By Guest Columnist JOHN MATTHEWS, a retired city planner who specialized in urban growth policy and a retired instructor at both Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and at Georgia Tech
Metropolitan Atlanta is seeing the creation of an increasing number of local governments; there are many new cities and more are sure to come. There is additional movement to allow creation of new small school districts tied to the new cities.
Local government in the Atlanta region is already highly fragmented with many local governments: Atlanta ranks 17th for high government fragmentation among the nation’s 942 urban areas.
In Atlanta, and in other metropolitan areas in the United States where many small local governments have been created, the driving forces are a desire to preserve a “special” local community, enjoy lower local property taxes, provide better public services, and address a general dissatisfaction with a larger general government currently providing services and levying taxes.
Rarely discussed is the downside: Fragmented political systems encourage inefficient competition among local jurisdictions, a process that often leads to socially and economically undesirable policies.
Cities steal malls and office parks from each other (see the fight between Tucker and Lakeside over North Lake Mall); fight tax incentive wars for new development, simultaneously reducing revenue and increasing demand for services; and zone out the poor – or just the less wealthy – for fiscal advantage.
Regional decision-making becomes more and more difficult with local jurisdictions seeking regional resources for their own projects and denying resources to others. The metro counties’ inability to set T-SPLOST projects in 2012 and current failure of needed transportation legislation are two examples.
Increased local government fragmentation – remember Atlanta is already highly fragmented and that creation of new cities means more fragmentation – leads to increased economic and racial segregation. Residential segregation is associated with undesirable consequences such as increased income inequality, poor or lower income and minority students, and inability of poor people to move out of poverty.
While perhaps not intentional, zoning is the tool used by local governments that creates class and – consequently, racial – segregation. Suburban cities and towns have used their zoning powers in exclusionary ways – allowing only single family houses on large lots and not permitting higher density houses and apartments – to preserve community character.
The Atlanta region ranks high in the use of exclusionary zoning. In Georgia law, a city must provide at least three services. Zoning is always one of the three services prospective new cities want.
Atlanta is highly segregated by income and, consequently, race. In spite of rapid African-American suburbanization, Atlanta’s segregation has been increasing over past decades with a rapid rise of concentration of poor people in segregated suburban and inner-city neighborhoods. As a result, although metro Atlanta’s blacks are less geographically concentrated near the urban core and scattered more widely around the metropolitan area, they remain highly segregated.
So what? Blacks living in more segregated, as opposed to less segregated, places do worse in schooling, employment, income, and incidence of single parenthood than Blacks in less segregated areas. On the other hand, the effect of segregation on whites is negligible; education and income outcomes are the same whether whites are in greater or lesser segregated places.
In Atlanta, which is highly segregated, we might expect to see a higher rate of these bad outcomes for blacks than in less segregated places. And – we do. Atlanta has the highest measure of income inequality of the 50 largest U.S. cities and, in recent years, the second highest increase in income inequality.
Not only is income inequality in Atlanta the highest among the nation’s largest cities, but the opportunity in Atlanta to move out of poverty is among the lowest. In the last 20 years, the metro area’s schools have become more segregated. Segregated schools have a negative influence on academic achievement and black/white achievement gaps. Among the nation’s 55 largest metros, Atlanta ranked 52nd in terms of the odds that its children born into low-income families would, as adults, reach the top 20 percent income group. Within the Atlanta metro, low-income children’s chances of reaching higher incomes as adults were worse in more segregated counties than in predominantly white ones.
In summary, as metropolitan areas become more governmentally fragmented there is a tendency for racial and economic segregation to increase; as segregation increases, income inequality increases; and poor education, social immobility, and family instability among the black population increases.
Atlanta is already highly fragmented and displays some of the highest rates of racial and economic segregation, income inequality, unequal education, social immobility, and family instability among its minority population. Increasing the number of local governments will not positively effect this situation; in all likelihood it will become worse.
Creation of new cities, and especially new school districts, should be approached with great caution and full awareness of all the public finance, regional governance, race and class consequences.
Late last year, a Georgia Senate study committee released a report addressing issues raised over the past few years regarding creation of new cities. The report did not address the issues issued here: Intergovernmental competition for development and taxes, difficulty initiating regional public investment, and increased economic and racial segregation and the negative impact of segregation.
Regional intergovernmental planning bodies, such as the Atlanta Regional Commission, and metro governments, such as those in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon can help address problems of competition, tax imbalance, and regional public investment. The metro governments on Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland are generally considered more successful at addressing these issues than is ARC, because they are governments with some regional governmental powers including limited taxes, service provision, and capital investment.
Over 30 years ago, then Gov. Carl Sanders urged the General Assembly to look at these two metro agencies as possible models for restructuring Atlanta’s governance. That advice should be taken now.
More than 200 communities in the United States have some sort of inclusionary zoning: A municipal or county zoning ordinance that requires a given share of new construction to be affordable by people with low to moderate incomes.
The City of Atlanta has been providing incentives for inclusionary housing development. It has an affordable housing policy and funding mechanism in place for the Atlanta BeltLine. The city is considering, and may soon bring forward, a mandatory inclusive zoning ordinance.
The General Assembly needs to study the problems the city is seeking to address with these policies in the context of requests for new cities and the issues creation of these cities raise.