The battle for 2020 goes through the suburbs, but it's not even clear what the suburbs are these days

  • Donald Trump and Joe Biden are both trying to secure the suburban vote ahead of the presidential election, with Trump specifically appealing to an exclusionary, antiquated view of suburbia.
  • Suburbia is a key battleground in the election, distinct from liberal-leaning cities and conservative-leaning rural areas.
  • However suburbia is ill-defined and still lacks a federal definition, making it difficult to tell just who suburban voters are or what they want.
  • More than half of Americans self-identified as living in suburban areas in a recent study conducted by the federal government.
  • American suburbia is only set to expand as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The 2020 election is just around the corner.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are both aiming to lock down votes in an essential middle ground between largely Democratic cities and just as Republican rural areas: suburbs.

In the first presidential debate on September 29, Trump claimed that if Biden "ever got to run this country … our suburbs would be gone, and you would see problems like you've never seen before."

Biden immediately took issue with that statement, saying  Trump "wouldn't know a suburb if he took a wrong turn." Biden added that he himself "was raised in a suburb," a contrast with Trump, a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens.

Except Biden may not have been quite right on this issue, either. He spent his childhood living in the two cities of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.

Both Biden and Trump may have grown up in suburb-like communities within larger cities, Trump in Jamaica Estates and Biden in Green Ridge, but that gets to the crux of what's so strange about this debate: No one quite knows what a suburb actually is these days. Even the federal government's own HUD and Census Bureau found in 2017 that 52% of all US households described their neighborhoods as suburban.

The majority of Americans are suburban, lying in the famous swing districts that will decide the election, but clearly Trump and Biden mean very different things when they talk about winning the suburban vote. So what are they actually talking about, and to who?

What is a suburb, actually?

Most Americans might consider themselves suburban, but that doesn't mean they live in necessarily similar places. The definition of a suburb changes depending on who you ask.

The term has practically been rendered a semantic argument. Some have a location-based definition: that it's a smaller community on the outskirts of a larger city, while others define it visually, by cul-de-sacs upon cul-de-sacs of similarly developed homes. Both could be correct, since there's no existing federal definition for suburbia.

Existing HUD definitions of American areas include "urban" and "rural," but there is no such "suburban" category.

A 2013 Harvard University study found that there is "no consensus to what exactly constitutes a suburb." It added that suburbs have been defined over the years by any number of metrics from physical proximity to cities, to modes of transportation, to general appearance.

The 2017 HUD/Census survey which found most Americans consider themselves suburban also found that 27% describe their neighborhoods as urban and 21% as rural.

The results of the 55,000-person survey, discussed in summer 2020 webinars and papers, were built upon similar surveys from Trulia, Indeed, and Pew Research Center. All confirmed the idea that most Americans believe they live in a suburb.

"With multiple national surveys reaching the same conclusions, the notion that the majority of Americans live in the suburbs is no longer an anecdote — it's a fact," Shawn Bucholtz, the head statistical officer at HUD, said.

That fact is steeped in differing perceptions. Roughly 63% of Americans living in areas designated by the US Census Bureau as "urban" described their neighborhoods as "suburban" instead. Just 32% described their neighborhoods as urban, in line with the US Census Bureau delineation.

Bloomberg's David Montgomery reported that the study found many people defined their neighborhoods mostly by lower population density — but also by higher median income and newer homes. The findings "complicate" efforts to define suburbs on any kind of metric basis, Montgomery wrote.

The Census Bureau and HUD are currently working toward building out proper definitions and statistical areas based on 2020 census data. 

"It is critical to get these classifications right as they play an important role in how HUD and other federal agencies allocate billions in tax dollars in communities," Bucholtz said.

The summer of Trump appealing to anxiety surrounding the traditional suburban ideal

Trump and Biden's suburb-related debate exchange came after a summer of Trump tweeting and talking about Biden's plan to "abolish" the suburbs — a mischaracterization of Biden's real plans to maintain Obama-era fair housing policies combatting racial segregation while also increasing the supply of affordable homes.

