Myron Orfield has a radical solution to suburban sprawl - social justice.
by David Moberg
If Myron Orfield had ever stepped into the ring with Minnesota Governor
Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the former professional wrestler would have squashed
him in a second. Orfield is a clean-cut, 39-year-old lawyer with modest-sized biceps and a
soft-spoken manner. He is more comfortable with wonk talk about sewer pricing than bashing
people over the head with metal chairs.
The two have tangled, but only in the intellectual arena, where
the brainy Minnesota state representative has the advantage. A few years ago, Orfield
proposed that a portion of the property tax on the most expensive homes in the
seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul area be pooled to aid the region's less affluent areas,
and then-radio talk show host Ventura denounced Orfield on-air as a "communist"
- possibly forgetting that in the early 1990s, as mayor of the blue-collar suburb of
Brooklyn Park, he himself had approved of tax-base sharing. Now as governor, Ventura once
again promotes the feisty legislator's once-lambasted ideas. "Everyone calls you a
radical," Orfield reflects, "but by making bold proposals, you move the center.
Every day I wish I had more radicals, but in Minnesota there are five hundred people who
want to moderate a compromise for every one who raises the stakes. We need more people to
raise the stakes."
Orfield is radical about urban sprawl. He started out working on a range
of issues - enforcement of environmental laws, protecting wetlands, and reporting on toxic
chemicals - but eventually came to see sprawl as "more powerful and
overwhelming." Rather than approaching sprawl as an environmental issue only,
however, Orfield sees it as one of social justice.
Among major U.S. metro areas, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul
are the second least dense and the eighth fastest growing. As the number of poor people
and people of color increases in the urban core, most of the economic growth and new jobs
are concentrated in the suburbs. Even with low tax rates the suburbs can still afford
first-rate schools and amenities.
Footing much of the bill for the flowering of the Twin Cities' affluent
western and southern suburbs, however, have been residents in the older core, who have
subsidized them with more than $825 million in metro highway construction and roughly $6
million a year in sewer taxes. State and federal transportation funds, which might have
been used for central-city mass transit, were concentrated instead in outlying areas. In
addition, these new 'burbs, with only one-quarter of the region's population, captured
more than three-fifths of its new jobs. Deliberately exclusive by virtue of being zoned
for large lots and houses, they offer little affordable housing and virtually no public
The older neighborhoods, meanwhile, are left with aging infrastructure and
poverty. On the fringes of the downtown areas, as well as in older suburbs like Ventura's
Brooklyn Park, immigrants from Mexico, Laos, and Somalia crowd into rundown housing along
with African-Americans and American Indians. Needs increase in poor communities, but the
property tax base stagnates and schools are shut down - even as they are being built at a
frenetic rate on the outskirts.
These problems are not unique to Minnesota. Across the country, cities are
relentlessly gobbling surrounding farmland, open space, and wetlands, leaving impoverished
urban cores behind. America is a society that exalts the home as a spacious private
kingdom, where everything from the auto-centric transportation system to the tax structure
encourages cities to balloon outward. According to Federal Reserve Bank researcher Richard
Voith, the mortgage tax deduction alone lowers the density of U.S. metropolitan areas at
least 15 percent, increasing the size of lot that people are likely to buy and encouraging
restrictive zoning that divides high- and low-income communities. Local governments favor
large lots with expensive homes, because the owners provide ample property taxes for local
budgets but require fewer public services than poor residents do.
So social inequality drives sprawl, and sprawl in turn makes inequality
worse. Orfield has come to see sprawl as part of a massive interregional transfer of
"social wealth" (taxes and educated citizens, for example) that benefits the
most affluent communities, while "the people who are left behind have to pay."
Orfield discovered early on that the suburbs are not monolithic. The
older, inner-ring suburbs share many problems with the central city: disappearing
manufacturing jobs, eroding tax base, growing ranks of the poor. To illustrate which areas
had common problems, he created color-coded maps. Deep red, for example, represented more
than 10 percent poverty; those patches extended beyond the two core cities to nearby
suburbs like Inver Grove Heights and Robbinsdale and, surprisingly, popped out among small
fringe suburbs. Even newer suburbs for blue-collar or moderate-income white-collar workers
suffered from the lack of big houses or shopping centers to tax. In another map showing
the value of taxable property per household, the working-class suburbs north of
Minneapolis were the same red and tan shades as the Twin Cities - signifying low taxable
wealth per household - but the dark blue of the "favored quarter" southwest
suburbs reflected nearly twice as much taxable property value per resident. Together with
the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the losers in the metropolitan sprawl game
made up at least two-thirds of the region - a potentially powerful political coalition.
