The Twin Cities have a problem: Entry-level jobs are mostly available in the affluent suburbs, while entry-level workers frequently live closer to the urban core. On July 14, a Star Tribune article (“Job recovery? Yes. Shorter commutes? No.”) discussed this imbalance. But by characterizing the geographic mismatch as a “transit equity” problem to be fixed with infrastructure, it missed the heart of the issue. There are two plausible ways to bring workers to jobs, each representing a starkly different vision of the region’s future.
The first solution, discussed in the earlier article, is to rely almost exclusively on transit to fix the problem. It envisions areas like north Minneapolis as warehouses for the poor. From these places, we must export thousands of workers daily to far-flung suburban shops and restaurants. This solution, which does nothing to reduce persistent concentrations of poverty in the cities and first-ring suburbs, nonetheless costs billions.
In this timid future, the Twin Cities remain much as they are today, with steep geographic divisions between the haves and have-nots. The underprivileged are trapped in distressed neighborhoods, where nearby job prospects are scarce. They continue to suffer poor health outcomes, and frequently can’t get a loan for a house or business. Perhaps worst of all, their children attend underperforming schools, where many run afoul of the law or do not graduate, ensuring that the cycle of poverty repeats endlessly.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to connect these workers to jobs. New affordable housing also brings families into the prosperous suburbs — permanently. Instead of braving a three-hour daily commute, workers could live near their employers, in the same high-opportunity communities as wealthier Minnesotans. Their kids could attend strong schools, with plentiful academic resources and support networks. Exposure to a diverse mix of co-workers, peers and neighbors could help break the economic and racial isolation that entrenches poverty and leaves poor neighborhoods bereft of opportunity.
The Metropolitan Council shows every indication of steering down the first path and away from the second. Minneapolis and St. Paul contain 65 percent of the subsidized housing available to the very poorest families. Economically and racially isolated neighborhoods in the cities and inner suburbs also receive the lion’s share of state and regional funding for new affordable housing, while places like Edina, Orono and Minnetonka are ignored. In the past, the Met Council implemented “fair share” policies that brought affordability to the wealthy suburbs; today, it has reversed course and is considering a new housing plan that removes restrictions on suburban exclusionary zoning. Partly to blame are its criteria for evaluating housing performance, which heavily emphasize access to transit — a consideration that, predictably, rewards Minneapolis and St. Paul despite their concentrations of poverty.
If transit always creates opportunity, it’s difficult to explain why some of the most densely transit-connected neighborhoods in the state are also some of the poorest. Trains and buses alone are not enough to reverse a family’s fortunes; the ability to commute to a distant job is no substitute for the option to live in a less-neglected environment.
Bad housing policy has even contributed to the emergence of “transit equity” as a stumbling block for bus and light-rail planning. Absent a regional effort to site affordable housing near entry-level jobs, it has become ever more important that transit lines act as a conduit between low- and high-opportunity neighborhoods.
With the Met Council conducting negotiations on future transit lines and formulating a new housing policy this fall, the region stands on the cusp of deciding between these two potential courses. Must its future be the same as its past, with lower incomes heaped into urban ghettos? Our cities’ living patterns, with their attendant clusters of poverty and opportunity, are not immutable or eternal — but neither will they improve without directed effort. It is imperative that the council pursue sustained investment in suburban affordable housing and reject the dreary assumption behind its present course — that people with lower incomes belong in the inner city, and will always return there eventually.
Will Stancil is a researcher for the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota.