What's at stake:
This fall, as the Dyer administration moves forward with SEDA, on one of the biggest suburban sprawl projects in the city's history, a new report outlines the consequences of these decisions on Fresno's existing residents.
The city's legacy neighborhoods have suffered from poverty, disinvestment, and poor educational opportunity, the report argues, because suburban development weakens the city's financial base.
To outside observers, the divide between Fresno’s northern outskirts and its aging downtown – of poverty, infant mortality, failing public infrastructure and premature death – seem to derive from another time or place.
In the national press, the gap has conjured a term straight out of the Antebellum South: Fresno’s “Mason-Dixon” line.
A new study by ECONorthwest, a group of economists who study inequality, gives an unprecedented look into how that line came to be.
As wealthy people moved to the fringes of north Fresno for decades, the study shows, the city’s core existing neighborhoods were hollowed out, suffering from disinvestment, blight, vacant lots, fires, and crumbling infrastructure.
As a result, the study shows, residents in the city’s core face some of the worst air quality in the state, and overcrowding.
The pattern means the city’s economic growth has not lifted people out of poverty. Fresno’s economic mobility stats have barely budged since 2000, federal data shows, despite the city’s economy growing 150% over the same time.
The picture of Fresno that emerges from the study is a city that is as divided as ever. The city’s core still has the worst concentrated poverty in the state, while most of the city’s fringes remain wealthy.
The study quantifies the extent of Fresno’s urban decay over the last 40 years by using a data-rich group of statistical surveys from the United States census.
The analysis is based on federal records of income, population, and poverty for every census tract in the city from 1980 to 2020, actuarial data from the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, and HUD housing reports from 1990 to 2020. The report, focusing solely on Fresno, adds a new data point: detailed features of each of Fresno’s key economic health indicators, for every decade, for every neighborhood.
In effect, the study shows, the city’s policies catered to those who can afford the newest single-family luxury homes in the area.
The result is the clearest picture yet of how a city has become divided based on how old one’s subdivision is.
Report underscores Fresno’s sprawl policies
In Fresno’s march to build at the newest fringe, about 14% of the city has been left vacant, the study shows. Core roads have amassed a $500 million repair backlog. And the resulting combination of poverty and economic stagnation has left half the city rent-burdened.
“Fresno has grown over the years, and this growth has not been smart and it has not been equal,” said Matthew Jendian, an urban sociologist at Fresno State, who has reviewed the data and was not involved in the study. “The extent of urban decay and concentrated poverty in Fresno did not appear by accident. They emerged in part due to decades of policy decisions from city hall.”
The study raises questions about the city’s general plan, which, if implemented, will exacerbate the city’s suburban sprawl for decades to come. For every house that’s built in the core over the next 20 years, two will be built at the edge of sprawl, according to the city’s General Plan.
Dillon Savory, the president of the Central Labor Council, which covers unions from Madera to Kern County, said the report comes at a key turning point in the city’s history.
“There is some demand for single-family homes at the edge of sprawl, but there’s way more demand for real affordable housing. And when we look at it in terms of job creation and investing in people in the city’s core, that’s what labor wants to build,” Savory added.
After reading the report, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said he still remains committed to the city’s 2:1 sprawl to infill plan.
“I do not believe we can afford to only build in our core as the demand for other housing opportunities is too great,” he told Fresnoland.
However, he insisted the city’s on the right track to stop suburban sprawl.
“We will continue to be intentional with our efforts downtown, on Blackstone, Ventura and throughout our core,” he said.
“While there is always room for improvement, our community is seeing a lot of momentum, growth and strategic investment building toward our One Fresno vision of an inclusive, prosperous, beautiful city where people take pride in their neighborhoods and community.”
Fresno’s sprawl policies left communities behind
Fresno’s appearance of blight is driven, most fundamentally, by the city’s cycles of disinvestment. Disinvestment creates physical decay, which reinforces itself as decay scares off any potential investment.
What drives disinvestment? Banks and the city’s planning department, the report says.
The problem with blight may originate from the city’s land use policies, the report says. That’s because the city’s heavy investment in the newest subdivisions at the fringe of town don’t end up paying for themselves.
This ends up leaving the city’s core with fewer resources over time, which scares away bank investments.
The report says new developments cannot completely pay for themselves because, on average, they are not introducing new residents to the tax base. Instead, the new subdivisions end up hoovering up residents from the city’s core.
As the city expands without a significant new tax base, the financial demands on roads, infrastructure, and emergency services increase without creating new tax revenue. The city’s budget becomes more thinly spread across town.
