America’s Biggest Metros Are Growing Much Faster Than Other Cities

April 1, 2014

By: Richard Florida
Via: The Atlantic Cities

Cyclists on a hike and bike trail in Austin, Texas, the large metro with the fastest population growth rate from 2010 to 2013 (Reuters/Julia Robinson).


America’s biggest metros are getting bigger, accounting for a disproportionate share of U.S population growth, according to new population estimates covering the period up to July 2013, released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

While most of the initial coverage of the report has focused on the year-long period from July 2012 through July 2013, I decided to look at the trends over the longer 2010-2013 period, which more or less coincides with the economic recovery. With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I examined the rate of population growth across five key categories of metro size. (See the chart below).


The pattern is striking. Large metros (those with more than a million people) registered the fastest growth by far, 3.2 percent. This explosive growth, in large part due to their capacity to attract immigrants, is considerably better than the 2.4 percent growth rate for the U.S. as a whole. Medium size metros, those with between 500,000 and a million people, grew just a bit faster than the nation as a whole, at 2.5 percent. Metros with between 350,000 and 500,000 people grew at slightly below the national rate, 2.3 percent, while metros with less than 250,000 people grew at just 1.7 percent. And the nation’s smallest geographic units, its 536 micropolitan areas, grew on average just 0.2 percent. More than half of them (286) saw their populations either decline or register no increase whatsoever between 2010 and 2013.

And when we zoom in on which of these specific metros that are gaining and losing population, it’s clear that America’s new geography is increasingly defined by the two pillars of recovery – knowledge and energy – that I initially defined in a piece for the Atlantic this fall.

Of large metros, Austin – a leading knowledge and tech hub – saw the largest percentage increase in population, growing by 9.7 percent between 2010 and 2013. Raleigh, an anchor of the North Carolina Research Triangle, grew 7.4 percent. Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Denver, and Dallas each grew 6 percent or more.

Some of the fastest growing areas of the country were in the energy belt stretching from Texas up through the Dakotas. Midland and Odessa, Texas; Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota; and Casper, Wyoming all saw 2010 to 2013 population growth rates of 7 percent or higher. College towns like Auburn, Alabama; Provo, Utah; Durham, North Carolina; and Boulder, Colorado also registered gains at more than twice the national average.

On the flip side, Rustbelt metros continue to see population stagnate or in some cases even decline slightly. Cleveland and Buffalo saw the slowest population growth of large metros, losing small numbers of people, while population virtually stagnated in Detroit, Providence, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Rochester. Pittsburgh and Cleveland saw small population losses in the more recent 2012-13 period.

Once booming Sunbelt metros, where populations exploded alongside suburban sprawl in previous decades, saw their population growth slow substantially from 2010 to 2013. Las Vegas grew by 85 percent in the 1990s, making it America’s fastest growing, and more than 40 percent in the 2000s. But Vegas saw its population growth slow to 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2013, placing it 75th among all metros. Phoenix, which grew by 45 percent in the 1990s (and where population growth topped 4 percent a year for nearly four decades), saw its population growth rate decline to 4.9 percent in 2010-13, leaving it 49th of all metros.

All told, 40 percent of U.S metros (156 of 383) saw their populations grow faster than the national average, while 51 metros grew at twice the national rate, and 13 metros grew at three times the national rate. Seventy-two metros lost population over this period, most of them smaller metros in the Rustbelt and old South.

America continues to see population growth around the twin pillars of its knowledge-energy economy. Many hard hit industrial metros of the Rustbelt continue to stagnate or decline, and the growth of the sprawling, housing-driven metros of the Sunbelt has slowed considerably from the boom years.

Most of all, size clearly seems to matter. America’s biggest metros registered not only the largest absolute increases but also the largest percent gains.

Interactive Map Detailing Growth Of Top Industries In 100 Most Populous U.S. Metros

February 13, 2014

By: Rob Sentz
Via: EMSI

Click here to see the interactive map

Which industries are the top drivers of job growth for each of the 100 largest U.S. markets? Which metros have added the most jobs post-recession? Which metros have the biggest concentration of jobs in healthcare, technology, construction, manufacturing, energy and other top fields?

The U.S. economy is composed of hundreds of industries that are spread across thousands of counties, and the interactions of these industries are huge engines for job formation and economic prosperity.

