Monday, August 29, 2016

Our Schools' Tenement Complex?

Behold:  The suburban apartment complex.

Pick a suburban city; any suburban city in America.  The apartment complexes build in them starting in the 1970's tend to all look alike, whether you're outside Columbus, Ohio, or Fort Worth, Texas.

They may have different exterior touches, such as white siding in the Midwest, or stucco in the Southwest, but look at the floorplans, and the layout of each cluster of apartment buildings.  After a while, you can tell they're all pretty much the same, can't you?

One or two bedrooms, at least one bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a narrow balcony, maybe some meandering pathways leading to and from some parking lots and the outdoor swimming pool.  Ideal for young single adults, maybe young marrieds, maybe even some young families, with infants and toddlers who don't each need their own bedrooms yet, or a fenced backyard.

Back in the day, these apartments represented the basic rung on America's housing ladder.  Maybe an apartment for the college student who didn't like dorm life.  After college, an apartment for the swinging single until marriage, and after marriage, maybe until the first child or two.  Then the starter home, then the bigger move-up house, and then maybe even bigger and more expensive housing, depending on how far up the corporate ladder one was reaching.

And apartment complexes fit fairly well into this paradigm, providing adequate housing for people who didn't need much space and weren't planning on living there long.  Or raising a family there.  These complexes were built with laundry facilities and the requisite pool, but little else to suggest community or provide easy access to essentials like groceries.  Day care was some older divorced woman on the ground floor who only worked part-time, and could look after a couple of kids if young parents were stuck without their normal sitter.  Food, fun, work, dry cleaning, school, and everything else was accessible by car, after a drive around the complex and out the main entryway.

In that regard, apartment complexes are like the self-contained cul-de-sacs and subdivisions that have helped make the rest of suburbia inhospitable to the types of quick neighborhood trips city dwellers take for granted.  Although most of us have become used to climbing into our cars to get anything - the mail, fast food, designer coffee - the old city apartments, usually built atop shops, banks, and restaurants, were a lot more convenient.

But it didn't matter, back when developers built these ubiquitous apartment complexes.  Most apartment renters didn't have kids, and running errands in the car was a good excuse to get out of the lonely confines of their little leased rooms.

And while many singles still live in these suburban apartment complexes today, something unexpected happened on the way to this 21st Century.  The starter home that used to be the affordable launchpad for young American families has become unaffordable for many of today's under-employed or unemployed families - particularly those who live in or near large cities.  Besides, modern breadwinners who may have the shortest of criminal records, or maybe lacking proper immigration documents, settle for low-wage jobs that don't pay enough to even rent a small house.  Increasingly, families are being started - and they're staying, and growing - in apartment complexes.

And, in apartments not designed for families.  At least, not families with two or three kids, and maybe grandma from the Old Country.  They're not designed to function as neighborhoods; with basic services within easy reach.  Remember, originally, they were designed to serve as "crash pads" as their single renters worked, partied, dined, and socialized elsewhere.  Kitchens are small, with cheap, diminutive appliances ill-suited for serving many family members on a daily basis.  Compared with a mud hut in Africa or a reed lean-to in Papua-New Guinea, these apartments may be superior, but in terms of our Western standards for long-term accommodations, they become barely appropriate for the conventional family.

So what?  If you can't get a good job with a good salary, you have to be grateful for whatever housing you can find, right?  Who cares if it's an apartment or a starter home?

Economically speaking, it may not be a big deal.  At least in terms of people having access to what they can afford.  But this scenario with the apartment complexes may be creating some other problems that could end up costing the rest of us in the long run.

For example, take schooling, education, and the facilities for which school districts are required to plan.  Here in Arlington, Texas, between Fort Worth and Dallas, our school district is currently constructing some new elementary schools in long-established, aging neighborhoods.  They're not replacing older, outdated schools.  They're being built in addition to schools that already exist, buildings that were constructed back when the original development of these neighborhoods was under way.

Today, these areas are generally low-income, with property values that are low, which means that the housing is not exactly what the average American would describe as desirable.  Nevertheless, apparently, a lot of people are populating these neighborhoods, because this housing is the best they can afford.

The problem is that far more families are moving into these neighborhoods in numbers greater than what city planners originally intended.  Many are Hispanic, and Hispanics tend to have more children than Anglos.  Hispanics also tend to invite in-laws and grandparents to live with them, populating bedrooms with more people than this housing stock was expected to shelter.  The result?  Even though the neighborhood shouldn't need any more schools, all of these new families, crammed as they are into the old housing stock, are sending an unprecedented number of children to public school.

And the surprised school district has to make room for them.

I'm not particularly complaining, since I'm glad that these parents want their children to have an education.  Yet I'm guessing this is a big secret story that school districts can't publicize for fear of stoking racial tension, particularly here in Texas, with illegal immigration such a hot-button topic.  So our local school district here in Arlington is quietly building at least two new elementary schools that I know of in two different neighborhoods that have long been built-out.

