The Next Flint

The communities most susceptible to calamitous infrastructure failures are marginalized places inhabited by marginalized people. And many of them are suburbs.

The Flint Water Plant tower.

The Flint Water Plant tower in Flint, Michigan, where the city’s water supply has been contaminated by lead, Jan. 13, 2016.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

When Rohan Hepkins, the mayor of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, he sensed a pang he’s known for a while. “I just felt like, here we go again. That’s what happens to the disenfranchised.”

It’s also what could happen to older communities with aging infrastructure and declining tax revenues. No community can avoid the fact that America’s water infrastructure could require an investment of $1 trillion or more over the next 25 years. Some places, however, are more susceptible to crisis than others. An unholy brew of circumstances created the tragedy in Michigan—in which a money-saving decision to switch water supplies corroded the coating in Flint’s aging pipes, contaminating the supply with lead—yet similar circumstances afflict marginalized municipalities populated by marginalized people across the nation. Some of the most vulnerable communities are small post-industrial cities, like Flint. But the next infrastructure crisis is just as likely to occur in an aging, inner-ring, mostly black or Latino suburb.

“The post–World War II suburbs are starting to sag, because they were not meant to last this long,” says Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School. “The housing is rotten, the infrastructure is rotten. But it is the nonwhite suburbs that are the poorest places in metro America, with the smallest tax bases. There are thousands of them, and they are all going to have Flint problems all over the country.”

Located just to the west of Philadelphia, Yeadon consists of less than 2 square miles of brick rowhouses and duplexes, a legacy of the region’s early suburbanization, which began in earnest during the early 20th century. The water and sewer infrastructure is roughly 100 years old, and the city has been suffering what Hepkins describes as “a lot of sewer failures.” It can’t afford the repairs it needs.

Yeadon is in predominantly white and working-class Delaware County, but like many of the neighborhoods bordering West Philadelphia, it has been transformed by the exodus of black residents from the city. In 1980, two years before Hepkins moved in, Yeadon was 8.2 percent black. By 1990 it was 53.8 percent black, and as of the 2010 Census, 90.1 percent of the population is black. The median household income between 2000 and today has fallen by about $15,000.

The politicians in charge of such towns, like Hepkins, are stuck. Their infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, but their largely residential communities don’t have the tax bases to fund such expenditures. In the American imagination, “the suburbs” still evoke a midcentury heyday of manicured lawns, white picket fences, and well-funded public schools. But suburbia takes different forms, and many of its older iterations look more like Yeadon than Pleasantville. Even some less densely populated cul-de-sac suburbs have the same problem: aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced all at once and a tax base that doesn’t even come close to covering the costs.

“I go through eastern Delaware County and I see many boroughs and townships going through the same infrastructural meltdown,” says Hepkins, who believes Yeadon’s water and sewer infrastructure should have been replaced 20 years ago. “Most communities have waited until the end of the life cycles, and all of the bills are coming to roost at once.”

The infrastructure of older areas like Yeadon is burdened heavily by exurban development, which is often located upstream from the cities and the inner-ring suburbs. These newer and less densely populated communities create far more runoff than undeveloped land would, especially if they rely on septic systems instead of sewers, multiplying costs for the downstream communities that must treat their water more heavily. Further complicating matters are many older communities’ use of lead piping. In 1938, Pennsylvania’s plumbing code regulations were changed to require lead piping, as were those of many other states. The material is also more malleable than iron, useful for building a complex network of pipes. Congress finally banned the practice in 1986.

But the process of replacing piping wholesale is expensive and time-consuming. For these and even more basic repairs, communities like Yeadon have a severe disadvantage. Charles Marohn, founder and president of the smart growth group Strong Towns, told Time magazine that suburban property taxes only provide “4 cents to 65 cents for every dollar of liability.” (This includes other expenses, like police and fire departments, schools, and streets.)

The costs of the repair needs are staggering. A 2008 study ordered by then-Gov. Ed Rendell found that Pennsylvania requires $36.5 billion in repairs to its drinking and waste-water infrastructure by 2028. A recent study from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found $58 billion in infrastructure upgrades are needed in the region surrounding the District of Columbia. Marc Edwards, the civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech and MacArthur genius-award recipient who helped uncover the lead-contamination scandals in Flint and Washington, D.C., estimates national infrastructure repair needs at $1 trillion; the U.S. Conference of Mayors puts the number between $2.8 and $4.8 trillion.

Where will this funding to come from? Not from the federal government, which has ratcheted down its investments in water infrastructure by more than 80 percent since 1980. Municipal services outside of education have historically received much less funding from state governments, leaving this problem in the hands of the municipalities—the best way to guarantee an unequal, and racist, outcome.

Bigger cities like New York or Chicago, with their diverse revenue streams and relative political power, will be better equipped to shoulder such a burden. The Twin Cities region has a revenue-sharing model that sets aside a certain percentage of all taxes in the coverage area to be distributed among the different municipalities, counties, and school districts. A few cities in the Upper South, like Louisville, Kentucky, have joined with their suburbs to create one enormous jurisdiction, allowing for a more equitable distribution of resources.

The losers are small and depressed urban areas like Flint and the welter of small suburban municipalities, like Yeadon, that are completely unsuited to combat the enormous challenges confronting them. Although few suburbs of any demographic composition are likely to be able to handle these infrastructure challenges alone, the worst situated are those suburban municipalities with majority black or Latino populations. “A variety of indicators show that predominantly nonwhite suburbs suffer many of the ills often attributed solely to central cities, and more,” reads a 2012 report on diverse suburbs, co-authored by Orfield. “They have by far the lowest tax bases, at just 66 percent of regional averages.”

Without greater investment from federal or state governments or innovative regional solutions, it’s a safe bet that Flint won’t be the last city that suffers an avoidable disaster of failed infrastructure. But the next tragedy may well unfold in the suburbs.

 Read more in Slate about Flint, Michigan’s drinking water emergency.