Opinion: Suburban promise, or demise?

Suburban leaders and residents are at a crossroads. Suburban leaders and residents are at a crossroads. Photo Credit: Bloomberg

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In New York and many metro areas, urban and suburban populations are virtually trading places. More blacks, Hispanics and Asians are moving to the suburbs, and more whites are moving into cities their ancestors abandoned a half-century ago. The implications of the population shifts for suburban homeowners and public schools are rarely discussed, although much is at stake.

Indeed, suburban leaders and residents are at a crossroads and could go one of two directions:

Embrace the growing racial and ethnic diversity and enact policies that sustain diverse suburban communities and schools, or

OpinionGross: LI schools are separate and unequalCommentSubmit your letter

Allow suburbs to become even more separate and unequal in terms of race and income.

Our analysis of Nassau County's history, housing patterns, property values and public schools explains why the first path is not only the right choice, but the imperative one for the well-being of all suburbanites.

Unfortunately, Nassau's trajectory has been in the other direction since the 1960s, when blacks moved into Roosevelt, and whites fled to other suburbs. The patterns of segregation continued through the 1980s, as black and Hispanic families were steered by real estate agents and the housing market to a handful of communities.

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But in the 1990s, the federal government and the banking industry promoted the expansion of mortgage lending and home ownership, enabling more blacks and Hispanics to move to suburbia. From 1999 to 2012, the number of Nassau school districts with student populations that were almost entirely black and Hispanic increased from seven to 15, while the number of racially diverse districts (between 40 and 79 percent white) increased from 16 to 24.

Today many of these diverse school districts continue to be in flux, as more black, Hispanic or Asian families move in, and white middle-class families, especially those with school-age children, either flee or simply don't look for homes in these suburbs. In our interviews with real estate agents and local officials, we found this to be happening in places like Valley Stream and Malverne. Older white residents who no longer have children in public schools are more likely to remain, but their fixed incomes make them less likely to support increases in local school budgets. This, combined with New York State's 2 percent property tax cap, has produced particularly serious fiscal challenges in these districts as their student populations and educational needs change.

Further, even in districts where test scores have remained constant as the student population has changed, the perception of the quality of the schools has declined as white families have left.

 

Our research demonstrates that recent home buyers in Nassau who put school district "reputation" highest on their priorities were most likely to move into an 80 percent white school district, regardless of test scores. They were also willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more for a house in these districts than they would have paid for a similar house in a more diverse district. Thus, despite proclamations of "colorblindness" in the United States, race still matters when it comes to school district reputations and the value of similar homes in one district versus another.

We also learned that when the housing bubble burst in 2007, home values in majority black and Hispanic Nassau County school districts, including Uniondale, Roosevelt and Baldwin, declined by more than 25 percent between 2007 and 2010. Meanwhile, homes in school districts with black and Hispanic enrollments below 10 percent, such as Oyster Bay, Locust Valley, and Syosset, experienced only a 3 percent decline.

Our research confirms, therefore, that a self-fulfilling prophecy ensues once racial change occurs within a school district: as the schools' reputation declines, along with property values and tax revenues, more white and middle-class families leave. This cycle will play itself out again and again without measures to end it.

The long-term viability of these rapidly changing suburban communities, therefore, relies on new attitudes about the value of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity -- changes we are starting to see in national opinion polls, especially among young adults or millennials, between 18 and 32 years old.

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But positive attitudes are not enough. Sustaining racially and ethnically diverse communities and public schools is hard work that goes against many trends.

Local leaders and their constituents must embrace the new demographics of suburbia and promote their communities as places where forward-thinking people want to live. Real estate agents, developers and zoning boards should ensure residential populations remain racially, culturally and economically diverse and relatively stable within each school district. Infrastructure, including downtown areas, must be maintained, and moderate-income housing should be scattered so that particular neighborhoods do not become "less desirable."

Within racially diverse suburban schools, educators and parents need to resist defining "good" schools based solely on test scores and correlating reputation with race. Such narrow measures devalue schools with students of different backgrounds. Racially diverse schools may have somewhat lower scores, but they can better prepare children for culturally complex colleges and work environments.

 

There are difficult choices to be made in suburban counties on Long Island and elsewhere. One choice is forward-looking and can foster diverse, vibrant and sustainable suburbs. The other will perpetuate current patterns of segregation and inequality. The first option has been the road less traveled, but it is clearly the road to take now to fulfill the suburban promise of an increasingly diverse democracy.

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