'Inelastic' Baltimore needs melding with its neighbors


STATE legislators and voters are starting to grapple with the results of four decades of misguided policies that have favored suburban development over inner cities, fragmenting urban areas by race and class.

Several communities are trying innovative styles of government to bridge the economic gap between cities and suburbs and address their shared problems. These efforts are long overdue.

For example, last November in Oregon, Portland-area voters approved a home-rule charter to give new powers to the region's "metro" government, a sort of umbrella governing body.

The metro government's priority, the new charter states, will be less to provide regional services than to manage the region's growth, which has been exploding.

Goals include an affordable housing plan, in which each of the 24 cities and towns in the three-county jurisdiction must accept a proportionate share of low- and moderate-income housing.

Some 170 miles north, Seattle-area voters also endorsed a new regional strategy, giving the county enhanced control over growth. Strengthened by its new mandate, the King County Council stunned real estate developers by rejecting a new town -- 4,500 homes some 20 miles from Seattle -- to preserve surrounding forests.

The council's action also strengthens the plan of Mayor Norman Rice to rebuild Seattle's declining neighborhoods, since it will keep demand for housing within the city higher.

In Minnesota, legislators representing inner-city constituents forged a coalition this spring with lawmakers from older, blue-collar suburbs to pass the "Metropolitan Stabilization Act." Among the key provisions were low-income housing quotas for wealthy suburbs and tax changes to discourage converting agricultural land to subdivisions.

Although Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed most of the package, a jointly appointed Advisory Council on Metropolitan Governance is now hammering out a compromise plan, and the prospects for success look good.

The Northeast is facing up to these issues as well.

Parents in Hartford are suing the state of Connecticut; they assert that because the public schools depend heavily on local property taxes, the economic gap between Hartford and its suburbs is so great that inner-city children are denied their state-guaranteed right to a decent education. To address this problem, Gov. Lowell Weicker has recommended reorganizing the state's 169 independent school districts into six regional systems, equalizing school spending and spreading low-income students more evenly throughout the schools.

Now the legislature has begun a planning process to encourage cooperation between urban and suburban school districts to improve their racial balance.

This summer Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia appointed a Commission on the Revitalization of Virginia's Urban Areas.

The commission is studying compelling evidence that every major Virginia city has been hurt economically by a state law passed in 1979 forbidding annexation of surrounding suburbs. Without the ability to annex surrounding growth areas, most cities have lost population and jobs.

The best barometer to a city's social and economic health is whether it has been able to annex substantial new territory. Since World War II, urban population growth in the United States has occurred through low-density, sprawling suburban development. Successful cities were "elastic": they expanded their boundaries, capturing new development, holding on to middle-class families and maintaining a broad tax base.

Less fortunate were cities that were trapped within existing limits by bad laws or hostile neighboring communities. As middle-class families deserted older city neighborhoods for new suburbs, these "inelastic" cities have become poorhouses for their suburbs. They are squeezed between rising social needs of poor residents and declining tax bases. Such cities are programmed to fail.

Forty major cities -- including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland -- were virtually frozen within their 1950 city limits. All have lost population, an average of 26 percent.

Proportionally, these cities have four to five times as many poor residents as suburban communities, and urban incomes average 71 percent of those in the suburbs. Many of these cities' budgets stand on the brink of collapse.

At the other extreme, two dozen cities expanded their limits fivefold or more. These include Austin, Charlotte and Oklahoma City and consolidated governments like Jacksonville-Duval County, Nashville- Davidson County and Indianapolis-Marion County.

This group more than tripled populations. They have only about 20 percent more poor residents than their suburbs, rather than the four or five times for the inelastic cities like Baltimore.

The average incomes for city residents are even slightly higher than those who live in surrounding suburbs. And the credit rating for the elastic city governments is on average two grades higher than that of cities unable to expand.

It is too late for most inelastic cities to resume annexation, and successful city-county consolidation is by no means easy: It requires both uncommon civic leadership and a farsighted electorate. That is what makes the regional initiatives in Portland, Seattle and Minnesota so significant.

These communities are beginning to recognize that suburbs should share responsibility for inner-city social and economic problems; a dying city holds back the whole region.

This summer Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros told a delegation of mayors that there would be no major new federal aid forthcoming.

Instead, he is focusing on ending HUD practices that have made federal public housing a primary factor in segregating poor blacks and Hispanics in inner-city ghettos. Inner-city problems, he argues, can be solved only by joint efforts between cities and suburbs.

As President Clinton embarks on an ambitious legislative program this fall, his administration's wisest policy for America's ailing cities might be simply to adopt the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.

Salvation for America's cities is to be found not in Washington but in the cities' own suburbs. Governors and legislators must be the marriage brokers -- shotgun or otherwise.

David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., is author of "Cities Without Suburbs."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad