The New Minimal Cities


Publish Date:
March 3, 2014
Publication Title:
123 Yale Law Journal 1118 .
Journal Article
  • Michelle W. Anderson, The New Minimal Cities, 123 Yale Law Journal 1118 (2014).


Between 2007 and 2013, twenty-eight urban municipalities declared bankruptcy or entered a state receivership to manage fiscal insolvency. To cut costs and divert revenues to debt payments, these cities have taken dramatic austerity measures—an unwitting experiment with a shrinking public sector in cities hollowed by household poverty and physical deterioration. Eventually, these cuts raise a question that looms as large for insolvency law as it does on city streets: Is there a point where the city should no longer cut public services and sell public assets, even in the face of unmet obligations to creditors? If so, what is that point?
This Article looks closely at our insolvent cities—their residents, their physical and social conditions, their debts, their governments. It explores, as a descriptive matter, local adaptations to fiscal crisis. It surfaces, as a legal matter, the latent question that mayors, governors, state and local legislatures, bankruptcy judges, and state-appointed receivers must decide: What share of city revenues can a city preserve for its current residents? Unlike creditors, who have contracts and legal judgments to quantify a city’s obligations to them, residents have no monetized claim to draw on city revenues. Insolvency law itself provides no guidance on this challenging issue—it simply assumes some level of ongoing spending to preserve “health and welfare,” a concept that raises more questions than it answers. This Article explores residents’ interests, mapping out heuristics for decisionmakers and the public to use in thinking about essential public spending in the context of cities at risk of default on debt.