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Promoting Inclusive Urban Growth: A Call To Action

February 5, 2019 5 minute Read by J.H. Cullum Clark
Many U.S. cities face growing challenges in building economies in which each generation lives better than the one before. Learn what steps city councils, businesses, and nonprofits can take to course correct.

Many U.S. cities face growing challenges in building economies in which each generation lives better than the one before. A significant part of the challenge is rooted in home affordability, as lower- and middle-income people increasingly can’t afford to live in high-opportunity areas and are seeing more of their income consumed by housing costs. The urban middle class is shrinking, and cities are becoming bifurcated into “have” and “have-not” neighborhoods.

 These patterns pose a threat to upward mobility, for three reasons. First, when lower- and middle-skilled Americans live far from high-opportunity areas it’s difficult for them to access to good jobs, particularly in highly productive, knowledge-rich cities. Also, families in areas with low “social capital” –high poverty and low neighborhood cohesion, civic engagement, and home ownership – tend to have worse school and life outcomes, even controlling for a family’s own circumstances. 

Second, high urban home prices are driving down home ownership rates, depriving working families of a valuable hedge against rising rents and a path toward building wealth. This problem is especially acute among African-American and Hispanic families, whose median net wealth has declined significantly over the last decade to approximately $4,000 and $6,000. The median for white families is just over $180,000. 

And third, surging housing costs leave less for education, health and wellness, and new businesses. 

To address these issues, the George W. Bush Institute recently held a symposium on “Policies to Promote Inclusive Urban Growth,” in conjunction with partners at SMU’s Folsom Institute for Real Estate and the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Seven panels developed recommendations for America’s cities: 

  • Housing supply: Cities need a home-building boom focused on less advantaged families. New development needs to bring families closer to good opportunities and capital to historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. This requires overhauling antiquated zoning codes and over-prescriptive land-use rules, re-purposing under-used urban space, offering zoning incentives to include relatively affordable units in new developments, and deregulating automobile-centric building and road requirements. Metro areas should also relax development constraints in lower-density areas, since abundant housing supply in suburban areas helps moderate central-city housing prices. 
  • Existing housing stock: Cities should prioritize preservation and rehab of the existing stock, as it represents the affordable housing of the future. Also, promoting stable, gently evolving neighborhoods builds on the social capital of the community, an essential foundation for reviving upward mobility. 
  • Urban design: Cities should aim to develop mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods as engines of both innovation and inclusive growth. Urban planners should prize variety in neighborhoods, and should place greater emphasis on promoting wellness – particularly for the growing senior population. Cities with substantial greenspace and outdoor amenities tend to perform better than average in achieving inclusive prosperity. 
  • Education and workforce: Numerous participants stressed the vital importance of good schools driving strong neighborhoods. Also, employers are likely to locate only in areas with an adequate supply of skilled workers. Successful neighborhood revitalization depends on corresponding improvements in high-quality school options
  • Business and philanthropy: Revitalization strategies require effective local partners on the ground, to honor neighborhood wisdom, recognize the interconnected needs of neighborhoods, and secure buy-in. Investors and funders should prioritize education and healthcare institutions, because demand for both is surging in growing cities and eds and meds— education and medical institutions – create much-needed middle-skilled urban jobs. 
  • Nonprofits: Organizations focused on holistic revitalization of targeted neighborhoods should pursue not only home-building and other physical improvements but also public safety, early-childhood education, after-school support for older students, adult skills-building, financial literacy, and health and wellness. 
  • Federal government: Washington should loosen over-restrictive rules on affordable housing development and sustain its crucial housing tax credit program. Congress should modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to promote holistic revitalization of neighborhoods and broaden the range of tax-advantaged savings vehicles to advance wealth-building and home ownership. 
  • What cities should not do: Cities should avoid rent control policies and highly restrictive land-use initiatives, as both drive private-sector developers out of the market. America’s cities should recognize that markets generally allocate scarce land to its highest use, and that only the private sector has the know-how and capital to deliver the building boom that many cities need. 

More inclusive urban growth requires forceful political leadership, intentionality and collaboration on the part of all engaged players, and smart design thinking. Cities will play a vital role in driving America’s economic growth in coming decades. If they get these priorities right, they can also lead the way in reviving economic mobility and the promise of the middle-class American Dream.


J.H. Cullum Clark
J.H. Cullum Clark

J.H. Cullum Clark is Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative and an Adjunct Professor of Economics at SMU.  Within the Economic Growth Initiative, he leads the Bush Institute’s work on domestic economic policy and economic growth.  Before joining the Bush Institute and SMU, Clark worked in the investment industry for 25 years.  He served as an equity analyst and portfolio manager at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (1993-96), as a portfolio manager at Warburg Pincus Asset Management (1996-2000), as President and Chief Investment Officer of Cimarron Global Investors, a Dallas-based hedge fund firm (2000-02), and as President of Prothro Clark Company, a Dallas family investment office (2002-18).  Prior to entering the investment industry, he served for one year on the staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Clark fulfilled a lifelong goal by earning his Ph.D. in Economics at SMU in May 2017, and subsequently joined the faculty of SMU’s Department of Economics.  His research has focused on monetary policy, fiscal policy, financial markets, economic geography, urban economics, modern economic history, and economic growth. 

Clark's volunteer leadership activities include serving on the boards of Uplift Education, the Eugene McDermott Foundation, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Foundation for the Arts, as well as on the investment committee of SMU.  He earned a B.A. in History from Yale University in 1989 and an A.M. in Political Science from Harvard University in 1993, in addition to his Ph.D. in 2017.  After graduating from Yale he lived for one year in Japan.  Clark and his wife Nita have three daughters: Lili, Annabel, and Charlotte.

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