Orfield came to "metropolitics," as he calls it, via a
circuitous route. His parents were strong Roosevelt liberals who were active in the
Democratic-Farmer Labor Party. There was vibrant political talk around the house as he
grew up, and two of his older siblings were active in the civil rights movement in the
South. (His brother Gary went on to become an eminent sociologist of race relations at the
University of Chicago.) Myron studied history and political science, but took up law
rather than pursue an academic career. He gravitated toward the centrist Democratic
Leadership Council (home as well to Bill Clinton), and ended up running for the Minnesota
legislature from a traditionally liberal district in southwest Minneapolis, mainly white
and middle-class but also home to many low-income voters and a growing number of
He started out in 1991 as what he calls a "yuppie
environmentalist," concerned with the environment to the exclusion of many other
issues. But as he knocked at each of 17,000 doors of his district, he found his
constituents more worried about schools, crime, changing racial patterns, and increased
poverty - and considering a move to the suburbs.
Consequently, Orfield immersed himself in urban issues and secured funding
for the research on sewers, highways, and economic growth that later provided the
statistical basis for his anti-sprawl crusade. His aim was to break up concentrations of
poverty and rebuild the metro center by reducing the subsidy for exclusive new high-income
suburbs on the fringe. He wanted all municipalities to provide their fair share of
low-income housing or risk losing government aid. He proposed that all communities in the
region share the property tax on the value of any house above $150,000 - the notion that
so rankled Ventura in 1995.
For the most part, however, Ventura has supported Orfield's approach. As
mayor of Brooklyn Park, he backed Orfield's controversial plan to require all communities
to share in providing affordable housing. While Ventura and the mayors of other older
suburbs didn't necessarily share Orfield's goal of racial and class desegregation, they
still liked the idea, if only because it would relieve the pressure on struggling
neighborhoods like Brooklyn Park.
As governor, Ventura is throwing his weight behind many of Orfield's pet
causes - new light-rail mass transit, greater revenue sharing for schools, less sprawl,
and a stronger metropolitan government. "I'm one of the 'pointy heads,' "
Orfield boasts, referring to Ventura's anti-intellectual populism, "and I don't think
he's so bad."
Metropolitics is a particularly egalitarian brand of regionalism.
("Anything regional I embrace," says Orfield. "Anything that promotes
equity I embrace.") If taxes on the wealth that the region creates were shared more
equitably, he says, most people would pay less tax and have better government services,
and communities wouldn't wastefully compete for development. And ultimately, an equitable
regional economy would grow faster and be more productive, benefiting both rich and poor.
The National League of Cities has found that job growth is greatest in
cities that have the smallest gap between city and suburban incomes. In Cities Without
Suburbs, former Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor David Rusk made a revealing comparison of
cities such as Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio. Columbus was able to expand its boundaries
to annex its growing suburbs, and the residents of the city proper earned about
four-fifths of what suburbanites earned. Cleveland citizens, however, made only slightly
more than half as much as suburbanites. From 1973 to 1988, the number of jobs grew five
times faster and real income per person increased 50 percent faster in Columbus. Rusk's
conclusion was that "flexible" cities like Columbus (and Indianapolis,
Nashville, Madison, and Albuquerque) were likely to be both more egalitarian and more
Controlled regional growth pays off in other ways, too. Low-density sprawl
leads to taxes that are about 5 to 10 percent higher every year compared with compact
cities, according to research by Rutgers University professor Robert Burchell, because
denser development better uses existing public services, reducing costs of new highways
and water or sewer lines.
"If you allow [new suburbs] to draw off all the office buildings,
shopping centers, and other taxable businesses and all of the expensive homes, there's no
way the older suburbs can survive," says Orfield. "If you don't deal with fiscal
equity, there's no way you'll have a sustainable land-use system. The pressures will pull
it apart." If ways aren't found to share the region's taxes fairly, Orfield fears,
sprawl will increase as communities fight to capture tax-generating development.
In 1998, a Sierra Club study named Minneapolis-St. Paul the eighth most
sprawl-threatened region in the country. It might have ranked even higher had it not been
for the Metropolitan Council, the area's experiment in regional government. Established in
1967, the Met Council sets an "urban service" boundary, not so much to contain
growth as to steer it to areas where infrastructure is already in place. Environmentalists
like the council, as far as it goes; Peter Bachman of the Minnesota Center for
Environmental Advocacy calls it "a fantastic concept that's failed miserably in
implementation." In recent years, development has leapfrogged the Met boundary into
rural areas eager for more tax dollars. Orfield thinks he can get those counties to
cooperate with the Met Council - but only in exchange for a share of the regional tax
Orfield has taken his case for regionalism from conferences of suburban
mayors to basement meetings of inner-city church coalitions. His message is that
inner-city problems are related not just to the crack house down the street but to the
half-million-dollar dream home in a far-off suburb. "People don't immediately see the
issue of sprawl like they do closing down a crack house," says Jay Schmitt, an
organizer with the central-city-based Interfaith Action. But "the way [Orfield] laid
it out made sense."