CareerBuilder and EMSI have teamed up to create a powerful interactive map that applies big data to visualize the enormous size, scope and diversity of the U.S. economy. The map uses EMSI’s rich labor market database of over 90 national and state employment resources to identify key industries that are driving job growth for the 100 most populous U.S. metros. 1

Viewers can click on each metro and the map reveals 10 of the most important detailed industries for that location, based on number of 2013 jobs, job growth since 2010 and job concentration. From well-known economic forces (e.g., finance in New York City and aerospace products and parts manufacturing in Seattle) to emerging sectors (e.g., motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing in Nashville and data processing and hosting in San Antonio), the map provides comprehensive – and often surprising – insights.

Viewers can also click on an industry menu to see a list of metros where a specific industry is a major economic driver.

“Since 2010, the national workforce has grown four percent, but more than 40 large metros have eclipsed the national growth rate,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “These are metros with a strong concentration of computer systems design, software publishing and data processing and hosting firms. These are metros benefiting from the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, and the nation’s need to find new energy sources and expand healthcare services.”

In a separate study of the same 100 metros, CareerBuilder and EMSI discovered which metros have added the most jobs per capita post-recession:

METROS WITH THE MOST JOBS ADDED PER CAPITA SINCE 2010


1. Salt Lake City, UT – added over 62,000 jobs since 2010, up 9% (534 new jobs per 10,000 people)

Originally a farming community, Salt Lake City has grown into an industrial center for the state. Industries that have experienced strong job growth in this metro include electronic shopping and mail order houses (up 43%), software publishing (up 28%), specialized freight trucking (up 23%) and credit intermediation (up 22%).

2. Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI – added over 39,000 jobs since 2010, up 10% (513 new jobs per 10,000 people)

This manufacturing heavyweight has benefited from the rebound of production jobs after the recession. The metro saw job increases in various manufacturing segments such as plastics product (up 35%), motor vehicle parts (up 33%), metalworking machinery (up 30%) and office furniture (up 12%). Hospitals also accounted for an upswing in jobs (up 16%).

3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – added over 91,000 jobs since 2010, up 10% (498 new jobs per 10,000 people)

It’s no surprise that software publishing (up 30%), computer systems design (up 19%), data processing and hosting (up 16%), computer manufacturing (up 12%) and scientific research (up 9%) are big contributors to employment for this Silicon Valley metro.

4. Austin-Round Rock- San Marcos, TX – added over 90,000 jobs since 2010, up 11% (488 new jobs per 10,000 people)

Austin has made a name for itself as a technology and business hub, fueling job growth in management, scientific and consulting services (up 35%), computer systems design (up 35%), data processing and hosting (up 35%) and semiconductor manufacturing (up 17%).

5. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX – added over 281,000 jobs since 2010, up 10% (451 new jobs per 10,000 people)

Energy-rich Houston continues to see job growth in utility system construction (specifically, oil and gas pipeline, up 45%), mining support (up 38%), metal and mineral (except petroleum) wholesalers (up 31%), oil and gas extraction (up 25%), and architectural and engineering services (21%).

6. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN – added over 71,000 jobs since 2010, up 9% (432 new jobs per 10,000 people)

A popular music center, Nashville saw a 25% increase in jobs for independent artists, writers and performers. The metro also saw notable jumps in jobs for motor vehicle manufacturing (up 61%), accounting services (up 37%), general freight trucking (up 17%) and specialty hospitals (up 15%).

7. Provo-Orem, UT – added over 24,000 jobs since 2010, up 12% (427 new jobs per 10,000 people)

The mid-sized Utah metro is well concentrated in a number of fast-growing tech industries: software publishing (up 51%), computer systems design (up 30%) and semiconductor manufacturing (up 14%).

8. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX – added over 267,000 jobs since 2010, up 9% (400 new jobs per 10,000 people)

Part of the Silicon Prairie, Dallas saw a boost in jobs in computer systems design (up 32%) and communications equipment manufacturing (up 18%). Other key growth areas include oil and gas extraction (up 27%), office administration (up 22%) and credit intermediation (up 13%).

9. Bakersfield-Delano, CA – added 33,000 jobs since 2010, up 11% (394 new jobs per 10,000 people)

Growth in this metro has been fueled by agriculture-related industries such as crop production (up 14%) and dairy product manufacturing (up 11%). Bakersfield has also benefited from an upswing in utility system construction (specifically, oil and gas pipeline), an industry that has more than doubled in employment since 2010 and is nearly seven times as concentrated in Bakersfield than the national average.

10. Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC – added over 70,000 jobs, up 8% (381 new jobs per 10,000 people)

In addition to spectator sports (up 37%), this metro also experienced growth in tech-related industries such as telecommunication carriers (up 31%), management, scientific and consulting services (up 22%), scheduled air transportation (up 17%) and data processing and hosting (up 14%).

Meanwhile, the poorest-performing labor markets are in Scranton–Wilkes-Barre and Albuquerque, both of which have roughly the same number of workers today as they did in 2010. Ten other metros, headlined by Providence, Dayton, and Syracuse, have only grown 1 percent.

The map also reveals pockets of the U.S. where key industries are clustered among the largest cities:

Motor vehicles parts manufacturing has traditionally been focused in Rust Belt cities, but Southern metros such as Birmingham, Louisville and Nashville are emerging in this sector.

Oil and gas extraction is a major driver of high-wage job growth in Texas, Oklahoma and the surrounding region. It’s also becoming a driver of job growth in Denver.

General freight trucking is concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast (Nashville, Memphis, Jacksonville, etc.), where transportation routes are plentiful and huge population centers are in close range.

Software publishing has a big presence in Silicon Valley, but is also growing in major markets such as Seattle, Boston, Atlanta and Denver.

General medical and surgical hospitals are driving jobs in Columbus, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Rochester and St. Louis, among others.

Highway, street and bridge construction has seen an uptick in jobs in Baton Rouge, Oklahoma City and San Antonio as cities rebuild after natural disasters and address other public concerns.


CareerBuilder and EMSI are national leaders in providing labor market data and tools to dig deeper and better understand national and local economies.

1 EMSI data is collected from more than 90 federal and state sources, such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and state labor departments. EMSI removes suppressions often found in publicly available data and includes proprietors, creating a complete picture of the workforce.

About EMSI

Economic Modeling Specialists Intl., a CareerBuilder company, turns labor market data into useful information that helps organizations understand the connection between economies, people, and work. Using sound economic principles and good data, we build user-friendly services that help educational institutions, workforce planners, and regional developers build a better workforce and improve the economic conditions in their regions. For more information, visit www.economicmodeling.com.

About CareerBuilder®

CareerBuilder is the global leader in human capital solutions, helping companies target and attract great talent. Its online career site, CareerBuilder.com®, is the largest in the United States with more than 24 million unique visitors, 1 million jobs and 50 million resumes. CareerBuilder works with the world’s top employers, providing resources for everything from employment branding and talent and compensation intelligence to recruitment solutions. More than 10,000 websites, including 140 newspapers and broadband portals such as MSN and AOL, feature CareerBuilder’s proprietary job search technology on their career sites. Owned by Gannett Co., Inc. (NYSE:GCI), Tribune Company and The McClatchy Company (NYSE:MNI), CareerBuilder and its subsidiaries operate in the United States, Europe, South America, Canada and Asia. For more information, visit www.careerbuilder.com.

Fast Internet Is Chattanooga’s New Locomotive

February 10, 2014

By: Edward Wyatt
Via: The New York Times


CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — For thousands of years, Native Americans used the river banks here to cross a gap in the Appalachian Mountains, and trains sped through during the Civil War to connect the eastern and western parts of the Confederacy. In the 21st century, it is the Internet that passes through Chattanooga, and at lightning speed.

“Gig City,” as Chattanooga is sometimes called, has what city officials and analysts say was the first and fastest — and now one of the least expensive — high-speed Internet services in the United States. For less than $70 a month, consumers enjoy an ultrahigh-speed fiber-optic connection that transfers data at one gigabit per second. That is 50 times the average speed for homes in the rest of the country, and just as rapid as service in Hong Kong, which has the fastest Internet in the world.

It takes 33 seconds to download a two-hour, high-definition movie in Chattanooga, compared with 25 minutes for those with an average high-speed broadband connection in the rest of the country. Movie downloading, however, may be the network’s least important benefit.

“It created a catalytic moment here,” said Sheldon Grizzle, the founder of the Company Lab, which helps start-ups refine their ideas and bring their products to market. “The Gig,” as the taxpayer-owned, fiber-optic network is known, “allowed us to attract capital and talent into this community that never would have been here otherwise.”

