are emerging from these regional quarterbacks’ place-based, anti-poverty playbooks: achieving scale, collaboration and integration, and a coordinated approach to fund strategically.
Kneebone pointed to several initiatives taking place on the ground throughout the country to address suburban poverty, including:
- Housing Partnership Equity Trust: Housing Partnership Network created the REIT with an investment of $100 million from private and philanthropic investors to help 12 high-performing nonprofits to acquire naturally affordable multifamily properties;
- Denver Regional TOD Fund: This collaboration of public, quasi-public, private, and nonprofit partners offers flexible financing for the creation and preservation of affordable housing along current and future transit corridors; and
- Chicago Regional Housing Initiative: This collaboration of 10 public housing authorities, the metropolitan planning organization, the Illinois Housing Development Authority and other groups partner to pool a portion of rental assistance vouchers to support the construction or rehab of affordable housing in opportunity areas.