The Next Urban Challenge — And Opportunity

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In the next two years, America’s large cities will face the greatest existential crisis in a generation. Municipal bonds are in the tank, having just suffered the worst quarterly performance in more than 16 years, a sign of flagging interest in urban debt.

Things may get worse. The website Business Insider calculates that as many as 16 major cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco — could face bankruptcy in the next year without major revenue increases or drastic budget cuts. JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon notes that there have already been six municipal bankruptcies and predicts that we “will see more.”

Big cities face particularly steep challenges. Many, notes the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga, have extraordinarily generous compensation systems for their public employees. New York City, for example, owes nearly $65 billion in municipal debt, as well as a remarkable $122 billion for unfunded pension obligations.  President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago has it even worse: Its total public pension liability adds up to roughly $42,000 per household.

This all should give some pause to the relentless hoopla about the country’s supposed “urban renaissance.” The roots of the current economic crisis lie deep in urban economies, where employment growth that has lagged even in good times.  During the last economic expansion, urban job growth was roughly one-sixth that of suburbs and one-third that of smaller communities.

Population flows are also less favorable than commonly perceived.  Even since the onset of the Great Recession, the vast majority of urban regions have seen population continue to grow more robustly in the suburbs than in the urban core. Similarly, the largest increases in the much-coveted educated population continue to be in smaller, less dense urban areas such as Raleigh-Durham, Austin and Nashville and away from the largest, densest regions such as New York or Los Angeles.

True, many cities now boast more residential complexes, often built from abandoned office and industrial space, but there are few new office towers outside the public sector. Stadiums, convention centers, luxury hotels and other ephemera may gain public notoriety, but they have done little to boost the private sector economic base  as can be seen in the lack of growth in places like downtown Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore. In contrast, job growth has flourished  in low-density regions in suburban rings, particularly in fast-growing metropolitan regions of the South , particularly in Texas and Intermountain West locales such as Salt Lake City.

Initially, the Great Recession was widely held to have reversed this pattern. As private sector growth retrenched, companies pulled out of newer offices in suburbia, sometimes consolidating in downtown office. The Bush-Obama stimulus also bailed out the two sectors — finance and government — that drive employment in most inner cities. Meanwhile, suburbs, with their collections of small companies that have little political heft and depend more on home construction, suffered greater drops in occupancies.

This urban tilt was, until recently, reinforced by political trends. After the 2008 election urban interests had secured a degree of political power unprecedented in recent history. The White House was occupied by a confirmed urbanite who found suburbs “boring” and had little connection with small town residents. The president stocked his EPA, Housing, Transportation and Education bureaucracies with pro-urban advocates who shared his vision to re-densify a country that has been steadily dispersing for half a century.

At the start of the Obama presidency virtually every critical committee post in the House was controlled by urban Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi — such old lions as Henry Waxman, Barney Frank and Charles Rangel. In concert with an urban-focused White House, they constructed a stimulus tilted toward key urban interests: public employees, large universities, mass transit and high-speed rail systems.

Now the cities’ political ascendency has come to an end. Suburban and small town voters, who represented a large majority of the electorate, shifted heavily the November toward the GOP. Unlike the city-focused old Congress, the new GOP dominated House’s primary loyalty is to the metropolitan periphery as well as smaller cities and towns.

This shift will affect big cities across the country. Urban land speculators counting on a national  high-speed rail speed  and expanded rail transit networks to boost central cores now face a Congress more concerned with roads than ultra-expensive new trains. You can also forget the hundreds of millions ascribed for “smart growth” plans, which, in essence, seek to direct development and housing towards high-density urban areas.

Even more serious for cities will be the fiscal fallout from the new order in Washington. Pushed by the Tea Party base, the GOP-led Congress will unlikely provide bailouts to fiscally challenged states and cities. This will hit those big cities — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, –  located in heavily indebted states — New York, California and, arguably the worst of the pack, Illinois — the hardest.

There is widespread concern, bordering on panic, about how potential cutbacks in state spending could further savage already strapped city budgets. In California, for example, Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed scaling back of state redevelopment funds was described in the Los Angeles Downtown News as a “budget bomb” for the city’s widely hyped but already tottering downtown renaissance.

Yet these challenges also present an opportunity for cities. As one prominent urban booster, Brookings’ Chris Leinberger, has pointed out in a recent radio interview (KPCC-FM-NPR), many of the nation’s cities no longer require the assistance deemed necessary back in the ’60s and ’70s. As they have developed somewhat stronger downtown cores, lowered crime rates and reduced “white flight,” the stronger urban cores are better positioned now, though perhaps less so than the boosters believe,  to succeed on a market-oriented basis.

Even setbacks, like the largely failed condo boom, can turn into an advantage. No longer commanding high prices from the never-quite-materialized hordes of affluent “empty nesters,” the new units could provide a stock of lower-cost housing for the younger, educated and childless demographic attracted to urban core. Although most millennials consider suburbs their ultimate destination, a sizable number, roughly one in five, rank an urban center as their “ideal” location.

Cities need to break their reliance on outside help from a country that is, for the most part, not dense or urban. Future urban progress cannot rely on Washington’s largesse or diktats. Instead cities need to focus on how to create a greater competitive advantage in the demographic and employment marketplace. Rather than obsessing over government-driven employment, they have to create conditions that will lead to job creation in the private sector, particularly from the oft-neglected and usually politically impotent small business sector.  These include such things as relaxing some regulations, including taxes on home-based businesses, incubator centers and more consistent standards on building construction.

City governments will need to shift their priorities away from ephemera and concentrate on such basics as improving schools, promoting entrepreneurial growth and nurturing sustainable middle class neighborhoods. The current shift in political power away from cities may be painful at first, but it could prove the elixir that will turn the urban renaissance fantasy into something closer to reality.