Regional cooperation is key to revitalizing distressed suburbs

2.1.2012 | Distressed suburbs can find solutions to their struggles in a new study by Kathryn Hexter, Network member Edward (Ned) Hill, and colleagues. At the top of the list or recommendations is to “regionalize, repurpose, or restructure” government and services.

Problems of poverty, unemployment and foreclosure, typically associated with inner cities, have made their way to distressed, older suburbs across the country. “Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs,” provides a detailed portrait of the underlying forces shaping distressed suburbs and highlight a range of best practices they can use to improve living conditions, restore municipal budgets, and bolster housing stock.

The report focuses on predominantly minority suburbs of older, large industrial cities, communities that once thrived but now have increasing needs and limited resources. The report identifies 168 most-distressed suburbs in the United States and provides in-depth case studies of four: East Cleveland, OH, and Inkster, MI located in declining economic regions, and Chester, PA, and Prichard, AL, located in growing economic regions.

East Cleveland, for example, was once one of the most prestigious suburbs of Cleveland. Today, most of its tax-generating industries are gone; large pockets of housing stock are substandard, abandoned, and vandalized; and the school system earns a low grade in the state ranking system. Of its nearly 18,000 residents, 37% had incomes below the federal poverty level in 2010.

One of the biggest problems is fiscal. Most of these case study suburbs are scraping bottom in their local budgets.

“Chester, for example, has a huge hole to dig out of, with an unfunded OPEB liability of $114 million and an unfunded pension liability of about $27 million. East Cleveland has an unfunded liability payable to the state pension system of about $1.4 million a year for the next 25 years. Inkster’s pension system is more than adequately funded, but it has an unfunded OPEB liability of $27.8 million. And Prichard has an estimated $17 million unfunded pension liability, but this estimate was generated in 2003 and has not been updated, so it’s possible the number is much larger. There is no evidence Prichard has even estimated its unfunded OPEB to date.”

The authors first recommendation for these distressed suburbs is to “regionalize, repurpose, and restructure.”

“Even if these cities, and others like them across the country, did everything right, they would still be in precarious fiscal situations. We recommend deep changes—regionalizing, repurposing, and/or restructuring.”

Regionalizing services and government is key to short-term advances, especially fiscally, the authors note. Regional service delivery, regional government, annexation, and restructuring city government are all on the table. This may mean that some of municipalities, the authors note, “will no longer exist in the same form they do today.”

East Cleveland offers the clearest example of the benefits of regional cooperation, especially when it comes to delivering city services, like water, police, and other vital supports.

“Despite the well-documented political barriers to regional collaboration, East Cleveland has entered into service agreements with other entities. One example is the 2008 agreement for the city of Cleveland to take over East Cleveland’s water department. In another example, East Cleveland leaders are working with neighboring communities and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to reopen discussions about developing a watershed planning project.

Mayor Norton is openly seeking regional solutions for city services such as fire services, police services, and garbage collection. He recently reached an agreement that provides for the county engineer to take over maintenance and repair of the city’s sanitary sewers. He is pursuing the purchase of firefighting and garbage collection services from the city of Cleveland.

East Cleveland has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the newly formed Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation, informally known as the Cuyahoga County land bank. This agreement will provide East Cleveland with a credible system to improve its housing stock and infrastructure and to create the right opportunities and atmosphere for economic development. The land bank could be a boon for East Cleveland and other inner-ring suburbs struggling with surplus, vacant, and largely abandoned property.”

The federal role: build capacity. Officials in all four cities also recommended ways to make HUD programs more effective, including allowing cities greater flexibility to spend HUD dollars in ways that meet their most pressing needs and support economic development projects. The authors agree with these recommendations, but argue that they don’t go far enough. They need more radical intervention. Here again, the suburbs need to regionalize, repurpose, or restructure—or some combination of the three.

“These suburbs need to build their capacities to accomplish significant structural change.” While the federal government has a traditionally limited role in municipalities (they’re products of the state), it can help build capacity in several ways:

  • Partner with states on behalf of distressed suburbs to provide additional block grant dollars, loan guarantees, and debt reduction that can be used as incentives for cities that meet “good government” criteria. This money could be targeted to initiatives that will increase the cities’ tax bases and regionalize or restructure services, beginning with public safety.  This could include, for example, ensuring that adequate and ongoing public safety will be provided in any federally supported development project.
  • Provide technical assistance to suburbs and small cities on municipal management practices. Before distressed suburbs can discuss partnerships or agreements with other city or county governments, they need to get their own houses in order.
  • Develop model legislation for states on reasonable ways to restructure city operations and finances.
  • Protect the federal government’s historic investment in these communities.
  • Create cross-agency partnerships—for example, with public health providers or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—that provide leverage points and opportunities for federal/state/local funds.

The report is a valuable read for urban planners everywhere. As demographic and economic pressures continue to reshape the suburbs, leaders must be prepared for significant change. This report can give them a peek into what might be around the corner–and how to respond. For those already in the throes of change, this report can help spur cooperation, build trust, and reshape the future of the community.

The study was conducted by the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University in conjunction with the Urban Institute’s “What Works” collaborative.

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