“What does the great inversion look like in MSP?”

Strong Towns Fellow, and good friend, Mike Lydon, tweeted us this morning in response to a local article from the Star-Tribune on what the Great Inversion looks in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  He wanted to know if there was any differences on the ground compared to what the article surmised.  He had hashtagged it even: #GreatInversion.*  I didn’t know that was a thing.

(*Apparently, Great Inversion also refers to a different recent article explaining how the country’s economic indicators have reached an odd inflection where economic growth continues to stay steady or increase, and most quality of life factors are decreasing. But that sounds more like a topic for Mr. Marohn.)  

My pending blog post was plodding along very slowly, so I decided to switch gears onto this. Primarily, it is because my day to day life really can’t get away from it, actually. This topic of discussion follows me from my neighborhood meetings, to holiday parties, political hob-nobs and also family gatherings: "Are people really moving back from the suburbs?"

The Strib article has a nice amount of data, so I’m not going into further charts and numbers.  If you don’t read it though, it says this about the greater MSP area:

  • Residential construction in the core cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, proper) is far outpacing any suburb. That hasn’t happened in decades. (Tweet on hard MPLS numbers - lots of multi-family in that, but still, not a blip.)
  • Massive growth in school aged households in the core cities and declining numbers in communities on the edge of the metro (people forced to move due to foreclosure playing a big role on the latter).
  • Kindergarten classes are shrinking in some suburban/exurban school districts. For some districts, this is the first time this has ever happened.
  • Families with children approaching elementary school age are selling their suburban houses and moving back into urban ones in walkable neighborhoods. And lower income folks are finding good deals on housing in other suburban communities which allows them to move there. Both view the switch as a positive – very interesting...and potentially short lived for the latter group.

First, for those who did peruse the article, a couple of points of reference for those not familiar with Twin Cities geography, since most of the towns mentioned are small and relatively anonymous.

  • The young couple moving back to the city who lead off the article currently live in a first ring suburb less than 12 miles from downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul. It’s significant, but it’s not that far from the core of the region. If families were moving back in from 30 miles out, it would be a bigger deal.
  • The school district with the dramatic losses in enrollment, is much further out, 35 miles from downtown Minneapolis and further to St. Paul. Commutes from there to major employment centers are going to be 40-60 minutes minimum.
  • Several of the towns listed at the end are either close in and/or rather affluent. There’s enough concentration of long term wealth there or valuable natural resources, such as nice lakes, where those communities are going to do just fine regardless of larger demographic trends. If they do struggle, they will have a cushion to fall back on for a while.

The most important Strong Towns related message was the school principal in St. Francis who’d lost over a quarter of his students in approximately the last five years. “There just seems to be fewer kids in Anoka County than 10 years ago. It always used to be that there were always more coming and that isn’t happening.”

Sound familiar? Build it and they will come? The model told us so!(?)  It was very real when it was happening.  25 years of ferocious enrollment growth was not an illusion. What was an illusion was the wealth the school district’s property tax rolls saw when all the development that supported the enrollment spikes started rolling in. I’m no expert on the finances of the St. Francis school district, but something tells me they had previously used projections of growth continuing like that for at least another 10-15 years.  A rate that has probably been adjusted by now.

The good news in the town of St. Francis is that their core elementary, middle and high school buildings are older (and probably paid off), close in proximity to each other on foot, and centrally located in the community.  They can continue to operate a base level of K-12 education even if enrollment continues to decrease in what otherwise as a farm community 50 years ago. Their worst case scenario is to close one of their elementary grade schools near one of the tiny settlements on the edge of their district that is only accessible by car, instead of in St. Francis town limits.  They are lucky.

On the other end of the school district drama spectrum is Minneapolis. That story is about unbalanced growth, where one part of the city has massive influx to its community schools and the other part has school buildings that have been mothballed.  Most attempts to start shifting things around a bit to spread out the load have met stiff resistance because it means busing kids across town.

Ironically, they used to do a lot of busing over the past few decades and it was socially acceptable because it was due to either an integration policy or a magnet school driving the relocation. Now, everyone wants their kids to be able to walk to school, so busing them 30 minutes away is a non-starter.  If you want to see a brawl/boxing match on the cheap, attend one of the redistricting meetings that occurs every few months now.

For my wife and I personally, we’re obviously really glad the community schools at the edge of our neighborhood are seeing a surge in growth. When we moved in four years ago, the schools that future kids of ours would go to weren’t bad but they weren’t fantastic, either.  That’s definitely changing now.  And in five or ten years, when we could have school aged kids, it could be even more different.

Washburn High School recently had its geographic area shifted and shrunk because there were was an increase density of children in the neighborhoods near the school.  The adjacent Ramsey Middle School building was recently converted back to its original function after a stint as a K-8 Magnet school. The campus those two schools share is 2 miles away (13 long city blocks and 4 short ones), so a short bike ride or ride on the nearby public bus down Nicollet Avenue.  Trust me, there are a lot of middle school and high school kids on that bus already, year round.  The middle school only has about 400 students in it currently as it rebuilds three grade levels from scratch. The building in its previous middle school incarnation held well over 1000.

Photo by Dylan Passmore via Creative Commons licensing. Click for original.On the elementary school side, it is only 4 blocks away from our house, and my neighborhood has a walking school bus system organized by parents that I hear has 200 kids in it. The District has to move another magnet program out of that building in order to accommodate enrollment of kids who live nearby who have the right to attend that particular school.

Obviously gaining enrollment is going to be good for the schools because of the per pupil revenue it brings from the state. More importantly though, it is important to recognize that lowering the district’s busing needs and being able to reinvigorate school buildings that already exist is going to be a way easier transition than the opposite scenario. The physical infrastructure, while weakened through four decades of selling schools and repurposing them, is still resilient enough to leave today’s decision makers some options. Those options would be even greater if the distribution of growth was a little more even across the city. Our ‘achievement gap’ is a whole other post for another day though.  It belies the rosy picture I’m painting here about what’s happening in the hyper-local near me, a situation that isn’t that rosy for people just blocks in another direction.

All in all, people are moving into my neighborhood and others nearby with all this in mind about our school system.  It is undoubtedly one of the two a major factors behind the choices they are making.

What’s the other?  The relationship with between debt and housing stock.  I’ll visit that topic next Thursday in a previously unplanned Part 2 to the story. You're welcome, Mike.