In a "tele-town hall" in July, Trump had said that Democrats want to eliminate single-family zoning, which would bring "who knows who into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down."

Some states and cities (often government by Democratic governors or mayors) have been eliminating single-family zoning to combat the chronic lack of affordable housing, an economic rather than racial issue. The pandemic has exacerbated this crisis, sending home prices soaring across the country, with single-family houses the hottest segment of the market.

During the September debate, Biden condemned the racial aspect of Trump's suburban rhetoric. "It's not 1950," he said. "Dog whistles and racism don't work anymore."

Becky Nicolaides, a historian at UCLA, previously told Business Insider that there has always been a "real tight connection between the suburban ideal and that being a white space." Nicolaides also said the suburbia born in the years following World War II was racist in origin, enabled by the same exclusionary practices that Obama's fair housing policies were still fighting when Trump took office.

Federal housing policy dating back to the 1930s had explicitly discriminated against Black homebuyers. It was difficult for Black Americans to secure mortgages due to "redlining," or the practice of "denying credit to residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods," in the words of the HUD. 

The postwar economic boom included a vogue for new neighborhoods surrounding urban cores, the so-called "suburbs," and the decades-old practice of redlining ensured that a largely white cohort ascended to middle-class status and built generational wealth on the back of rising home values. 

By the 1970s, "you could go nearly anywhere in America and find housing developments, rows of ranch homes covered in aluminum siding with green lawns that all looked very similar, situated next to big gaps of empty or wooded areas," Jason Diamond wrote in his new book "The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs."

Reforms enacted in the 1970s were meant to mitigate the racial wealth gap that was inextricable from suburban housing as an asset class — and Obama-Biden housing policies were geared toward continuing that work.

During Trump's summer of stoking suburban fear, however, he rolled back a key plank of those policies: the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The 2015 policy was designed to "overcome historic patterns of segregation" and "foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination, the HUD website used to say, before Trump's deregulation push.

Trump later took to Twitter to say that the rule had a "devastating impact" on "once thriving suburban areas." 

When he makes such remarks without evidence, Trump does not seem to be addressing actual existing suburbanites, but rather those who buy in a suburb of the American imagination: the cliched suburban ideal of an exclusionary, predominately white locale.

Suburbs, still undefined and shapeless, will continue to grow

According to Nicolaides, the "postwar white suburban ideal that Trump has been talking about a lot, that just isn't reality anymore. There's a lot of people of color in the suburbs. A lot of them are homeowners."

Trump and Biden — and their advisors, along with the political journalists following the election — may be frustrated by the fact that the suburbs' sheer size means their residents can't be considered a monolithic voting bloc.

The tumultuous year of 2020 looks set to entrench the suburbs' ever-shifting identity.

Swathes of people are leaving their city digs behind and searching for spacious backyards and more comfortable work-from-home areas amid the coronavirus pandemic. As Business Insider reported, many have been flooding suburban areas with bidding wars and all-cash offers as home prices across the country soar. At the rate single-family homes are currently selling, the country could run out of new houses for sale within months.

Those changes threaten Trump's view of suburban America. Half of the American population certainly does not live in the cliched 1970s version of a suburb, but in something that is now more amorphous and ill-defined.

There is someone, however, who speaks to the messy, ambiguous, contemporary state of the American suburb: Scranton's own Joe Biden.

"Suburbs are by and large integrated," Biden said during the debate. "There are many people driving kids to soccer practice — Black, white, and Hispanic."

If the road to winning in 2020 winds through the suburbs, then it won't be a clearly marked one. It could be a confusing ride, where it's hard to find agreement on just what you're looking at, and there could be a lot of arguments along the way on which direction is the right one.

The once and future suburban destiny of America could wind up being a fitting one, in other words, for a country trying to figure out which road it's going to go down, and what it will look like once it gets there.

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