Unable to pay for themselves, the accumulation of fringe subdivisions leads to deferred maintenance, deferred upgrades, and antiquated infrastructure. This is when the first symptoms of blight in the core show up, the report says.
As older neighborhoods age, banks pass up investments in the core for another round of sprawl investment, the report says. This is reinforced by the city’s commitment to plan, build and maintain the public infrastructure for suburban sprawl.
Private investors “face uncertainty and greater risk” in Fresno’s core, the report says “since they cannot know the condition of the infrastructure until construction begins. This dynamic can make development projects more expensive than originally planned, such that the developer may not hit their needed returns,” the report said.
This decay is most concentrated south of Shaw, along Fresno’s “Mason-Dixon” Line, the report found.
By analyzing the city’s code violations, the researchers found that neighborhoods by Blackstone Avenue, Belmont Avenue, and Kings Canyon Road had the most code violations in recent years, which could lead another cycle of divestment for these neighborhoods.
“Concentrations of blighted properties with repeated code violations have adverse impacts on the desirability and market potential of adjacent properties and perpetuate disinvestment,” the report said.
Decay is especially prominent in downtown Fresno, where the city’s oldest infrastructure is, according to developer interviews in the report.
“Thus, developers often prefer to build in locations outside of the city center,” the report says, “including land requiring annexation where they can accurately assess infrastructure costs.”
Fresno’s missing middle
The researchers show how this pattern of divestment has played out in Fresno since 1980.
The distribution of income in Fresno in 2020 is nearly identical to 2000. Economic opportunity has remained locked up in the city’s fringe, the data shows.
For the last 20 years, north Fresno residents earned on average 5-6 times as much as downtown Fresno residents. Also, today, residents in a new, burgeoning sprawl zone in southeast Fresno earn as much as five times as much as downtown residents.
In Southwest and Southeast Fresno, incomes have lagged behind the city average for decades.
The report shows that the futures of the city’s children are partly defined by the environmental pollution in their neighborhoods.
The map of children in Fresno who breathe the cleanest air is almost identical to those with the best education scores. While pollution is hoarded downtown, educational opportunity is hoarded up North, the report shows.
Children in southwest and downtown Fresno live in neighborhoods that score six times higher in environmental contamination than Clovis and northwest Fresno, the report shows, citing CARB data.
Mayor says Fresno’s core developing faster than ever before
Despite the challenges in each of these areas, the data shows that affordable housing has led the way in redeveloping Fresno’s core. In the report’s five case studies, City Hall initiatives have failed to jump-start private sector investment in Fresno’s core neighborhoods.
But even as affordable housing is one of the keys to solving the city’s blight, it’s a $20 billion problem – and growing – for the city of Fresno. The city is short roughly 35,000 affordable units, which cost roughly $500,000 to build each.
Where those homes end up being is one of the defining questions for the Dyer administration. His major housing initiative, One Fresno Housing Strategy, is off to a fast start in building affordable housing, he said.
“I would argue that the city is doing more to promote infill housing than at any time in our history,” he said. About 3,200 affordable housing units will be completed by 2025, he estimated, “all within the core of our city. That did not happen by chance.”
Dyer said so long as homes at the city’s fringe continue to get built, he remains committed to making sure the developer pays for the costs of infrastructure development.
However, Savory, from the Central Labor Council, questioned whether growth at the fringe could ever be done right.
“Sprawl, because it causes urban decay, has fundamentally erased nearly all small businesses from the city. Where all those small businesses used to live – Blackstone, Kings Canyon, Downtown – are now portraits in urban blight,” said Savory.
These policies in support of sprawl, said Jendian, the urban sociologist from Fresno, have “confined poor households, especially poor black ones, to economically isolated areas.”
“A city’s general plan, including its land use policies and zoning ordinances, play a role in the extent and concentration of poverty within its boundaries.”
At stake in the mix between sprawl and core development in the city’s general plan is how thinly spread future housing demand becomes.
Part of Dyer’s housing initiative includes establishing a Community Land Bank and building “maximum density” affordable/mixed-income housing on properties currently owned by the City, such as Downtown Fresno.
But his initiative also includes building one of the biggest suburban sprawl projects in Fresno’s history.
Dyer said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent $300 million gift to Fresno will provide “the much-needed subsidy for developers to build affordable and market-rate units downtown and still make their investments pencil out.”
Development in the core is where the city should direct its most attention, said Savory. In the future, he said the city needs to build up, because that’s what’s going to create the most city revenue and high quality jobs.
“Labor wants to build new transit systems and do redevelopment and dig up old stuff in downtown Fresno and building things that go up. It not only creates good jobs, but it creates way more property taxes for the city.”