Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
- Pete Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend, Indiana from 2012 and will conclude his term at the beginning of next year.
- South Bend under Buttigieg has performed better than other cities with similar populations when it comes to reducing unemployment.
- The city's median income is still considerably lower than other cities with similar numbers of inhabitants, but it rose slightly ahead of pace of the rest of the field under Buttigieg.
- One major issue in South Bend that Buttigieg was unable to solve? Vacancies.
- Compared to other cities of its size, South Bend has a high vacancy rate in its housing units, and despite serious effort to bring that down, Buttigieg will leave office with a higher fraction of vacant homes than he entered.
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Mayor Pete Buttigieg is running for the Democratic nomination as an unconventional candidate — a mayor running a city with a population of just over 100,000 residents. Butting up against (but not, in fact, containing) the University of Notre Dame, South Bend is a moderately-sized town confronting many of the economic challenges that beguile the post-industrial Midwest with the advantage of being next to a large research university.
To find out how South Bend fared during Mayor Pete's time in office, Insider pulled a number of key stats from the American Community Survey from 2012, the year he took office, to 2017, the latest year for which we have data.
To take it a step further, Insider also pulled that data for the nearly 90 other cities in the United States that have between 100,000 and 125,000 inhabitants. This allows us to compare South Bend to a better benchmark than the country as a whole, to see how well other leaders of other similar cities steered their municipalities over the same period that Buttigieg led South Bend.
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
The good: the economy
The city itself shrunk slightly in population over the course of the period by about 600 households to just over 39,000 total. That's not particularly common: 64 of the 87 cities we looked at experienced growth over the period, but South Bend is the victim of a larger shift towards the Sun Belt.
In spite of that, South Bend kept pace with and even slightly outpaced the peer group financially, with its median income increasing 9.5% from $34,184 to $37,441 from 2012 to 2017, while the median income increase among the full cohort was 9.0%. Still, South Bend's median income in 2017 was much lower than the other 87 cities with 100,000 to 125,000 inhabitants: the average city's median income was $60,211 in 2017.
But, Mayor Pete's term has been a fairly unambiguous success on one point: In 2012, according to the ACS data unemployment in South Bend stood at 15.6%. As of 2017, according to the American Community Survey estimates it was down to 9.0%, a 6.6 percentage point decline that was the second-highest of any of the 87 cities in the sample. The median city saw a decline in unemployment of 2.7 percentage points over the period.
Concentrating on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which has the advantage of being much more current but the disadvantage of being less focused on the city itself rather than the larger South Bend-Mishawaka metropolitan area, the unemployment rate fell from 10.2% in January 2012 in the broader metro area down to 3.3% as of September, 2019, the last month for which we have finalized data.
On several other factors, South Bend performed adequately compared to peers — or better. From 2013 to 2017, the uninsured rate fell from 17.5% to 13.8%, which was on pace with the median city in the cohort. All told, the Buttigieg tenure was one of making strides in a uniquely difficult economic situation.
"Under Pete's leadership, South Bend has transformed from what was once described as a 'dying city' into a hub of innovation and business growth," said campaign spokesperson Tess Whittlesey in an email. "Pete helped change his hometown's trajectory, creating thousands of new jobs, and bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments to his city. Under his administration, South Bend is growing again and the city has come to believe in its future."
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
The bad: housing
Compared to peer cities, South Bend has one issue that pops out: vacancies. South Bend's housing vacancy rate in 2017 was the fifth-highest of all the cities with between 100,000 and 125,000 inhabitants. And when you exclude the normal reasons houses are vacant — they're recently or imminently sold or rented — it's actually worse, with South Bend being the third-worst unexplained vacancy rate in the set.
In 2015, Mayor Buttigieg announced an initiative to work on the city's problem of vacant and abandoned housing. Vacancies plague the former industrial centers of the US, and South Bend struggled with them significantly, with a 2013 Notre Dame report identifying 1,900 vacant and 1,275 abandoned properties in South Bend.
Pete announced an initiative to rehab or demolish 1,000 vacant and abandoned homes in 1,000 days, and by all rights the program accomplished that goal with time to spare. As a presidential contender, Buttigieg has announced plans to tackle the issue nationwide.
Still, despite accomplishing the 1,000 homes in 1,000 days target, the problem continued to get worse in South Bend. In 2009, well before Buttigieg took office, South Bend had 48,683 total housing units, 41,367 of which were occupied and 7,316 which were vacant, giving the city a vacancy rate of 15%.
As of 2017, there were 8,255 vacant units out of 47,280 total, for a vacancy rate of 17.5% according to the American Community Survey data.
There are lots of reasons that units may be unoccupied, so that figure isn't entirely fair to the mayor. When we pull out the units that are unoccupied because they're for rent or for sale, or because they're recently rented or sold but not yet occupied, or if they're for seasonal use only, that still brings us to 3,563 vacant housing units, 7.5% of the total housing stock as of 2017. That's up from 2,767 units vacant for other reasons, or a 5.9% vacancy rate.
Dealing with housing is a problem that beguiles cities big and small, but it's one that Pete was unable to solve despite some considerable effort.
The big picture: Pete Buttigieg led South Bend through a tumultuous time with some solid economic success
By comparing South Bend to its peer group, we get a pretty good picture of a town that had serious difficulties recovering economically from a systemic crisis currently ravaging the Midwest. It's hardly alone with these issues, but under Buttigieg the city was able to make significant strides on its economic recover and cut its local unemployment rate significantly, one of the best economic performances in the whole cohort.
On the other hand, the tectonic economic shift that the Midwest endured economically has had a long tail in the housing market of post-industrial cities like South Bend. That was a problem Buttigieg tried to reverse, but in the end was unable to counteract.
Overall, here's how South Bend did compared to other cities with 100,000 to 125,000 residents:
- From 2012 to 2017, the number of households within South Bend fell 1.5%, while the median city in the set saw the number of families rise 3%.
- Median income was up 9.5 percent, compared to 9 percent in all the cities.
- South Bend saw its population rise less than 1% while the overall set saw a 5% increase in population.
- The unemployment rate in South Bend fell 6.6 percentage points, while the median city saw 2.7 percentage point drop in unemployment over the period.
- The percentage of South Bend residents who were uninsured fell from 17% to 14%, a drop that was consistent with the 2.7 average percentage point drop.
- As of 2017 there were 3,563 residences in South Bend that were vacant for "other reasons" besides being seasonal or recently or imminently filled. In 2012, that figure was 2,767 residences.
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