In Suburban Slide, the Better Life Lab explores the changing face of poverty in the United States and how the symbol of American prosperity became the new place of poverty. In a six-part series, we explore what this means for Americans’ work-life conflicts and American identity in general.

“I was surprised by the lack of empathy,” Carrie Merino said. “I would say, ‘I’m a single mom with three kids and I have a job so I can pay the rent. I just don’t have three times the amount of income you require to qualify.’ ”

In May 2015, after her divorce, Merino moved back to her hometown of Scappoose, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, with her three kids, ages 4, 1, and 14. Like any cross-country move, this ate up a lot of her already limited resources and credit. At first, she didn’t qualify for housing because she hadn’t lined up her job yet, but also because she didn’t have three times the rent price (rent plus first and last months of the lease). “Most places were charging at least $1,000 at that time,” she said, recalling a host of conversations like the one she recounted. “And there was no way I was going to make that.” So, for the first month back they lived in an RV on her grandfather’s land.

The property managers would apologize and tell her she’d been rejected. “And they could do that because demand was so much higher than supply. If they don’t let me rent, they’re going to find someone else within minutes,” said Merino. Without a stable, permanent place to set up her family, balancing the responsibilities of single motherhood has been all the more difficult.

Home ownership has long been seen as the key to unlocking the “American dream.” And, owning a home in the suburbs was central to this illusion. The suburbs of the 1950s were like havens for what were thought of  “ideal” breadwinner-homemaker family types. American suburbs separated the Joneses from everyone else who couldn’t keep up. They were constructed as physical barriers of segregation during the initial white flight of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet most suburbs today look nothing like that illusion, although white flight still persists.

The 1950s stereotypes surrounding place-based, “urban” poverty are still deeply embedded in American policy and culture, preventing families from accessing affordable, safe housing key to their work-life stability and wellbeing. American suburbs were not designed to accommodate affordable housing units or the influx of renters who are now the norm, nor were federal housing policies designed to confront the suburbanization of poverty.

From 2011 to 2015, the number of renter households in suburban areas outgrew urban areas, and yet, the number of new apartments constructed in the suburbs lagged behind. Simultaneously, suburban rent prices crept closer to their urban counterparts. Aaron Terrazas, a Senior Economist at Zillow, an online real estate database, explains that urban and suburban home values fared similarly during the bust, both falling about 26–28 percent from peak. Urban home values, however, have recovered much better than their suburban counterparts. Since January 2012, the median home value per square foot is up 58 percent in urban areas compared to only 39 percent in suburban areas, which overturns long standing trends in suburban homes’ stronger appreciation and appeal.

For families there facing lagging incomes and growing poverty, depreciated home values only add to the increasing lack of economic opportunity in the suburbs. Property values as proxies for quality of life measures mean that suburbs with high concentrations of poverty and low property values may generate less property taxes for schools, jobs, parks, etc. Moreover, these areas may be seen as less desirable from an investor’s point of view, which contributes to a continued downward spiral.

For those millions of Americans who lost their homes during the recession, or never owned to begin with, their troubles are not over. The Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard reports that renters are likely to account for one-third of household growth, but the growth is uneven across income groups. Because the rental market hasn’t responded with enough housing options for low- and middle-income families relative to the influx of renters since the housing crisis, there are more families competing for limited rentals. Pressure on families to find an affordable place often ends up with them paying far more than they can and should, like Merino.

Recent findings from the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimate an average of 35 available units for every 100 low-income households across geographies. The report also found that 8 million extremely low-income renters are cost-burdened and forced to spend half of their income on rent. As urban markets become increasingly more expensive, housing opportunities for low-income renters are pushed further from urban centers into the periphery in the suburbs, increasing the distance between their jobs, social services, care networks, and transportation.


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