One of the new schools is merely a block away from another, existing elementary.  It's being constructed on some former athletic fields servicing the neighborhood junior high school.  The other elementary school is being built smack-dab in the middle of several aging apartment complexes in the northern part of town.  Both of these neighborhoods are well-established with housing units that were never expensive or well-built to begin with; they've always been affordable, and even now even more so, since they're no longer new, or even new-ish, or trendy, or "desirable."

Meanwhile, in the older parts of Arlington that are more desirable, with better supplies of higher-priced single-family homes, the elementary schools in those areas are going begging for students, since much of the population is older, without younger children.

Fortunately, here in Arlington, we enjoy a relatively robust economy with lots of taxes generated by attractions other cities would love to have.  We have a Major League Baseball stadium and a National Football League stadium, plus a Six Flags theme park and a General Motors assembly plant that has never stopped expanding since it opened in 1954.  Our school district has been able to bundle these new construction projects in with other bond packages for voters to approve in a fairly innocuous fashion.

Over in a more affluent exurb of Dallas, however, the story is quite different.  The city of Frisco is one of the fastest-growing communities in America, and boasts a significantly higher standard of living than many Americans enjoy, with housing values much higher than most of Arlington's residential property.  They're new homes, built with the latest features, surrounded by perfectly-manicured parks, glassy office buildings, and lavishly-appointed shopping centers brimming with luxury retailers and those designer coffee establishments and wine bars so many people consider essential to their existence.

But despite all this appearance of wealth, the voters in Frisco's school district boundaries last weekend refused to approve a property tax hike.  In a city that prides itself in providing a high-quality public school system to appease parents with high expectations, denying a school tax hike has been something of a newsmaker in these parts.

It's one thing for residents of established cities to oppose higher taxes, but even here in Arlington, when the funding package that included these two new elementary schools was hotly contested, the funding request was eventually approved with the notion that only dying districts don't need more money.  And Frisco - of all the school districts in the United States - is definitely not dying.

The main reason voters gave for opposing the Frisco school tax increase involved concerns that their district has been wasting its already-lavish budget.  Voters publicly are saying that their district needs to cut down on some of its frills and re-prioritize its spending habits.  Yet in one corner of the Frisco school district - in an area outside of the actual city of Frisco - new apartment complexes are being built.  Lots of them.  And while the Frisco planning office has no control over them, many Frisco taxpayers are responsible for schooling the kids who are and will be living in these apartments.

And let's be frank; a lot of the kids who live even in brand-new apartment complexes here in Texas aren't white.  Okay?  See where I'm going with that?

Might Frisco voters - most of whom are white - have already gone there?

In theory, apartment renters fund the property taxes on their apartment with every rental payment they make.  So, in theory, all renters in these apartment complexes are paying the appropriate school taxes for Frisco, whether they've got kids or not.  And whether those kids will go to public school in Frisco or not.  Maybe some of those kids will be homeschooled, or attend a private school.

Yet with Arlington as an example, it's hard also to begrudge Frisco voters their concerns about apartment kids.  Not because those kids may not be white, or smart, or anything else.  Once again, it's a matter of economics.  But it can look awfully prejudiced.

Think about it:  Single-family housing dumps far fewer kids into a school district than high-density apartment complexes do.  And the taxes renters pay as a portion of their rent are only equivalent to the value of that apartment if it were sold individually on the open market - and most apartments are worth far less as a housing unit than any single-family home.

Many suburbs across the country purposely limit the base size of single-family homes and the number of apartment units a developer can build in their municipality.  Economically, cities have to budget for police and fire departments, and such budgeting is based on the number of people living in town - and what they're paying to live there!  And for most places, that calculation is based on property values.

Of course, polite people can't talk about this in public without being branded "hateful" or "racist."  Yet in the interest of poor families, isn't this something that we should be talking about?  Is the apparent transformation of the lowly suburban apartment complex from a glorified singles dormitory to poor family tenements something our society can afford to underwrite?  What is keeping these families from being able to afford the types of incremental housing we used to easily associate with American family life?  Does this new wrinkle in the fabric of American family life help prove that things aren't as good as they used to be for the rest of us, either?  Do these new concentrations of comparatively poor people also indicate, for example, that crime levels may be increasing in neighborhoods that used to be relatively safe?

Not that non-whites generate more crime.  But poorer people tend to.

America's tenements of old were mostly torn down after civic-minded activists began publicly decrying them.  Granted, even our old apartment complexes today were built according to far better zoning laws and building guidelines than those rickety urban slum habitations.  But has a new underclass of American resident - legal or not - moved into housing we presumed was occupied mostly by transitory singles?  Are dated assumptions about our country's housing stock being undermined and skewed by a subtle new reality?

I don't have answers to these questions.  And I don't know if there's anything particularly evil, undemocratic, or immoral with families taking over America's former bastion of the footloose-and-fancy-free set.  Is this a trend that will pass - eventually?  Or is this an indication of an economic decline in our society?

Then again, they say a lot of Millennials today aren't even living in apartments; they're camped-out in their parents' basement.  Do they really want to live there, or is the basement-dwelling Millennial an even darker portrait of America's housing situation?

I don't know - most houses here in Texas don't have a basement.

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