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The Death of the Suburban Office Park and the Rise of the Suburban Poor

Jobs have gone urban, leaving office space in the suburbs obsolete and a distressed work force further away from help.
Cubicles as far as the eye can see.

Cubicles as far as the eye can see.

When you work as a freelancer, occasionally you need to take a temporary office gig to fill in the blanks. While my last bouts of W-2 labor have been varied, they've shared one thing in common: They were all in offices that had a whole lot of extra space.

Perhaps you've been lucky enough to have laid eyes upon this barren landscape. Acres of empty cubicle farms, kitchen cabinets with only stray paper plates and NutraSweet packets, hoards of leftover pens, notepads, staplers, and staple removers. It's as if the Rapture had snatched up all the workers, leaving only their ergonomic rolling chairs and fist-size calculators behind. Suburban office space simply isn't needed like it once was.

The reason is simple: Jobs have moved back into the city.

Over the past few years, not a week has gone by without some newspaper's business section announcing a big corporation moving its headquarters from the suburbs into the city. In January of 2016, General Electric announced it was moving its headquarters from the town of Fairfield, Connecticut, into Boston proper. In June of 2016, McDonald's announced it was moving its headquarters from suburban Oak Brook into Chicago's West Town neighborhood.

Between 14 and 22 percent of suburban office inventory is obsolete.

Numbers back up the anecdotes. A 2015 report titled "Suburban Office Obsolescence" found that between 14 and 22 percent of suburban office inventory is obsolete, meaning that between 600 million and one billion square feet of office space in the country's 50 largest metro areas is "not competitive." Another 2015 report, issued by the think-tank City Observatory, showed that job growth has shifted from the "periphery" (suburbs and exurbs) back into the "city centers" (three miles from the city business center). From 2002 to 2007, growth surged in the periphery and trailed in the city, but between 2007 and 2011, those numbers swapped dramatically, with the periphery actually showing negative annual growth.

Any report that splits between pre- and post-2007 will be influenced by the foreclosure crisis, but, beyond that, reasons for the exodus into the city are predictable. Laptop computers and smartphones have allowed for work to be done remotely; the Millennial generation—who corporations are trying to hire and sell to—enjoy living in cities more than the suburbs; digitization has emptied out filing cabinets and libraries.

How does this affect the interests of the national economy? The Obama administration created over two million new jobs in 2016, marking 75 consecutive months of growth. With market dynamics allowing relative wages to remain steady in urban and suburban environments (that is, it may cost more to live in the city, but workers there theoretically make more), it doesn't make a difference where jobs are physically located, right? Not exactly.

Consider the urban environment: tall buildings, tons of people, public transportation allowing for (relatively) free and easy movement. Now, consider the suburbs. One-story strip malls at intersections, highway interchanges, two-lane roads for miles. The first has built-in infrastructure allowing for ease of movement from home to office, while the dispersion of the latter necessitates long commute times.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled Etoria Cheeks, a math teacher at a San Francisco public high school, whose salary of $65,000 isn't enough to cover housing costs in the increasingly expensive region. If she wants to keep her job, she has two options: stay in a series of downtown hostels or homeless shelters (which she has been doing), or find an affordable place to live in the suburbs. But, according to a report by Apartment List, the closest affordable suburbs are San Pablo or Pittsburgh, over an hour commute each way.

"Concentrated poverty has become an increasingly suburban challenge."

"As suburbs have continued to grow, and low-income people and people of color are suburbanized, the number of jobs within a commuting distance is smaller," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. "The challenge is that often the [suburban] residents don't have easy access to public transit, or, if they do, it tends to be less connected to job centers."

This mismatch has had a predictable effect on wealth in American suburbs. As illustrated in another report co-authored by Kneebone, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," suburbia is now home to the largest- and fastest-growing poor population in the country. The impetus for this demographic shift can be traced to the fall-out of the Great Recession—three-quarters of subprime loans and three-quarters of foreclosures took place in the suburbs—but have been exacerbated by a continuing failure to connect workers to jobs.

"Concentrated poverty has become an increasingly suburban challenge," Kneebone says. "Think about connecting low-income people to economic opportunities. It's concerning to see the growing emergence of distressed neighborhoods further out, in regions where it can be harder to connect them to those opportunities."

The jobs have moved away, but the workers have been forced to stay, negotiating long commutes with their own time and money. That's truly what all those neglected suburban office parks mean: a neglected work force, struggling to stay afloat.