Why are Rust Belt Cities Shrinking?

This probably sounds like a stupid question, but I’m serious about this. There was a recent round of publicity about a study out of Cleveland State that basically showed *some* growth in young well educated people in central Cleveland, namely downtown.

The authors of the report didn’t come out an say it, but the article seems to sort of imply that this “brain gain” is the precursor to real population growth in Cleveland or at least a “bottoming out” something that has apparently been predicted before.

Here’s the thing though. Cleveland is still losing population. Between 2000 and 2010, it lost 17 percent of its population; almost 1 in five people living in the city just booked it and left.

If we’re going to sort of hypothesize about when Cleveland’s going to grow again, as a couple people do in this Plain Dealer article, we’ve got to understand why people are leaving and I’m not sure we do.

So on one hand we have this study saying younger, well educated people are moving to the city, but not quite enough to stem the decline. So another more numerous group of people are leaving faster than the “brain gainers” are moving in. The question is who are they? Why are they leaving?

That is a question that doesn’t get enough attention, I think.

Now, you are probably shaking your head and saying “duh, everyone knows it’s the schools dummy!” Or “crime!” But those kinds of explanations, while I’m sure they are part of it, i don’t think really explain it. Here’s why: I think the Cleveland schools suck — and they do suck, no argument there — BECAUSE all the middle class people moved away, not the other way around. School district quality — I don’t have the resources to do a study or analysis — but I have a sneaking suspicion are largely a function of the demographics/economics of the district. In other words, the schools in whatever wealthy exclusive suburb aren’t awesome because the district is coincidentally really well managed. Exclusive rich suburbs have schools that are well funded and can afford to hire awesome staff and also and maybe more importantly, they can exclude low income kids who are likely to have academic and personal challenges.

What I’m saying is, if middle class people hadn’t pretty much abandoned Cleveland, the schools would be in way better shape. And crime would be reduced too. Anyway, it’s debatable I guess. But it’s hard to separate cause and effect.

Anyway the reason I took a break from pumping milk out of my breasts (I just had a baby five weeks ago) to write this dumb post is because I wanted to present this theory that I am sort of partial to — the theory of why Cleveland and likewise other rust belt cities and even inner ring suburbs in a lot of cases are shrinking: Filtering!

This is a really nerdy topic, but it’d the favored theory of the few people I trust on demographics in northeast Ohio — Tom Bier of Cleveland State and Jason Segedy of the Akron Metropolitan Planning Study and NEOSCC. What filtering basically means is that people don’t like old houses. People are constantly moving to newer houses and leaving the older houses behind for poorer people.

Tom Bier has been sounding the warning bell (and mostly ignored) for years that this is a crisis for Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County. The growing areas of northeast Ohio — and there’s precious few of them — are the areas where they’re building new housing, namely sprawl developments on farmland.

Anyway, it’s been a few weeks now, but Jason Segedy recently posited that for Akron to grow again, the city needs a plan to build new housing — a good amount of it too.

Now there are all kinds of obstacles to that: clunky regulations and building departments, urban lots that belong to 15 heirs, not to mention — and this is the big one — a completely terrible housing market, where nearly all new housing needs major subsidies just to bridge the gap between purchase price and construction costs. But what if that were the solution? What if we had a clear idea of what the solution way? Do you think filtering is a good explanation?

–Angie Schmitt


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