A tale of two towns reveals tipping point for America's suburbs

Suburbs are becoming more diverse, with some embracing it, while others struggle to evolve. Here are the stories of two towns in Texas.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of a neighborhood association in Missouri City, Texas, presented a $500 check to the police department last October.

This Dallas suburb is perhaps closer to becoming Ferguson, Mo., than it would care to admit – and the story of how it got there holds lessons for the rest of suburban America.

McKinney is, in many ways, a classic snapshot of the American suburban idyll. The striped awnings and brick-fronted Victorian facades of the city’s historical downtown still speak to a small-town past, despite its 700 percent growth during the past 15 years. In 2014, Time magazine named it the No. 1 place to live in America.

Yet enormous change is percolating. There was a glimpse in 2015, when a white police officer pulled his gun after a skirmish with a bikini-clad, black teenage girl at a pool party that had spiraled out of control.

On the surface, the incident seemed dissonant. The median income in the neighborhood is $109,000. The residents of that part of town “are not the economically devastated people of West Baltimore or the repressed people of Ferguson,” wrote The Washington Post.

But there is another McKinney, too – the one on the east side of Highway 5, where less than half of residents are white and the median household income is $31,000. As McKinney grows, this racial and socioeconomic divide is growing starker.

Flash back 25 years, and Ferguson’s snapshot was the same – a middle-class white suburb on the cusp of becoming a far more diverse place. The white population fled, the city’s tax revenues plummeted, and what was left was a financially broken city fractured along racial lines. In 1990, Ferguson was 75 percent white, like McKinney is today; in 2010, the St. Louis suburb was 67 percent black.

Data show that this pattern has played out again and again. When suburbs become diverse, they tip, with white flight fueled by the perception that an increase in nonwhite residents will lead to a decrease in property values and school quality.

A 2012 study by the University of Minnesota even came up with a number for this tipping point: 23 percent. Suburbs that were at least 23 percent nonwhite in 1980 more often than not ended up being mostly minority by 2005, it found.

McKinney on the threshold

McKinney now sits right on that threshold and so is a laboratory for one of suburbia’s greatest challenges: how to break the white flight cycle. Diversity is coming; the share of Americans living in mostly white suburbs declined from 35 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010, the Minnesota study found.

Some suburbs, such as Pennsauken, N.J., or Missouri City, Texas, have embraced the transition. But they have stepped out of a comfort zone to do it, embracing cultural outreach and affordable housing. Ferguson has shown the stakes of failure, forcing many suburbs to confront difficult choices. 

Suburban integration “really has to be a lived experience,” says David Troutt, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law and a board member of Building One America, a group that advocates policies that support diverse suburban communities.

“It can’t simply be the statistical presence of people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds sharing the same space,” he adds. “They have to be neighbors in a real sense rather than anonymous strangers occupying similar space.”

The concern in McKinney is that the town is increasingly defined by strangers occupying the same area within the city limits.

The catalyst has been a population boom – from 21,000 in 1990 to 157,000 in 2014. While McKinney’s white population has been growing in numbers, it has been shrinking as a proportion. Yet this growing diversity has not meant integration. The white population is mostly concentrated in affluent subdivisions west of Interstate 75, creating what many residents call the east-west “divide.”

“There are thousands of these communities around the country,” says Paul Scully, executive director of Building One America. “They may be diverse on paper, but if you look at where the black people live, where the Latino people live, you’ll find they’re segregated.”

For resident Ada Simmons, “there are two worlds” in McKinney.

Ms. Simmons moved to East McKinney with her husband 10 years ago after being displaced by hurricane Katrina. While she has come a long way from the segregated Alabama town in which she grew up, where black and white students went to different schools, suburban life isn’t everything she expected. It’s not racial prejudice she feels. Rather, the east-west divide is about economic inequality, she and others say.

“What we know is people come here because they think they’re going to find the good life,” she adds. “But [sometimes], it doesn’t quite play out that way.”

‘Go back to your Section 8 housing’

McKinney’s two worlds have clashed most conspicuously over affordable housing. While the city had low-income housing on its east side, it refused to build such housing on its more affluent west side. This made “affordable low income rental housing in West McKinney unavailable to Black and Hispanic low income tenants ... [which] maintains the racial segregation in its neighborhoods,” wrote the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), which sued the city, in its complaint.

The lawsuit succeeded, but many of the more than 200 residents who packed a city council meeting in 2014 demanded the project be blocked or moved. Then, as the first development neared completion, a rowdy group of teenagers, most of them black, descended on a community pool in West McKinney.

While most of the party dispersed peacefully once police were called, one McKinney officer was caught on video throwing a 14-year-old black girl to the ground and pulling his gun on a group of teens nearby. Among the exchanges between a white woman and two black girls, according to BuzzFeed: “Go back to your Section 8 [public] housing.”

The “not in my backyard” reaction to public housing is hardly unique to McKinney, says Ann Lott, ICP’s executive director. What McKinney shows is that “the fights are being fought further and further away from central cities, as suburbs diversify not only racially, but socioeconomically,” she says. 

