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Where The Heart Is

by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 25, 2011

I was talking with University of Missouri, St. Louis, professor Todd Swanstrom at a conference in D.C. this week about politics and politicians (and a lot about Albany, since he lived here and taught at the Rockefeller Institute for many years). Given that it was a conference of folks involved in neighborhood revitalization work, with a strong focus on affordable housing, there was a lot of discussion about whether housing has a “natural constituency” as a cause. Swanstrom mentioned that in many areas, the people who would benefit from new housing being built don’t live there yet (on account of the lack of affordable housing, see), so there isn’t the political motivation or voter pressure to address the problem.

Swanstrom said he had heard a proposal floated in response to this to give commuters something like 1/3 of a vote in the jurisdictions where they work, as partial recognition that they might have a stake in local housing policy.

My first reaction was that that sounded like a terrible idea. After all, with the number of state workers who flood Albany every day, their concerns could dominate those of the residents of the city, and while they may have many legitimate interests in the direction of the city, and probably good ideas and perspectives, those concerns are both narrow and sometimes at odds with the needs of Albany as a healthy functioning city.

My second reaction was along the lines of “no representation without taxation!” Our urban cores are already subsidizing the surrounding municipalities by hosting a tremendous percentage of the tax-exempt services for the region. St. Louis has a very politically popular commuter tax. Perhaps that makes the commuter vote idea a little more palatable.

But of course commuting doesn’t only happen in one direction. The original point about political will for policies that support economic integration applies much more to the ever-more-common reverse commute. And I’ll admit that the idea of all the working folk schlepping on the bus out to work at Crossgates or Colonie Center getting a vote in Guilderland or Colonie has a bit of a ring to it.

Meanwhile, there are in fact a lot of city ex-pats who felt forced out of one of the region’s cities only because of the school system, or property taxes, or public safety. If they retain other connections to the city, along with employment, I can see an argument that their having a (partial) vote there could make as much sense as the vote of a transient student or temporary political appointee.

Maybe. But I don’t actually think that commuter votes would be a reasonable or successful strategy. There would be all sorts of unintended consequences.

But the exercise is useful for pointing out the arbitrariness of our political boundaries. City lines are not as gerrymandered as state legislative districts, perhaps, but nonetheless they often have nearly as little to do with how we live our lives. Even though many of us identify with and love our cities, in practice, in our behaviors, the two units that matter most socially and economically are neighborhood and region. And we have elected government at neither level. That’s odd, and maybe contributes to our civic frustration.

Still, even if I got to wave a magic wand and change local government structure, I’m not sure I would, just yet. Core cities are often the one place where those the rest of the region have left behind have a political say. Until we understand that a region sinks or swims on the strength of its core cities, until everyone not only has heard, but really believes the statistics that show that more equitable regions do better economically, it’s hard to want to trust the fate of a region’s denser neighborhoods—both the successful and the downtrodden—and the larger downtowns to the votes of those who have chosen not to be there and may not recognize their value. (And vice versa for farm country.)

I have for a long time razzed my husband about saying he’s from Trenton, when in fact he grew up in Ewing, N.J., outside the city line. Lauryn Hill got the same treatment for saying she was from Newark, when in fact she was in the very same, much more affluent neighbor of Newark, N.J., that I was. But, perhaps my knee-jerk reaction is exactly wrong. Perhaps that impulse to identify with your core urban area—recognizing that it really defines your region—is a very healthy one. We need to understand that our destinies are linked as entire regions, and then build our politics from there.