Suburbs Week

The Mission to Make the Suburbs More Inclusive — And How You Can Help

published Jul 26, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Shutterstock

The suburbs have long been portrayed as the prize of the American dream. The white-picket fences, the cookie-cutter homes, the nuclear family — can you see it all now? Can you visualize the sprawling neighborhoods of single-family houses, sprinklers covering the lawn, lush tree-lined streets, cars pulling into garages, and perhaps, the people who might live there?

More than half of Americans identify as living in the suburbs, despite there being no official government definition for what a suburb is. But what exactly does it mean to live in suburbia? At the core of this glamorized utopia is a deep history of government-sponsored and community-supported racial discrimination and exclusion. The suburbs were built on a foundation of white supremacy, and the practices and policies that were enforced in the early 20th century to exclude people of color, the poor, LGBTQ+ people, and anyone else deemed “undesirable” continue to impact these communities.

In the public mind, this fraught history began around World War II. But historian Becky Nicolaides says it actually started way back in the 19th century. 

Credit: Gus Valente/

A Brief History of Suburbia

The rise of industrialization in the mid-1800s stimulated population growth, and thanks to the advent of trolleys and streetcars — and later the automobile and industrial highways —rapidly increasing numbers of people moved out of the city center and into its surrounding areas. Early on, the U.S. government created measures to stimulate housing construction, such as the Federal Housing Administration loans in the 1930s, which encouraged banks to grant home mortgage loans. 

Then, after World War II, the suburbs exploded. The 1949 Housing Act urged white families to move to the suburbs, and developers saw an opportunity in providing housing to returning white veterans.

Through the early history of the suburbs, racial segregation was state-sponsored. The government introduced programs and efforts that were designed to support white families, and exclude Black Americans and economically disenfranchised groups. How? A practice today recognized as “redlining,” which refers to the Federal Housing Administration’s former refusal to insure mortgages in and near historically Black neighborhoods.

Real estate agents also implemented race restrictive covenants: clauses in house deeds that prohibited ethnic and religious minorities from buying, leasing, or occupying homes. Many deeds would specifically bar non-Caucasian groups, unmarried women, and people with disabilities, among others.

Although race covenants were found unconstitutional in 1948 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal, Nicolaides says “the residue of those things was immense.” They paved a way for future generations to continue to exclude certain communities, which has given way to new forms of housing discrimination, violence toward certain groups, and rising inequality.

Credit: Monkey Business Images/

How to Help Make the Suburbs More Inclusive

So what can be done to make the suburbs increasingly more inclusive? Whether you’re a suburbanite or simply eyeing the more spacious pastures from afar, Nicolaides says a good place to start is for communities to take stock of their history and find ways to prevent discriminatory practices from continuing. 

“Communities have to ask themselves: Are we a part of the problem, or part of the solution?” she says. “Homelessness, climate change, sustainability, car dependency, poverty — whatever a community might perceive as just larger societal problems, ask: are we exacerbating these problems as a community? Or doing our fair share to try and make a difference?”

Here are some organizations, at local and national levels, that have been asking this question and are working toward making the suburbs inclusive to everyone.

Credit: Ringo Chiu/

Dignity for the Unhoused 

As some suburbs have become less homogeneous over the years, they’ve also become more impoverished. Poverty in the suburbs has increased by 55 percent since 2000, compared with a 23 percent increase in cities, according to the Pew Research Center.

Situated in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, Onyxx Village Connection founders Thandiwe Jennifer Lyons and son Balondemu Jules Lyons are focused on combating the increasing poverty and rising numbers of unhoused people in East Palo Alto and surrounding communities. 

Thandiwe began the work by distributing leftovers from her home-cooked meals. Once, she remembers, she baked cookies with Balondemu to hand out to the homeless. When she learned many people had oral challenges and couldn’t enjoy them, she reconsidered how to serve the community in an organized, informed, and meaningful way. 

They formalized their organization in 2018 by partnering with local food programs and nonprofits. Mother, son, and a group of volunteers deliver meals and create access to resources, like toiletries, showers, and job opportunities. 

