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Job sprawl hurting minorities and the poor in suburbia

As distance between jobs and people grows, suburban residents without cars have less access to employment

COMPTON, Calif. – Aida “Didi” Nuñez used to have a car and a job she could drive to. Then she lost her job at a community center when funding dried up. And then she had an accident and lost her car.

For eight months, Nuñez, who lives in Athens, a close-in suburb on the south side of Los Angeles, struggled to find work that she could get to without a car.

“I didn’t have transportation anymore,” said Nuñez, 44.

The distance between jobs and residents of metropolitan areas is growing as suburban sprawl continues its spread, creating mounting challenges especially for minorities and low-income residents.

The number of jobs within typical commuting range of suburban residents dropped 7 percent between 2000 and 2012, more than twice the decline experienced by the typical city residents, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The drop is of concern because unemployment rises when jobs are far away.


Aida "Didi" Nuñez, a resident of the L.A. suburb of Athens, commutes an hour each way — taking a bus and two metros — to work at a community career development center in Compton.
Haya El Nasser

Almost 60 million suburbanites don’t live near jobs compared to 33 million city residents. And those who live in high-poverty, majority-minority neighborhoods – many of them in suburbs – experienced particularly pronounced declines in their proximity to employment.

In more than 60 percent of neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent and 55 percent of majority-minority neighborhoods, jobs are getting farther away. 

“It’s important especially for these suburban poor populations,” said Natalie Holmes, co-author of the report, the first to focus on the impact of job sprawl on suburbanites as opposed to central city residents.

By 2010, the majority of every major ethnic and racial group and the majority of the poor lived in suburbs for the first time.

But the number of Hispanics living near jobs fell 17 percent last decade and 14 percent fewer blacks live close to employment compared to 6 percent fewer whites, according to the report.

Since the 1990s, jobs in suburbs have outnumbered jobs in central cities, according to Robert Lang, urban affairs professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

But many of the jobs followed higher-income residents to “favored quarters,” he said. Retail and offices settled in higher-income neighborhoods. So while the movement of minorities to suburbia that accelerated the last 20 years sent hopeful signs of a rising middle-class, many minorities settled in poorer, inner-ring suburbs that did not attract employers.

“That’s the favored-quarter effect,” Lang said. “You’re worse off because you move out in the wrong direction.”

That’s why, even in metro areas where the overall number of jobs increased, residents’ access to these jobs has declined. Thirty-seven of the 96 largest metro areas enjoyed jobs increases but a decline in proximity to work. Only 29 metros improved employment proximity to the typical resident.

For example, jobs in Phoenix and its suburbs grew almost 11 percent since 2000 but the number within commuting distance fell nearly 17 percent.

“You might think moving to the suburbs for better schools is good for poor people but that’s not the case,” Holmes said. “Your car breaks down. You lose your job and I’m afraid people don’t have real options nearby. They’re left between a rock and a hard place.”

Biggest impact on minorities

In minority-majority suburbs of Los Angeles such as Compton and Downey, where most residents are Latino, proximity to jobs fell more than 13 percent while the number of jobs in the vast metropolitan area dropped only 4 percent.

“If you get hired and can’t get there, that’s a really big issue,” said Rusty Hicks, executive secretary treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 300 unions and more than 600,000 workers. “The greatest asset that we can build in Los Angeles and southern California is really with mass transit … link workers from where they live to where they work.”

In 2008, Los Angeles voters approved a sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. The result is a vast expansion of the metro system that will eventually connect downtown to major centers on the west side and extend another line deeper into the South Bay.

The Metro Board recently adopted a plan to connect workers to transit hubs that can take them to jobs beyond the region’s typical 8.8-mile commuting distance.

Building metro hubs is a first step but housing near transit tends to jack up property values. Apartments and condos that sprout up along transit lines often are out of reach of lower-income residents. The Metro Board is planning to set aside at least 35 percent of units built on Metro-owned land for affordable housing.

‘You might think moving to the suburbs for better schools is good for poor people but that’s not the case. Your car breaks down. You lose your job and I’m afraid people don’t have real options nearby.’

Natalie Holmes

Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Nationally, there is a small but growing movement of large employers moving jobs closer to transit lines.

“Metro is on schedule to complete 30 years' worth of system upgrades in 10 years, including extensions of light-rail lines and adding new stations all over the county and these projects are connecting areas of affordable housing with jobs,” said Lawren Markle, director of public relations and marketing for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

State Farm, one of the country’s largest insurance companies, announced it would expand regional offices in three cities – Tempe, Ariz., Atlanta and Richardson, Tex., north of Dallas.

And a growing number of metro areas, including Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis, have created regional plans that combine economic development with housing and transportation needs. Many are using job proximity metrics.

“Employers and developers and others have picked up on the need,” said David Goldberg, a vice president at Smart Growth America, a coalition that advocates for less sprawl and promotes public transportation. “Lower-wage workers are moving farther out and some of the growth we’re going to see is accommodating some of those folks."

One bus, two metros, one hour

Reynold Blight, who runs the Community Career Development Inc. center here in Compton, sees clients every day who face transportation challenges.

Aside from training workers in a variety of jobs from industrial to secretarial, the center has to provide bus tokens, metro vouchers and even gas cards that can help job seekers pay a friend to take them to work.

One of them was Nuñez, who came to the center to find work. She was lucky to be hired by the center itself where she is now a job developer and case manager.

Nuñez still doesn’t have a car. With the help of vouchers, the mother of two takes a bus from her Athens neighborhood, then transfers twice on the metro and walks 15 minutes to work. Total time spent commuting: one hour each way.

“A lot of the jobs were very, very far way and it’s unbearable to think of getting there,” she said.

When job searching, she would get a call at 2 p.m. to show up for an interview an hour later, an impossible proposition.

“It’s a big challenge, especially in Compton where there’s a dearth of employers,” said Gloria Moore, executive director of Community Career Development Inc. “We had job openings in San Bernardino for $19 an hour but how do residents of Compton get to those jobs?”

Offering affordable housing along transit lines is crucial, she said.

“We’ve been talking about it for years and years and years,” Moore said. “It’s not happening at the pace we’d like.”

In El Monte, a suburban community east of Los Angeles, several hundred jobs were lost the last decade as manufacturing facilities shut down, including the Ball Mason jar plant on a 26-acre site since the 1940s. Most residents worked locally.

“We had a city that had a good industrial core and we saw these really solid jobs going away,” said Minh Thai, economic development director for the city.

The city is fortunate. It has good access to public transportation, including the largest bus transit station west of Chicago. It is also the Metro Silver Line’s eastern terminus.

Thai says that most residents now travel long distances to work. The Brookings report shows that proximity to jobs declined about 10% for many El Monte residents since 2000.

Latresa Polk lives in Compton and has been working temporary jobs in customer service near Los Angeles International Airport.

“I would catch a bus or sometimes go with a co-worker,” said Polk, 39.

She is now training to become a security guard and expects the job to be in Norwalk to the east or Torrance to the west. Buses or the metro will get her there.

“It’ll be a good 45 minutes,” Polk said.

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