We should manage growth to reduce inequality, economic segregation

Guest Opinion: The state and local jurisdictions could be a lot smarter about how they handle planning, growth and taxation.
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The Broadmoor gated community.

Guest Opinion: The state and local jurisdictions could be a lot smarter about how they handle planning, growth and taxation.

The local dynamics of housing supply and demand present the Puget Sound region with tough problems, as Michael Luis described well in a recent Crosscut article. But there is more at stake in how the Puget Sound region finds housing capacity than long commutes for the working class and pressure on the Urban Growth Boundary. Here as in many other metropolitan areas over the last several decades, the geography of growth has increasingly resulted in communities of either affluence or poverty. This has bad effects on economic opportunity and ultimately on the quality of life in the region as a whole.

As shown several years ago in an analysis of 2010 Census data by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff of Stanford, increasing economic segregation means that poor families are increasingly likely to live in communities with many other poor families, rather than in communities where people have a wider range of incomes. This compounds the effects of poverty on children because it reduces their access to good schools and other community resources that would help them succeed. This, in turn, reduces their educational performance, increases the chances they will get into trouble and contributes to the cycle of poverty and the reproduction of inequality across generations. And, no surprise, the picture tends to be worse for black and Hispanic children.

The good news for the Seattle metropolitan area is that economic segregation is less than in most other large metropolitan areas. The bad news is that economic segregation in this area has been increasing dramatically.

The proportion of families in this metro area living in poor neighborhoods has more than quadrupled since 1970 and has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000. The proportion of families living in either poor or highly affluent neighborhoods has more than tripled since 1970 and has increased by more than 40 percent since 2000.

This is not something in which we want to continue to follow others. Fortunately, it is something that state and local governments can change, if there is political will. Beyond setting the minimum wage, there is little state and local government can do to change the structure of the labor market and the basic economic inequality it contains. But infrastructure, how infrastructure is paid for, and zoning -- the core tools of the Growth Management Act (GMA) — are within local control. And how they are used has a real effect on economic segregation, intentionally or not.

Using growth management to address economic segregation would not be foreign to the principles of the GMA or local comprehensive plans, only to current practices. The GMA was motivated by the recognition that “uncoordinated and unplanned growth ... [poses] a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.” But comprehensive planning under GMA has addressed health and safety at best indirectly, and more often vaguely or wishfully.

The use of the act has mainly emphasized the goals of land conservation, environmental quality and the efficiency of public investments in transportation and other infrastructure. By disregarding the economic segregation resulting from current development patterns, the last 20 years of planning has allowed it to increase, to the detriment of the health, safety and quality of life of many residents.

The same disconnect between goals and actual policies can be found in the Seattle and King County comprehensive plans and the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 strategy. In Seattle, the political discussion of the meaning of “comprehensive” led the City to expand the scope of the comprehensive plan to include health, education, public safety and the impacts of poverty. But the policies in these areas are freestanding and not linked in any systematic way to the core plan elements of land use, transportation, public facilities and environmental protection.

Similarly, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 strategy and King County’s Countywide Planning Policies acknowledge the need for public services related to health, education, public safety, poverty and equal opportunity, but relate them to the core land use and transportation elements only in a very general way. That’s largely in the form of admonitions to local governments to respond to these needs, coupled with confidence that the overall economic prosperity created by good land use and transportation planning will give the governments the resources to do so.

If only it were so easy. Even in a metropolitan area as prosperous as ours with comparatively smaller problems of poverty and inequality, we struggle to mitigate their impacts. Witness the disparities in health across communities. Witness the dissatisfaction with the results of K-12 education in so many places. Witness the criminal victimization of many low-income communities, and the incarceration of so many young men from these communities.

Some might say we’re just not trying hard enough with schools and social and health services. Certainly a regressive state and local tax system does not make it easy to pay for effective interventions, supposing that we know what they are and have the will to implement them.

But structure matters, and matters first. On the fiscal side, a regressive tax system in an increasingly economically segregated region means that it will be even more difficult for poorer communities to find the local resources needed for effective services.

More fundamentally, we should recognize that the decisions we make for land use, transportation and infrastructure affect the level of economic segregation. If we care about health and safety and economic opportunity, we should use these decisions to reduce economic segregation, or at least try to halt its increase.

We don’t have to depart from the basics of growth management to do this. The main thing is intentionality, and close attention to the actual and prospective impacts on economic segregation of specific policies and plans in specific places.

Some aspects of this are straightforward. For example, when we set targets for affordable housing, will these targets put more low-cost and subsidized housing where much already exists, or distribute it more widely? Will we repair and replace existing infrastructure in existing cities and neighborhoods before creating new infrastructure in new high-value communities?

Some aspects are indirect. For example, because blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be poor, the continued lamentably high rate of racial and ethnic discrimination in housing here contributes to economic segregation as well as racial segregation. Vigorous regional enforcement of fair housing laws would reduce both.

And some aspects are truly complex, notably in the arena of public infrastructure investments that support growth and economic development. When government spends these public dollars, who pays and who benefits? As rule, if growth does not pay for growth, the poor pay more, because common resources tend to subsidize the growth of affluent communities at the urban fringe. This is all the more the case when taxes and utility rates are regressive and the tax base is fragmented. The more that infrastructure costs are regionally socialized and health, education and safety are funded locally, the easier it is for affluent communities to enter a positive cycle of high value uses, low service costs and low tax rates, and the harder it is for poorer communities to avoid the opposite negative cycle.

These threats are not academic. For example, the failure of growth to pay for expansions in King County wastewater infrastructure is effectively transferring millions of dollars from the broad and economically diverse base of ratepayers, including most low-income communities, largely to the benefit of a small number of new affluent communities. And tax increment financing continues to be a threat. TIF is sold as a means for reducing blight, but more often allows prosperous local jurisdictions with low regular property tax rates to support high value development by grabbing tax increments from overlapping jurisdictions, to the detriment of services provided by those overlapping jurisdictions. Despite the statewide fiscal disaster caused by TIF in California, supposedly progressive local governments continue to lobby for it in Washington.

Most of these facts and concepts are not new. What would be new, at least here, would be to translate them into a positive agenda for reducing economic segregation in order to diminish the worst impacts of inequality.


About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Harris

Peter Harris has been an analyst for the Seattle Legislative Department since 1998.