Since the fiber-optic network switched on four years ago, the signs of growth in Chattanooga are unmistakable. Former factory buildings on Main Street and Warehouse Row on Market Street have been converted to loft apartments, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. The city has welcomed a new population of computer programmers, entrepreneurs and investors. Lengthy sideburns and scruffy hipster beards — not the norm in eastern Tennessee — are de rigueur for the under-30 set.

“This is a small city that I had never heard of,” said Toni Gemayel, a Florida native who moved his software start-up, Banyan, from Tampa to Chattanooga because of the Internet speed. “It beat Seattle, New York, San Francisco in building the Gig. People here are thinking big.”

But so far, it is unclear statistically how much the superfast network has contributed to economic activity in Chattanooga over all. Although city officials said the Gig created about 1,000 jobs in the last three years, the Department of Labor reported that Chattanooga still had a net loss of 3,000 jobs in that period, mostly in government, construction and finance.

EPB, the city-owned utility formerly named Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, said that only about 3,640 residences, or 7.5 percent of its Internet-service subscribers, are signed up for the Gigabit service offered over the fiber-optic network. Roughly 55 businesses also subscribe. The rest of EPB’s customers subscribe to a (relatively) slower service offered on the network of 100 megabits per second, which is still faster than many other places in the country.

Some specialists say the low subscriber and employment numbers are not surprising or significant, at least in the short term. “The search for statistical validation of these projects is not going to turn up anything meaningful,” said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U, a high-speed Internet project that includes more than three dozen American research universities. Mr. Levin cited “Solow’s paradox,” the 1987 observation by Robert M. Solow, a recipient of the Nobel in economic science who wrote that “you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

Such is the case with many new technologies, Mr. Levin said. No one is going to design products that can run only on a one-gigabit-per-second network if no such networks exist, he said. But put a few in place, he added, and soon the supply of applications will drive a growing demand for the faster connections.

Chattanooga’s path to Gig City is part of a transformation that began long before most Americans knew the Internet existed. Named America’s most-polluted city in 1969 because of largely unregulated base of heavy manufacturing, Chattanooga has in the last two decades cleaned its air, rebuilt its waterfront, added an aquarium and become a hub for the arts in eastern Tennessee. In more recent years, an aggressive high-tech economic development plan and an upgrade of the power grid by EPB moved Chattanooga toward the one-gigabit connection.

In 2009, a $111 million federal stimulus grant offered the opportunity to expedite construction of a long-planned fiber-optic network, said David Wade, chief operating officer for the power company. (EPB also had to borrow $219 million of the network’s $330 million cost.) Mr. Wade said it quickly became apparent that customers would be willing to pay for the one-gigabit connection offered over the network.

Chattanooga has been joined in recent years by a handful of other American cities that have experimented with municipally owned fiber-optic networks that offer the fastest Internet connections. Lafayette, La., and Bristol, Va., have also built gigabit networks. Google is building privately owned fiber systems in Kansas City, Kan.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Austin, Tex., and it recently bought a dormant fiber network in Provo, Utah.

The systems are the leading edge of a push for ever-faster Internet and telecommunications infrastructure in a country that badly lags much of the world in the speed and costs of Web connections. Telecommunications specialists say that if the United States does not keep its networks advancing with those in the rest of the world, innovation, business, education and a host of other pursuits could suffer.

Even so, few people, including many who support the systems, argue that everyone in the country now needs a one-gigabit home connection. Much of the public seems to agree. According to Federal Communications Commission statistics, of the households where service of at least 100 megabits per second was available (one-tenth as fast as a gigabit), only 0.12 percent subscribed at the end of 2012. In Chattanooga, one-third of the households and businesses that get electric power from EPB also subscribe to Internet service of at least 100 megabits.

But just as few people a decade ago thought there would be any need for one terabyte of data storage on a desktop computer (more than 200 million pages of text, or more than 200 movies), even the most prescient technology gurus have often underestimated the hunger for computer speed and memory.

Fiber-optic networks carry another benefit, which is the unlikelihood that a potentially faster network will come along soon. Fiber optics can transmit data at close to the speed of light, and EPB officials say the technology exists for their network to carry up to 80 connections of 10 gigabits per second at once.

Those who use Chattanooga’s one-gigabit connection are enthusiastic. Mr. Gemayel, the Florida native who moved Banyan here from Tampa, first passed through Chattanooga in 2012, when he heard about an entrepreneurial contest sponsored by The Company Lab with a $100,000 prize. Banyan, which was working on a way to share real-time editing in huge data files quickly among far-flung researchers, won the contest. Mr. Gemayel returned to Tampa with his check.

But once there he discovered that his low-bandwidth Internet connection was hampering the development of his business. By the beginning of 2013, he had moved to Chattanooga.

Other companies have become Gig-related successes. Quickcue, a company that developed a tablet-based guest-management system for restaurants, began here in 2011 and over the next two years attracted about $3 million in investments. In December, OpenTable, the online restaurant reservations pioneer, bought Quickcue for $11.5 million.

Big technology dreams do not always pan out, of course, and Chattanooga is familiar with failed experiments. The city spent millions of dollars in the last five years to build a citywide Wi-Fi network, known as the “wireless mesh,” intended for use by residents and city agencies. It sits largely unused, and its utility has largely been usurped by 4G wireless service.

Few people here would say that the Gig has even begun to be used to its fullest. “The potential will only be capped by our selfishness,” said Miller Welborn, a partner at the Lamp Post Group, the business incubator where Banyan shares office space with a dozen other start-ups. “The Gig is not fully useful to Chattanooga unless a hundred other cities are doing the same thing. To date, the best thing it’s done for us is it put us on the map.”

For all the optimism, many boosters are aware there are limits to how far the Gig can take the city, particularly as it waits for the rest of the country to catch up.

“We don’t need to be the next Silicon Valley,” Mayor Andy Berke said. “That’s not who we’re going to be, and we shouldn’t try to be that. But we are making our own place in the innovation economy.”

Correction: February 7, 2014
An article on Tuesday about the high-speed broadband Internet service available in Chattanooga, Tenn., misspelled, in some editions, the surname of the co-founder of Banyan, a software start-up that moved there to take advantage of the fast connection. He is Toni Gemayel, not Gemeyal.

Metro Freight Series: Global Goods Trade and Metropolitan Economies

October 23, 2013

By: Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane and Robert Puentes
Via: Brookings



The Metro Freight research series assesses goods trade at the metropolitan scale. It uses a unique and comprehensive database to capture all the goods moving in and out of U.S. metropolitan areas, both domestically and beyond. The reports in the series will describe which goods move between metropolitan areas, how they move via different modes of transportation, and uncover the specific trading relationships between U.S. metropolitan areas as well as their global counterparts.

Metro Freight: The Global Goods Trade that Moves Metro Economies (PDF)

This primer establishes the economic rationale for metropolitan goods trade, describing why, how, and what these areas exchange with each other. One of the lessons from the Great Recession is the need to grow and support the tradable sectors, typically manufacturing and high-end services, of our metropolitan economies. But to drive these tradable sectors, metropolitan areas need physical access to markets. Metropolitan freight connectivity enables this access and the ensuing modern global value chains. Without it, trade cannot occur.

Metro-to-Metro: Global and Domestic Goods Trade in Metropolitan America (PDF)

The trading of physical goods is a major component of the U.S. economy. In 2010, the United States moved more than $3 trillion in goods internationally or nearly $8.8 billion, on average, each day. However, an exclusive focus on national trade fails to recognize the extreme regional variety in production, consumption, and goods exchange. This discussion paper marks the first time metropolitan areas can begin to explore their place in domestic and global goods trade networks by tracking which regions generate the most international trade and the level of trade within the much larger domestic marketplace.

To download individual metro profiles, click here.

Why the Size of Your City’s Middle Class Matters Even if You’re Not In It

September 6, 2013

By: Emily Badger
Via: The Atlantic Cities


Earlier this summer, economists at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley released a widely discussed study showing that a child’s chances of escaping poverty depends heavily on the luck (or misfortune) of where he or she lives. Some U.S. cities seem to create, or enable, more opportunity than others for economic mobility. A poor child raised in Atlanta faces much longer odds of growing up to be middle-class than a poor child raised in Salt Lake City.

So what’s the difference between Salt Lake City and Atlanta? The authors of the original study highlighted a few strong correlations: Metropolitan areas with more two-parent households, higher quality schools, and lower racial and economic segregation were associated with higher economic mobility. But researchers at the Center for American Progress have taken up the same dataset used in that study and now added another wrinkle: Among the 100 largest metro regions in the country, places with higher economic mobility also tend to have a larger middle class.

