The Democratic Party’s triumphal romp through suburbia was the big story of the midterms.
In 2016 the suburbs, home to the majority of American voters, voted 50 to 45 for Donald Trump; this year, 52 percent went Democratic. In affluent suburban districts once controlled by the GOP—outside Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia, and in Orange County, California—long-held GOP seats flipped and are unlikely to flip back unless Democrats alienate their new constituents by seeking to destroy suburban life.
The suburbs are where most Americans, including roughly four in five residents of our largest metropolitan areas, live. Historically, they have favored Republicans in most elections. But that tie has been weakened for reasons including the growing diversity of these areas and revulsion at Trump, particularly among educated women.
The trouble, however, is that progressives, for the most part, love density and disdain suburbs. They have recently espoused calls, for example, to ban single-family zoning altogether in deep blue Minneapolis—with the entire state of Oregon considering a ban of its own.
The assault on single-family homes grows, at least in part, out of the identity politics that now dominate progressive politics. From Roosevelt through Clinton, progressives had pushed programs and incentives that made it possible for more working- and middle-class people to purchase a home. “A nation of homeowners,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed, “of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.” Homeownership, he saw, was critical, not only to the economy but to democracy and the very idea of self-government.
This focus began to shift under President Obama, whose HUD Secretary, Julian Castro, sought to socially reengineer suburbs deemed insufficiently diverse—even without any proof of discrimination. In California, San Francisco State Sen. Scott Wiener, backed by the tech oligarchs and operating on the notion that more high-rise projects would dramatically reduce car usership and lower real-estate prices, has sought to strip zoning authority from local jurisdictions that protect their existing single-family houses.
The Democrats’ dilemma is how to reconcile the interest of largely married, middle-income suburban homeowners with their rock-solid activist base of city-dwellers, who tend to be renters and childless. Suburbanites, for example, tend to be less interested in public transportation than media people who live in New York City, and more interested in improving the roads they take to work.
To be sure, the pressure on these newly elected suburban Democrats to abandon their new constituents could be intense. Victoria Fierce, one of the leaders of the tech-funded YIMBY pro-density lobby in California, favors relentless densification because it promotes “collectivism”—thinking that also, incidentally, formed urban planning orthodoxy in the late, great Soviet Union. Lily Geismer, an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, thinks suburbanites should be punished for their “hoarding” of everything from their children’s education to the clear skies where big new developments should be erected.
Other progressives see single-family houses as inherently racist, an accusation that increasingly defines the political agenda of the modern left. They cite clear evidence that many communities had employed zoning to keep out African-Americans, Latinos and, in some places, Jews. Yet such policies have been illegal for decades.
If single-family homes are inherently racist, then so are many minorities. Since 2000, the vast majority of African-American, Latino and Asian growth has been in suburban and exurban areas, while core cities, like Chicago, have seen significant black flight to the suburbs.
The Coalition to Kill the American Dream
The progressive dream centers on a vision of a dense, egalitarian urban core. Yet in terms of inequality, dense core cities—notably New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco—are generally far less equal than lower density areas. As for what place attracts families, it’s not even remotely close: People living in suburbs and exurbs are far more likely to have children in their household. The 8 percent of core residents with children aged 6 to 17 is barely a third of the percentage in suburbs and exurbs.
This may be critical for the political future as millennials, born between 1980 and 1999, reach their peak child-bearing years, and continue moving to the suburbs in huge numbers. While most media and academic thinkpieces focus on the glory of density and planning, over 80 percent of all purchases in 2018 by people under 37 are of single-family homes. San Francisco or downtown Los Angeles do not attract anything like the numbers of millennials as places like the much disdained Inland Empire, located in suburban and exurban San Bernardino and Riverside countries and now the fastest-growing U.S. metro area for new millennial residents, according to data from RCLCO, a real estate analytics company.
So, who is against the idea that millennials, minorities and immigrants should get a crack at the American dream? If it were just addled planners and gentry environmentalists like Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer, Republicans could identify with a middle-class resistance. But the new residential feudalism—where only a few can afford property and most remain lifetime rent serfs—also enjoys wide support from the monied on Wall Street, where investors embrace the notion of “the rentership society.” Groups favoring forced densification, notes The Nation and Dissent writer Zelda Bronstein, like to portray themselves as grassroots but often get much of. their funding from real estate interests and tech oligarchs.
Forced density advocates have also won over intellectual allies on the right, mainly from libertarian “free market” conservative foundations such as Cato, Mercatus and Heritage. These groups, notes long-time urban planning critic Randall O’Toole, have persuaded themselves that deregulating urban space will help lower prices, even when done in conjunction with shutting down suburban growth.
The reality is far different. In virtually every market where density is promoted and suburban growth constrained, prices tend to rise far faster than in less regulated markets. Density and urban growth can still be developed in many cities: South Dallas has more open land than the entirety of Manhattan. Taking advantage of open land for diverse kinds of housing does not devastate existing, stable middle- and working-class communities . Fear of displacement by development may be the biggest reason why San Francisco Sen. Wiener’s oligarch-backed densification efforts met such strong opposition even in Berkeley, heavily-minority South Los Angeles and East L.A.
Is there a suburban politics?
Whatever party figures out how to appeal to suburban voters will own the political future. To be sure, millennial suburbanites may be for attracted to the greater diversity in some suburbs, and to those with existing or created walkable “town centers.” But they also want tree-lined streets, backyards and single-family homes. Since 2010, some 80 percent of millennial growth has been in suburbs and exurbs—which is where most millennials have said they’d prefer to live in survey after survey.
No one moves to the suburbs to recreate the congestion, high prices and often political dysfunction of the urban cores. Schools are a critical factor: suburbs are. far more family-centric, which leads to a focus not on ideology but economic issues such as health care, education, and public safety.
However much they might detest Trump, suburbanites are not likely to rally long-term to a party that seeks to wipe out their way of life. The assault on suburbia, both from the ultra-capitalist right and socialist-minded left, neglects the very reasons—space and privacy—people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Just as Republicans can ignore the unintended consequences of ultra-free market policies, Democrats ignore the aspirations of their own voters.
More important still, the anti-single-family campaign undermines the foundation of our democracy. The essence of American civilization has been the pursuit of a better life for oneself and one’s family. Take away the ability to own one’s home and we are well on our road to a neo-feudal society where the masses will need to rely on the state not only for housing but, without meaningful assets, to finance their retirement.
The clamor to restrict single-family homes and thus push the American dream further out of many Americans’ reach, represents an assault on what both parties once espoused. An America without widespread homeownership is no longer an aspirational country, but a place where people remain imprisoned by their class and unable to pursue what they perceive as a better quality of life.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book is The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.