Each year, Americans build a staggering one and a half million new homes. A lot of environmentalists say too many of these houses are big, single family homes on spacious lots. They say that wastes farmland and natural areas. But suburban planners say they’re forced to build that way by local governments, such as school districts. The GLRC’s Shawn Allee has more:
Each year, Americans build a staggering one and a half million new
homes. A lot of environmentalists say too many of these houses are big,
single family homes on spacious lots. They say that wastes farmland and
natural areas, but suburban planners say they’re forced to build that way
by local governments, such as school districts. The GLRC’s Shawn
Allee has more:
Jamie Bigelow makes a living building houses in suburbia. He takes a
dim view of his profession. For Bigelow, most suburbs don’t let
neighbors be… well, good neighbors. After all, homes are too far apart
for people to really meet one another and everyone has to drive far for
work or to just go shopping. According to Bigelow, families are looking
for something better.
“We believe there’s a growing market for people who want to be
interconnected and live in interconnected neighborhoods and housing,
primarily in the suburbs, no longer supplies that.”
So, about ten years ago, Bigelow and his father tried building one of these
interconnected neighborhoods in a Chicago suburb. They wanted shops
and parks nearby. They also wanted to close some streets to cars, so kids
could play safely near home, but one detail nearly derailed the project.
Under the plan, houses would sit close together on small lots. The local
zoning board hated this idea. According to Bigelow, they said small houses
would break the local school district’s budget.
“They want large houses on large lots, because for the school district,
that will give them a lot of taxes with not as many kids because there’s
not as many houses.”
The planners wanted Bigelow to build bigger, pricier houses. Bigelow and his
family fought that and eventually won. They did build that compact suburban
neighborhood, but victories like that are rare. Often, the area’s local
governments try to protect schools’ tax revenue by promoting large homes and lawns.
“They’re actually behaving, or reacting, very rationally.”
That’s MarySue Barrett of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a
Chicago-based planning and advocacy group. She says growth
sometimes overwhelms schools, and it can catch taxpayers and parents
“They don’t have the revenue from their local property tax to pay for
hiring new teachers, so their class sizes become thirty-two, thirty-three.
And that family who said, Wait a minute, I came out here for good schools, now
I’m going to an overcrowded school? It’s the last thing I thought was
going to happen.”
From the schools’ perspective, larger lot sizes solve this problem. Big
lots mean fewer kids per acre. Larger houses bring in more property
taxes. That means higher taxes cover costs for the few kids who do
Barrett says the trend’s strongest in states like Illinois, where schools rely
heavily on property taxes. She says in the short term, the strategy keeps
schools flush, but it also pushes the suburban frontier outward, into rural
areas. That wastes land and hurts our quality of life.
(Sound of kids coming out of school)
The day’s over for this high school in Northern Illinois. A throng of
teens heads toward a line of thirty yellow school buses. Some of them
spend up to three hours per day riding between school and home.
Inside, Superintendent Charles McCormick explains what’s behind the
long rides. He says the district’s large size is partly to blame, but there’s
another reason. The area’s subdivisions are spread among corn fields,
far from existing towns and from each other.
“Well, the land use pattern itself disperses the students, so when you look
at what bus routing means, the position of one student can add ten to
fifteen minutes to a route.”
McCormick says local governments in his school district encouraged big
homes and lots, but even his schools can barely keep up with the costs of
educating new students. He says suburban planners just can’t risk
bringing in smaller homes and more kids.
“Well, if you were to run a business the way growth affects school districts,
you’d be broke because you cannot keep up with rapid growth that produces
for every student, a deficit.”
That’s because even high property taxes don’t fully pay for each
Land use experts say reliance on property taxes for education puts
suburbs in a tight spot. Some want to try allowing smaller homes or
even apartments, but school funding’s a stumbling block.
Like other reformers, MarySue Barrett has been pushing for an
alternative. She wants state government to kick in a bigger share of
education dollars. The idea’s to have enough funding for each kid, regardless
of how large or expensive their home is.
“And if we have a different way of paying for our schools that’s less
dependent on the property tax, we’ll begin to move away from this
problem that’s put a choke hold on so many communities.”
It will be an uphill fight, because states are reluctant to change their tax
structures, but Barrett says it’s the worth the political cost. She says, if
we want alternatives to suburban sprawl and its traffic congestion, we
need new ways to pay for education.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.