Their work is not without its challenges, says Balondemu. While backers have been interested in supporting their operations, they haven’t been interested in funding salaries and staffing. “The nonprofit world is very hard, especially when you are a Black nonprofit,” he says.

Thandiwe and Balondemu agree that the best way for communities to foster more inclusivity is to volunteer and collaborate to help those most in need. An important part of their work is bringing homeowners, renters, and the unhoused together in shared spaces to foster compassion for the community members in most need. They say changing a community begins with acknowledging the prejudices one might have of the unhoused, homeless, poor, and people of color, to ensure the work you are doing is intentional.

Fighting House Discrimination 

Housing discrimination has been illegal for the past 50-plus years, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still taking place. Located in Washington, D.C., the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) has been working to eliminate housing discrimination across the U.S. through public policy initiatives, enforcement, and documentation of discrimination cases, among others, since 1988.

Jorge Andres Soto, associate vice president of advocacy and government affairs, says they’re working on a few policy priorities. For instance: Challenging algorithm discrimination in housing advertising, where an AI system has biases baked into who gets to see the housing ad, and who doesn’t. They also work on housing appraisals, recognizing that the homes of Black or Latino families are more likely to get a significantly lower appraisal than comparable properties in white communities.

Promoting legislative bills that are geared to address access is another part of their work. For example:

  • The Housing Fairness Act would reauthorize the Fair Housing Initiatives Program, the only federal resource dedicated to supporting the work of local, nonprofit, and private fair housing groups. 
  • The Neighborhood Homes Investment Act would create a tax credit that covers the gap between the cost to renovate a distressed home and its likely sale price. Many homes sit in disrepair due to the 2010 foreclosure crisis, and the act would create an incentive for developers to refurbish homes and create more living spaces.
  • The Downpayment Toward Equity Act sees down payments as the primary barrier to accessing homeownership for people of color. Their homeownership rates are still disproportionately low because of the history of government-sponsored residential discrimination, says Soto. While white families were able to develop generational wealth through subsidized loans, people of color were excluded from those opportunities. 

Debbie Goldberg, vice president of housing policy and special projects at NFHA, says homeownership gaps between white and Black families today are at a 30-point percentage difference, which is larger than before the 1968 Fair Housing Act. 

Suburbanites who want to see their communities become more diverse and equitable should take note of upcoming legislation they can support, Goldberg advises. “It’s going to help everyone,” she says, “and make our country a better place for us all.” 

Credit: Photo by Alex Lau courtesy of Heart of Dinner

Taking Stock of Your Community

Hatching a plan to somehow solve the suburbs all at once is overwhelming and impossible — from their ambiguous definition to their complicated history, it’s hard to know where to begin. For those who love their suburb and want to help it be an even better home for everyone, look around at your community (or the one you’re looking to move to) and realize who may not be living there, or living there comfortably. Find a way to support legislation that may address your community’s gaps, donate to a local nonprofit that is already working on these issues, or spend some thoughtful time figuring out how you can uplift your neighbors. 

Here are a few more organizations and resources to get you started: 

Creating a Home for Everyone — OutCenter of Southwest Michigan
OutCenter responds to the needs of LGBTQ+ people and their families in the rural areas surrounding Benton Harbor, Michigan. Among their many projects, LGBTQ+ Brave Schools Collaborative provides workshops to educate staff and students on how they can promote an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students.

Welcoming Refugees — Canopy of Northwest Arkansas
Working out of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Canopy works to create a network of support for refugees settling in the region. One of their efforts is the Reception and Placement program, which helps secure permanent and affordable housing for newly arriving refugees. Community volunteers can help with tasks like airport pickups, donating furniture, buying groceries, and more.

Supporting Inclusion — The Arc
With over 600 local chapters, the Arc is focused protecting the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the national level, the Arc advocates for federal initiatives to ensure affordable housing. Locally, their Pathway to Justice initiative aims to remove community-specific barriers to justice for people with disabilities by providing training for local law enforcement, victim services providers, and legal professionals.