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US Today seeks Weiner's opinion as national land use expert

Suburbs' grass isn't always greener

Mon Oct 18, 9:28 AM ET Top Stories -

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

This northwestern corner of the St. Louis metropolitan area is one of the fastest-growing places in the USA. It has the highest median household income ($58,547) in Missouri. Big companies - Boeing, General Motors, Citigroup - employ hundreds here.

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Unemployment is low, construction booming, housing prices soaring. But lines form every Thursday evening at the Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service food pantry in St. Charles, where about 130 low-income residents pick up bags of groceries.

Among them is Kate Haney, 45, who belies a common image of poverty - people who are unemployed and poorly educated. She's a college graduate, but the divorced mother of two doesn't earn enough to afford a decent place to live, feed her family and cover the gas and maintenance for her 7-year-old Ford Escort.

"In this town, it would take $36,000 a year to support myself and family," says Haney, who makes $5.15 an hour. "For quality of life, it would take $70,000. To save for retirement, it would take double that."

Haney is one face of a growing presence in the nation's suburbs: poverty.

Squeezed out of market

For the first time, the number of poor people in the suburbs almost equals the number in cities at the center of metropolitan areas.

The stronghold of middle-class America for more than 50 years, suburbs now are home to an increasing number of the very poor and the very rich, according to a report to be released today by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

The share of suburbanites living in middle-income neighborhoods dropped from 75% in 1980 to 61% in 2000, according to the Brookings report. During the same period, the percentage of people living in poor and affluent suburbs increased.

"The image of suburbia as middle class and with good schools hasn't caught up with the reality," says Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and co-author of the report.

Immigration, the dispersal of people who lived in urban housing projects that have been torn down, and revitalization of blighted neighborhoods by the affluent have helped spread poverty well beyond central cities.

Suburbs have more jobs than central cities, but skyrocketing costs for housing and gasoline and public resistance to mass transit and housing for low-wage employees are pushing many working people to the brink of poverty.

"When places out there near the fringe become swept up in the metropolitan housing market and jobs market, being poor is a problem," says Todd Swanstrom, a public policy professor at St. Louis University and a co-author of the Brookings report.

Suburban governments also are feeling the strain as they try to provide health care, counseling and other services to the growing number of poor residents.

"We're not equipped to handle these socioeconomic problems," says Robert Weiner, a councilman in New Castle County, Del., in the suburbs of Wilmington. "The cities are razing their slums. Where do they go? They go into the suburbs."

The federal government says a family of four living on $18,810 a year is poor. But that does not take into account wide regional swings in incomes and the cost of living. Brookings researchers studied suburbs in the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas. Communities where the per-person income is below 75% of the region's income are poor. Those that have more than 125% are rich.

A major factor in the rise of suburban poverty here and elsewhere is high housing costs.

Janitors and retail salespeople in St. Louis County, for example, make less than half what's needed to buy a median-priced home, according to a study by the Center for Housing Policy, a research group in Washington, D.C. Their hourly wages barely keep up with rents for one-bedroom apartments.

"Twenty years ago, land values were such that builders could build a lot of starter homes that a family with a modest income could afford," says St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth. "That's not true anymore."

Paul Dribin, a housing consultant, concluded that 19% of St. Charles County residents "have almost no chance of purchasing a home."

The county relaxed zoning to allow homes on smaller lots. But voters rejected a light-rail extension that would have helped bring in low-wage workers.

The options are often few, even for two-income households.

Wages of many can't keep up

Mayrene Ventura, 32, and Manuel Guerrero, 33, live in a Los Angeles suburb with their three children. She handles referrals for a doctors' practice. He drives a school bus. Their cars are a '92 Chevy Astro and an '84 Toyota pick-up. Together they make about $50,000 a year, almost triple the government's official poverty line.

But they couldn't afford to save money and pay $1,200 a month for rent. So they shared a two-bedroom apartment with her brother-in-law, his wife and two kids.

Now they're homeowners. It took a bank loan and financial aid from the non-profit Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services and the city of Pasadena to buy a three-bedroom, one-bath house. Price: $385,500. Monthly mortgage: $1,700.

It's a squeeze. "We bring lunches to work," Ventura says. "And we're going to the 99-cent store."

St. Charles boasts that it's the place where Lewis and Clark began their journey on the Missouri River in 1804 to explore the Northwest Territory. But for people such as Kate Haney, St. Charles offers few prospects.

Haney, a former bank employee and homeowner, hasn't always been poor. When she was pregnant with her second child, her husband was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease. Haney received no child support after her divorce. She got food stamps and Medicaid, took out student loans, got a degree in communications at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and worked in the school registrar's office and as a tutor.

She landed a $55,000-a-year marketing job in Arizona, sold her house, packed up the kids and the U-Haul and arrived in Tucson on Sept 1, 2001. The Sept. 11 attacks came 10 days later, and the economic fallout eliminated her new job. She ran into hiring freezes and lived on credit cards. She returned to the St. Louis area in 2002.

Now she writes grant proposals in a work training program run by the non-profit group that doles out the food she collects every week. She pays $300 a month for two rooms in a friend's house.

"There's an ever-widening middle class of people who migrated here and whose wages stagnated and dropped," Haney says. "Two-wage earners at $10 an hour can't afford housing."

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