How the Suburbs Shaped America, and California Shaped the Suburbs

California is known for its sprawl, but the state may not be as suburban as people believe.

PUBLISHED FEB 28, 2023 1:38 P.M.
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Suburbia has become a defining feature of the California landscape. But what does the word really mean?

Suburbia has become a defining feature of the California landscape. But what does the word really mean?   David Shankbone   GNU Free Documentation License

Before World War II, Americans were mostly either city dwellers or country folk. As far as the suburbs went, only 13 percent of the population resided in communities defined as such. But once soldiers started coming home from the war, the entire American landscape changed—with startling speed. This continued and accelerated for decades, and by 2018, 52 percent of all households described where they lived as “suburban.”

Over that time, California, in particular, became stereotyped as a nightmare of suburban sprawl. But that’s a misconception, according to recent studies and statistics. In fact, a landmark 2014 study by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Smart Growth America found that California was one of the country’s least sprawling states. The regions anchored by San Francisco, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland all ranked in the top 10 “most compact, connected large metro areas,” with “large” defined as more than one million residents.

An analysis of 2020 U.S. Census data found that California’s urban areas had the highest population density of any state, even beating out second-place New York.

Stockton and Modesto placed fourth and seventh respectively among “medium” metro areas (between 500,000 and one million population) while Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz were the second and fourth most “compact, connected” among “small” (under 500,000) metro regions.

An analysis of 2020 U.S. Census data by the site New Geography found that California’s urban areas had the highest population density of any state, even beating out second-place New York. California, per the census, also had the highest share of its population living in urban areas, 94.2 percent. 

But wait a minute—weren’t we talking about suburbs, not urban areas? Therein lies a problem with understanding suburbia, and measuring the degree of suburbanization in any state or region. No one, least of all the U.S. Census Bureau, knows exactly what a “suburb” is.

What Is a Suburb?

The Census Bureau deals with the question of suburbia by ignoring it. A 15-page compendium of geographic terms published and used by the Census does not even include the term “suburb.” Instead, the Census Bureau starkly divides the country into two types of regions—urban and rural. And that’s it.

The data point that 52 percent of American households describe where they live as “suburban” comes from a 2017 survey conducted by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The survey asked respondents to place their own neighborhoods into one of three categories: urban, rural or suburban.

While professional planners can't agree on a single definition of suburbia, definitions can be found. “The use of the term suburb usually implies a few characteristics of the built environment: sprawling, low-density development; predominantly single-family residential uses; the separation of retail and commercial uses into strip malls, shopping malls, big box stores, and suburban office parks; automobile dependence; and long-distance commutes into the central city for work,” wrote the planning site Planetizen

While professional planners can't agree on a single definition of suburbia, definitions can be found.

However, when it comes to defining suburbs, “the exceptions are as common as the rules,” Planetizen wrote, noting that while suburbs are generally understood as separate jurisdictions outside of central cities, some suburbs do, in fact, exist inside of cities. Nor do all suburbs have smaller populations than the cities they surround. The population of San Francisco, Planetizen notes, “is far smaller…than its surrounding metropolitan area.”

Hard Data on Defining Suburbia

Jed Kolko, chief economist for the employment site, and three government researchers attempted to determine what people actually, in the real world, mean when they describe their neighborhood as suburban, in an exhaustive survey of 55,000 Americans conducted in 2020. 

Echoing findings in a smaller study conducted by Kolko five years earlier, the 2020 study found that the most reliable predictor of whether a respondent described a neighborhood as suburban (or urban, or rural) was, of course, population density. But there were other factors as well. According to a Bloomberg summary of the larger survey, “areas with higher median incomes were more likely to be called suburban. Areas with older homes were more likely to be called urban. Areas with lots of senior citizens were more frequently called rural.”

The study also contradicted the idea that suburbs must exist outside of cities. Almost half (47 percent) of households located within the limits of a central city nonetheless described their neighborhoods as suburban. 

How the Federal Government Created Suburbia

America’s demographic shift from a primarily urban and rural country to a suburban one was no accident. The government, using various types of housing subsidies, designed it that way.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the U.S. was still ensconced in a housing shortage that dated to the Depression. One-third of returning veterans reported living with family, friends or roommates who may be strangers. Deliberate government policies were quickly implemented to address the crisis, building crucial infrastructure such as highways to connect suburban areas to workplaces and urban centers.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) juiced the housing market, offering cheap, subsidized mortgages, often requiring little or no money down. Before the FHA and VA stimulus programs, aspiring homeowners were forced to put up down payments of, on average, 58 percent of a house’s purchase price before they were considered for a home loan. As one might expect, that limited home ownership to those of significant financial means.

The combination of low-cost home construction and cheap mortgages set off a tidal wave of homebuilding.

Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs, including creation of the FHA in 1934, changed all that, allowing mortgages to be stretched over 20 and 30 years with relatively small up-front payments. After the war, the FHA also started issuing low-interest loans to builders.

The combination of low-cost home construction and cheap mortgages—it became often less expensive to buy a house than rent an apartment—set off a tidal wave of homebuilding. But where to put all of these new houses? The FHA knew where it wanted them to go, and imposed strict conditions on construction and mortgage loans that guaranteed that the vast majority of new housing would go up on open land outside of urban centers—land which before had been used for farming or nothing at all. 

Racial Segregation Was Part of the Plan

Federally subsidized housing for Black people was restricted to the inner cities. 

While the FHA programs allowed three of every five Americans to afford a home, where previously only one in 10 could, the agency made sure that preference went to large houses on plots of land set back at least 15 feet from the street (the loan terms also dictated street widths) with lots of space for lawns and gardens. Those rules were also designed to promote the car as the primary mode of transportation, which gave a boost to one of the country’s then-newest manufacturing sectors, the automotive industry. 

The FHA rules also, very deliberately, were designed to promote racial segregation. Loans were often conditioned on the requirement that homes would not be sold to Black buyers. Federally subsidized housing for Black people was restricted to the inner cities. 

That was the politically progressive position of the era. The right-wing view was that Black people should be eligible for no public housing subsidies at all. In fact, when Pres. Harry Truman expanded the scope of the federal housing plan with the Housing Act of 1949, conservatives in Congress tried to kill the bill by inserting an amendment requiring new suburban developments to be racially integrated

The FHA required separation of land-use districts. The lovely new suburban homes could be located only in areas with other single-family residences. Businesses were not allowed, and in fact, the government’s desire was to cluster all businesses in a community into a single “shopping center.” It is hardly a coincidence, then, that America is both the world’s most suburbanized country, and also the country with more shopping  malls per capita than anywhere else. 

The overwhelming whiteness of suburbia, which was part of the federal government’s postwar plan, is also changing. California, the Los Angeles area in particular, had earlier set a pattern for racial segregation that was later copied in suburban developments nationwide, according to Gene Slater, author of the 2021 book Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America.

Slater, in an essay for the Los Angeles Times, noted that at the turn of the 20th century, racially segregated neighborhoods were unknown in American cities. “Where you could live, in L.A. and cities nationally, depended on where you could afford to live—not your ancestry,” Slater wrote.

That quickly began to change as developers of the proto-suburban subdivisions that soon characterized much of Los Angeles introduced race-based “covenants” into their contracts—clauses forbidding sale of homes in those subdivisions to persons of color. The then-new, high-end developments of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Hillhurst Park all came with deed restrictions, guaranteeing that those neighborhoods would be restricted only to “particular people.”

The New Demographic Face of Suburbia

Developers quickly realized that they could sell homes in middle-income subdivisions, such as Culver City, with the same racial restrictions, presumably making those homes more attractive to white buyers. And by 1913 even working-class neighborhoods were deliberately segregated, with the supposed intention of benefitting “the working man.” As if the only working men were white.

Los Angeles in that era was the country’s fastest growing real estate market, so it was not surprising that realtors and developers nationwide copied its methods, making the racial “covenants” the norm for any new suburban neighborhood in the U.S.

In 1948, a unanimous Supreme Court decision, Shelley v. Kraemer, held that racial covenants were unconstitutional, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The decision, unfortunately, did not stop real estate agents from engaging in the same sort of discrimination on an under-the-table basis. Not until Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 was racial discrimination in home sales made explicitly illegal.

54.3 percent of Black Americans live in suburbs, compared to just 36.6 percent in 1990

Though the covenants are not enforceable, their discriminatory language—banning the sale of homes, in many cases, not only to Blacks but to Jewish people, Asian-Americans and other minority groups—remains embedded in property deeds that date back to the era when they were legal and common in almost every state. California is one of the rare exceptions. But it took until 2022 for the state to put a law in effect requiring counties to remove the racist language.

With the turn of the 21st century, the face of the suburbs was changing, according to a 2020 Brookings Institute report. Suburbs now reflect the overall American trend toward increasing demographic diversity.

Whites had a big head start, meaning that even today, 76 percent of white Americans live in suburban areas, which Brookings defines rather straightforwardly as “the territory located outside of the primary cities of these major metro areas.” That’s less than three percentage points more than in 1990, three decades earlier.

By contrast, 54.3 percent of Black Americans live in suburbs, compared to just 36.6 percent in 1990. Latinx or Hispanic people have shown a similar flight to the suburbs, with 61.4 percent now living there compared to 49.5 percent in 1990. And while more than half of Asian-Amerians, 53.4 percent, were suburb-dwellers in 1990, 63.1 percent lived in suburbs as of 2020, according to the Brookings study.

Ever since World War II, America has shifted into a suburban nation. Now, the suburbs are finally starting to represent what the American people actually look like.

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