Statistics bear that out. Some 44 percent of America’s suburbanites live in racially diverse communities – defined as being between 20 and 60 percent nonwhite – according to the University of Minnesota study.

“Diverse suburbs represent some of the nation’s greatest hopes and its gravest challenges,” wrote coauthor Myron Orfield. “Integrated communities have the greatest success eliminating racial disparities in education and economic opportunity.”

“The interesting dimension to integration is the integration of whom and for how long,” says Professor Troutt of Rutgers. “The real challenge in the present and historically is how long you can maintain a statistically integrated community.”

Missouri City offers a different view.

Going on more than stereotypes

Like Simmons, Warrenson Payne moved from New Orleans to Texas, settling in Missouri City, just outside Houston.

“Blacks, we didn’t go outside our area. We were scared to,” he says of his time in New Orleans. But in Missouri City, “it’s completely different....”

Missouri City is the most diverse city in the most diverse county (Fort Bend County) in the most diverse metropolitan area (Houston) in the United States, according to research by Houston’s Rice University. The population is 41 percent black, 37 percent white, 16 percent Asian, and 15 percent Hispanic, according to census data. Ninety-four languages are spoken in its high schools.

It is the melting pot that McKinney looks on track to become.

But Missouri City has conspicuously embraced its diversity. Every year, on the first Tuesday in October, Missouri City hosts its “National Night Out” – a night when each neighborhood association in the city hosts a block party to get to know its neighbors, local representatives, and law enforcement officials. Ron Reynolds, the state representative for the city, attended one of the block parties – where residents of a mostly black neighborhood presented the city police department with a $500 check.

The regular contact with different racial groups – whether it’s police officers or just neighbors – “helps build trust and relationships,” Representative Reynolds says.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that when you have diversity you have more understanding and less prejudice. When people don’t interact with other people, the only thing they can go on is stereotypes,” he adds.

Tale of two counties

Elsewhere, different suburbs have shown dramatically the consequences of preparing – and not preparing – for diversity.

Maryland’s Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, is one of the most diverse counties in America and one of the most affluent. Its success can be traced to the 1970s, when it began implementing a series of laws designed to better integrate neighborhoods and schools.

A 1974 “inclusionary zoning” law required developers to include “moderately priced” units in their projects. The county has also divided its public school district into a high-performing “green zone” and a high-need “red zone,” where schools receive about $2,000 more in per-student funding.

In 2010, the county became majority-minority, and it had the 12th-highest median household income in the country in 2014.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s County next door has a similarly sized population but lags behind in median household income, median home value, and other measures. It also has a smaller tax base and a higher poverty rate, and receives more state aid.

Prince George’s County is not poor, but it is poor relative to most other suburbs around Washington. The gulf prompted its county executive to push for property tax increases last year.

After Prince George’s passed its own inclusionary zoning law in the early 1990s, it said it became a “mecca for low-cost housing,” and ended the program after five years. 

The problem, say experts, was that Prince George’s started too late and it didn’t coordinate its plan across county lines. The need for cooperation – instead of competition – among suburbs is great, experts add. Federal and state programs to promote low-income housing can actually make things worse if suburbs aren’t on the same page.

New Jersey’s Pennsauken Township, for example, began working to maintain diversity in the mid-1990s when signs of white flight started to appear. The city even advertised its diversity on billboards, newspapers, and brochures in nearby Philadelphia.

But when Medford, N.J. – a mostly white suburb nearby – offered to give the township its $3 million in state low-income housing funding in exchange for having the units built in Pennsauken, the township declined. Pennsauken worried that it would run into the same problems as Prince George’s. 

“I think it’s, for lack of a better word, morally wrong for a lily-white town to [pay] money so they don’t have to provide affordable housing for people of a different ethnic group,” says Rick Taylor, who was mayor of Pennsauken at the time.

One way to create a unity of purpose across suburbs is to share taxes in a regional pool, which is redistributed based on each community’s “fiscal capacity,” defined by property valuations. The Twin Cities did this in 1971, but it remains controversial.

Writing about a federal fair-housing program that included elements of such plans, Stanley Kurtz of the Sugar Land (Texas) Sun wrote: The Obama administration “has effectively annexed America’s suburbs to its cities. The old American practice of local self-rule is gone. We’ve switched over to a federally controlled regionalist system.”

For Simmons, a lot would be solved in McKinney if residents of all races and classes could interact as she was able to with the white families across the street from her – even in the segregated Alabama of her childhood. “Some of these things can be offset if we would basically get to know people,” she says.

Her parents grew up fighting for integration in the town, but they also made a conscious effort to reach out to the white families across the street, inviting them over to play in their backyard.

“When we step out into the world we take that [mentality] with us,” she says. “We just have to make these small moves.”

“I do see some attempts to integrate” in McKinney, she says. “But I still think we need to think deeper as to how we bring things together and why there’s that fear of coming together.”

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