Orfield's footwork helped him pull together successful legislative
coalitions. Yet Republican Governor Arne Carlson's opposition, including frequent vetoes,
often diluted Orfield's ideas by the time they made it into law. Five years ago, the
legislature did transform the Metropolitan Council from a planning agency with a $40
million budget into a $900-million-a-year institution with ultimate authority over sewers,
roads, transit, and airports. With Ventura's muscle behind the plan, the legislature has
approved spending $60 million next year for the region's first light-rail line. Ventura's
pick for chair of the Met Council, former state Senator Ted Mondale (son of the former
vice president), takes pride in having fought a sprawl-inducing relocation of the Twin
Cities airport. He has also threatened a cutoff of Met Council aid to a wealthy suburb
that has resisted affordable housing.
All parties credit Orfield with setting the legislative agenda.
"Myron laid out a position seen as radical, ultraliberal, way out ahead, but more and
more people agree with the analysis he made," says Russ Adams, executive director of
the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a central-city coalition of housing, transit, and
environmental activists. "They accept his diagnosis but not his prescription. He's
created a lot of middle ground for politicians." Even conservative Republican
Representative Henry Van Dellen, who says he favors "smart growth" but has
opposed most Orfield measures, says that Orfield is "ingenious, resourceful, and has
done more high-quality, well-researched, and original work as a legislator than
practically anybody I have known."
Now Orfield, running this year for the state Senate, is fighting to
include four more counties in the Met's tax-base sharing, turn the council into an elected
body, block a proposed highway in the southwest suburbs (and divert the money to mass
transit), and strengthen affordable-housing laws.
Orfield is not without his detractors. "Myron Orfield has a whole lot
of enemies in the suburbs," says environmentalist ally Bachman. "They think he's
the Devil incarnate." Yet the Devil has his supporters there as well; many members of
the environmentally focused 1000 Friends of Minnesota come from the well-off suburbs, and
two affluent St. Croix River Valley communities now require compact "cluster"
developments to preserve open space.
Orfield has found that rather than creating an explicitly anti-sprawl
coalition, he has to make do with a variety of groups that agree to link up on regional
issues while still focusing on their primary interests. "Each group has its own
reason to be involved," says Adams. "The faith community recognized land use as
a social-justice issue. Environmental groups were concerned with auto-dominated
transportation and the exponential growth that was gobbling up green space and
agricultural land and had implications for water quality." The threat to the region's
few remaining trout streams, in fact, prompted Trout Unlimited to join the fight against
some developments. "Catholic social-justice arguments are not always what
environmentalists look at," Adams says, "but there are instances where they're
In one successful 1997 battle, the inner-city religious coalition and
environmentalists helped win state approval for $68 million to clean up polluted
industrial sites, or "brownfields." Church-based community groups from the inner
city saw the issue as one of reinvestment and jobs; Orfield's analysis provided them with
a potent argument. "Our argument wasn't 'Help us, we're so poor,' " explains
Pamela Twiss, director of the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations. "It was
'Look at all the money for economic development in the suburbs compared with economic
development in the cities.' Let's just level the playing field."
For their part, says Adams, Twin Cities environmentalists saw the
brownfields issue as "an important way to stop sprawl, to keep businesses from
leapfrogging to green space, and to bring jobs to the cities - not something
environmentalists have traditionally talked about."
In another case, inner-city groups opposed a project that would have
replaced old but low-cost housing with pricier units, restoring a paved-over wetland in
the process. "The city council was taken aback when the Sierra Club showed up saying
that it was great to restore a wetland, but they shouldn't tear down the affordable
housing," Sierra Club State Director Ginny Yingling recalls. The campaign, she says,
broadened the Club's audience "to people who have an interest in social justice but
not the environment."
Yusef Mgeni, president of The Urban Coalition, supports Orfield's call for
more affordable housing in the suburbs, but he derides the notion of moving affluent
residents into poor minority inner-city neighborhoods and helping poor families move to
the suburbs. But john a. powell, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty
and law professor at the University of Minnesota, argues that most African-American
organizations have failed to see how urban sprawl has undermined gains of the civil rights
movement. "Much growth of suburbia was racially motivated," powell says.
"You can't solve these issues of concentrated poverty and racial isolation without
addressing sprawl and fragmentation."
Shortly before Orfield took office, Governor Carlson had proposed
disbanding the Met Council. Now, less than a decade later, there is widespread agreement
in the Twin Cities on the need to better control growth, on the desirability of more
affordable housing in the wealthier suburbs, new funding for mass transit, more regional
revenue sharing, fewer subsidies for the suburbs, and a much stronger Met Council.
"We've got an agreement on principles," says Orfield. "Now the question is
how fast do we go."
David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow of
The Nation Institute.