Moving to corn fields

Cleveland isn't the only Ohio city
suffering from outmigration

A terrible sucking soundcan be heard throughout Ohio, and it's not just Ross Perot's sound of jobs moving to Mexico. It's the sound of people abandoning the state's major cities.

For the most part, these people aren't going far. Many of them are just moving out from the central city to the suburbs.

In previous issues we've covered the destructive outmigration from Cleveland, which could lose an additional 18% of its population in the 1990s. Now researchers from seven Ohio urban universities are documenting similar trends in the state's other metropolitan areas. The city of Youngstown, for example, could lose 27% of its population in the 1990s. Dayton could lose 21%, Akron 15%, Toledo 10% and Cincinnati 3%.

Such predictions of decline are not welcomed by civic boosters. But the losses will happen unless there are dramatic changes in metropolitan housing markets and the location of public investments.

At the annual meeting of the Ohio Planning Conference in 1993, Thomas Bier of Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs outlined the problem facing most of Ohio's big cities. Outmigration is fueled when more new homes are built in the suburbs of a metropolitan area than there are new households to occupy them. The surplus of housing means that less desirable houses are abandonedusually the older, lower-priced housing in the city.

"This means that the population left in the central city is the population of the metropolitan area that does not fit into the suburbs," Bier says.

In the case of Greater Cleveland, he adds, "In another 40 years, if we keep sprawling the way we are, we will empty the City of Cleveland, and all the inner suburbs will be in decline as residents with stronger incomes move farther out. Then the county will be in trouble. And if the county is in fiscal straits, the entire region is likely to be worse off."

(Columbus is an exception to this pattern because it has been able to keep annexing land. As a result, much new housing in its metro area is still being built within the city limits. In other words, Columbus is sprawling like mad, but the sprawl is largely in the city.)

According to Bier and his colleagues, suburbanization in Ohio has reached the point where it requires immediate, serious attention from all levels of government. In addition to working on the urban problems that push people out of the cities (crime, schools, racism, etc.), new housing must be built in the central cities to balance suburban construction.

"Central cities need to capture at least 20% of the new housing market...Cities that can't build new housing are trapped in inescapable decline," Bier says.

To accomplish this, local governments in each metropolitan area need to jointly plan where new housing ought to be built in the coming decades. Then they need to develop a strategy for turning the plan into reality. It has to be a regional effort.

In addition, the state and federal governments must rethink their role in the shaping of metropolitan regions. They must realize how they currently support suburbanization (through road improvements, mortgage assistance, school funding and other programs). And they must decide how to support more housing development in the central cities.

"Government policy is a massive force favoring edge development," Bier adds. "Currently, there's little balance in government support of edge development and redevelopment in the core."

He estimates that the City of Cleveland needs to gain about 2,000 new homes every year for the foreseeable future. And some of it has to be higher-priced housing, so people are able to move in toward the core when they move up to a better home.

The City of Cleveland and its neighborhood-based housing organizations are working hard to close the housing gap. The nonprofit Cleveland Housing Network rehabbed 1,000 abandoned homes since 1981 and hopes to double that number in the next few years. Another 1,144 units of new housing were built in the city between 1990 and 1993, and several major housing developments, such as Mill Creek and Church Square, are breaking ground. Cleveland Mayor Michael White even dreams about 10,000 new units downtown by the year 2000.

The question will be whether such efforts generate the numbers needed to stem the tide of outmigration and urban decline. Can the land be assembled quickly enough? Can the buried foundations be cleared away? Can possible environmental contamination be cleaned up? Can the financing be found (especially when local governments have been stretched thin by Gateway and other downtown developments)?

Other major cities in Ohio face similar challenges. By identifying the outmigration trends around the state, researchers like Bier hope to raise awareness and develop a statewide constituency for action.

Indeed, this is an issue for everyonefor residents of the central cites and the suburbs. It's an issue that affects our social well-being, economic health and the environmental health of whole regions.



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In another 40 years, if we keep sprawling the way we are, we will empty the City of Cleveland, and all the inner suburbs will be in decline as residents with stronger incomes move farther out. Then the county will be in trouble. And if the county is in fiscal straits, the entire region is likely to be worse off.


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