While much of the country emerges from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Detroit, the epicenter of the American car industry, is still caught in its grips. As the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy filing, the city embodies the heart of Michelle Wilde Anderson’s research. A public law scholar and practitioner focused on state and local government including urban policy, city planning, local democracy, and public finance, she has made the timely study of cities in fiscal distress a key focus of her scholarship.
Moreover, Anderson, who joins the Stanford Law School faculty this year, is instigating a rethinking of the services that local governments deliver to residents and the legal structures within which local governments function.
Inspiration for a career is often random—found in the words of a teacher or a childhood hero. For Michelle Wilde Anderson, it came from a city. “New Haven was as much a part of my education as Yale College,” she says. “Having come from racially and socioeconomically homogeneous suburban San Diego, the city took me out of my class and racial comfort zones and introduced me to people, both co-workers and local families, who were utterly inspiring in their resilience, compassion, and moral commitment.” While studying history and writing for the weekly newspaper, The Yale Herald, she got to know the city well. She liked it so much she stayed on for two years after completing her undergraduate studies to work for a youth program located in New Haven’s public housing developments—diving deeper into the city and its people. “It was utterly formative to everything I’ve done since,” she says.
It was during this time that Anderson’s key research interest took form as she started to think about how cities are planned and governed, digging into the history of New Haven public housing, school segregation, and local government structure.
“I became much more interested in the interaction of the ‘built environment’ and human social life, how we do or don’t connect to other people, and the consequences of local government policies for socioeconomic and racial integration,” she says. “I also began to look at the relationship of cities to their suburbs. That has been a running theme in my work ever since.”
In 1999, Anderson left New Haven to study regional and urban planning at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences and gained a valuable international perspective as a research fellow at the European Commission’s Urban Unit in Brussels. Next, she went on to earn her JD from the Berkeley Law and clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Anderson was an environmental law fellow at Shute, Mihaly, & Weinberger before joining the Berkeley Law faculty in 2008.
Anderson’s scholarship focuses on the causes and consequences of poverty found in local governance, the rules of local finance, and the physical environment for high-poverty urban and rural areas. How do the structures within which we live—the things that we take for granted such as the physical layout of neighborhoods and the structure of government—affect the social structures of cities and the suburbs connected to them, as well as the delivery of basic services such as policing and education? It is the design of the way we live that intrigues Anderson—the underlying causes for social injustice and possible solutions for it.
“What began as an interest in urban poverty in New Haven quickly became a much bigger understanding of concentrated poverty in all areas, including rural ones, where so much of our poverty lies hidden out of sight,” she says. “A lot of my recent work has been about the similarities between rural and urban poverty. Some of our poorest rural towns face an imminent threat to public health and the environment because they lack access to a public sewer. Others are too poor to afford a law enforcement officer to be on duty in the region at night and on weekends. Our poorest urban areas have started to look like that too, with such sharp cuts to basic services that we’ve fallen below a morally tolerable level for a prosperous, developed nation.”
Anderson’s latest scholarship looks at the 28 U.S. cities that have faced fiscal insolvency since 2008—including Detroit, Camden, Cleveland, Stockton, Vallejo, and San Bernardino. “All of these cities have experienced a dramatic shrinking of government and what the public sector does in ways that I find very concerning,” says Anderson, who notes that slashed city budgets can trans-late into very real hardship for citizens: minimal police patrolling, increased crime rates, closed public parks, and the fire-sale liquidation of municipal real estate for short-term cash. Yet, residents of these cities in fiscal crisis are often the most in need of services. “Poor people are the least able to purchase private substitutes for public services. They can’t buy after-school care programs or private security protections.”
Cities in dire fiscal distress also face a multitude of legal questions surrounding local government authority: What policymaking authority do local governments have to address the problems they are facing? Are they allowed to make choices about changing the way in which they provide services? Can local governments merge or dissolve to find efficiencies?
“Do these governments have the power to do what they want to do? Ultimately, these are questions of federalism and state constitutional law—how a state empowers its subdivisions to act in response to their conditions,” she says. “When we talk about the services that local governments provide, we’re talking about education, police and fire protection—very important, critical public services.”
Anderson describes this research, which she expects to be published as a book, as primarily about the shrinking of the public sector in locations facing long-term fiscal crisis. It is also a critique of the limits of the law, which does little to address many of the struggles residents in poverty-stricken cities must navigate alone. It upends our ideas about what government can and should do.
“We could ask, for instance, when is a homicide rate simply too high that is should no longer be permissible as a matter of law and institutional design?” she asks. “I find it extraordinary to report that there are no minimum standards as a matter of law when it comes to the neighborhood scale. Legally at least, there is no such thing as a crime rate that is too high, an emergency response time too long, high-crime streets that are too dark. Un-less a landowner can show that he alone was targeted for exclusion from an existing system (i.e., an equal protection argument), there is no legal basis for claiming a ‘right’ or ‘entitlement’ to a sewer connection, even if a lot is too small to obtain a permit for a private septic system.”
As the poster child for “Rust Belt” cities now in decline, Detroit offers some of the most important legal lessons.
“It raises very difficult and controversial legal issues, and it is emblematic of a larger arc of American history and urban change in the United States,” says Anderson. “For a start, cities like Detroit teach us that there is such a thing as a local government that gets too small, weak, and ineffective to provide basic habitability for a high-poverty population. We need to reconceptualize habitability to go beyond landlord-tenant relations to include minimum services and minimum conditions in the built environment.”
Anderson offers a blueprint for doing just that, a thorough examination of these 28 cities that touches on everything from encouraging citizen participation in decisions, to deregulation to encourage small business operations, to oversight to discourage mismanagement, to rethinking boundary lines and merging of governments.
“It really is a project about how to make habitable communities in very poor, economically distressed areas, both urban and rural,” she says.