In a chart, this is what that relationship looks like:


As authors Ben Olinksy and Sasha Post note, the size of a region’s middle class is strongly linked to the likelihood that a poor child may grow up to join it:

“Specifically, the data suggest that for every percentage-point increase in the share of a region’s population who fall between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of the national household income distribution, children who begin at the 25th percentile of the income distribution will climb up nearly half a percentile. So if one city’s middle class is 10 percentage points larger than another’s, we would expect that its low-income children will grow up to earn incomes that put them 5 percentiles higher in the national distribution.

For example, imagine a city in which 40 percent of the population is in the middle class. According to the data, a child who begins in the 25th income percentile could expect to reach the 37th percentile when he or she turns 30. But if the city’s middle class were larger, say, 50 percent instead of 40 percent, then a low-income child could expect to end up in the 42nd percentile, making around $26,000 a year instead of $22,000 a year. That’s almost $4,000 in additional income—a 17 percent increase.”


It’s important to note that the causal relationship here is unclear, as Jim Tankersley does a good job of explaining at the Washington Post. Does the middle class get bigger because economic mobility allows previously poor people to join those ranks? Or do poor people have higher economic mobility because a broad middle class drives opportunity for everyone? A large middle class, for instance, might support a stronger school system, which in turn benefits the lower-income students who attend it.

This study can’t answer this key causal question. But it does suggest that if you’re poor and raising a child, you might be better off in the cities at the upper right-hand corner of that distribution shown above.

There are also some interesting caveats in the analysis:

“Finally, one troubling finding is that few regions of the country with large African American populations have high mobility. In light of this observation and the fact that African Americans have much less economic mobility than other groups, we checked to see whether race might limit the relationship between the middle class and mobility. The results are concerning: In regions with large African American populations, increases in the middle class’s size are linked to smaller increases in mobility than in other regions. This suggests that the middle class’s influence on mobility may be dampened by racial inequities, both social and economic. The size of the middle class is a powerful predictor of mobility, yet its reach is limited by our nation’s troubling legacy of racial inequity.”

This last finding suggests a spatial component to economic mobility (a theme the original Harvard and Berkeley study yielded is as well). If your metropolitan area has a large middle class, but many poor people are racially segregated far away from it – from middle-class schools, middle-class job opportunities, middle-class neighborhoods – how will they reap any benefits associated with it?
Top image: hafakot/Shutterstock.com

California City Tries Using Eminent Domain To Help Underwater Homeowners

August 15, 2013

Interview with Krissy Clark
Via: Marketplace

A novel plan by one city to use eminent domain to rescue underwater mortgages has sparked a lawsuit by major banks. The complaint filed in federal court yesterday is against the working class city of Richmond, California, a suburb of San Francisco, where nearly half of homeowners’ mortgages are underwater.

Since the mortgage crisis, homeowners all over Richmond are underwater — meaning they’re stuck in mortgages where they owe way more than their house is currently worth. If the banks won’t refinance or modify the loan — and often they can’t or won’t — the next step is commonly foreclosure.

In order to stem a tide of more foreclosures, the city of Richmond recently approached lenders of more than 600 underwater mortgages and offered to buy the loans at their much lower current market value. The city says it will then help homeowners refinance in order to keep its citizens in their homes. If the banks refuse Richmond’s offer, the city plans to use eminent domain to force a sale.

Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank, two of the banks involved in the lawsuit, argue that the plan would hurt their investors — everyone from big Wall Street firms to retirees with pensions. The banks also say using eminent domain would be unconstitutional because it’s not for a “valid public purpose,” and instead would benefit a small group of Richmond citizens and the company that’s coordinating the plan, at the expense of out-of-state investors.

Richmond is the first city to try using eminent domain to help underwater homeowners, but others — like Newark, Seattle, and North Las Vegas — are paying close attention to what happens in Richmond. The case will be a key legal test for all these cities.

Underlying the case is a deeper question — what really is a “valid public purpose”? In eminent domain cases, usually it’s homeowners who are the ones who lose out, when municipalities build something like a freeway or a sports stadium. In this case, the city is arguing that the public good is the benefit to the local economy of keeping homeowners in their homes.