The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Municipal Underbounding Leaves Minority Communities without Basic Resources

Feature Story by Celia Rhoads - 8/1/2007

Every year, tourists flock to plush Moore County, North Carolina, in massive numbers, bringing with them hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

But, unbeknownst to many, in this county known for its pristine golf courses, $14 million dollar spa facilities, and luxury resort accommodations, the new face of American residential segregation lives.

Moore County ranks among the wealthiest counties in the state, but many of its residents have been shut out of its new-found prosperity and isolated from the area's more affluent communities.

These enclaves, which tend to be overwhelmingly African American and poor, house residents who live their day-to-day lives without the most basic services, including trash collection, sewer systems, street lights, and, in some cases, running water.

According to a 2006 report released by the University of North Carolina (UNC) Center for Civil Rights, these conditions are created by a process called "municipal underbounding." 

This modern form of residential segregation occurs when cities and towns expand around communities of color without including them in the municipal boundaries where city services are provided, thus denying these communities basic municipal resources.

According to the study, this new trend is not unique to Moore County, and although most prevalent in rural, Southern communities, it is a nationwide phenomenon. Latino residents in Modesto, California, for instance, have experienced similar exclusion.

In the case of Moore County, five minority enclaves in particular – Jackson Hamlet, Waynor Road, Midway, Monroe Town, and Lost City – have been left behind, in some instances bordered on every side by more affluent communities that receive the municipal services their poorer neighbors have been denied.

UNC researchers discovered sewage and water lines, which, while running only feet from residents' homes, passed through their communities without servicing them, on their way to neighboring developments.

Under North Carolina law, local governments may designate neighborhoods as what are called "exterritorial jurisdiction zones," allowing them to run sewage lines, for example, through neighborhoods for the sole purpose of servicing communities on the other side.

Jackson Hamlet resident Carol Henry told researchers: "We're sitting right in the middle of everything and nobody wants to claim us.  Sometimes it feels like we don't even exist."

As a result, researchers discovered, residents of excluded communities are particularly vulnerable to short and long-term public health hazards. Unable to afford private trash collection, many residents are forced to burn their trash, a major threat to respiratory health. Residents are also at high risk of being exposed to water-born diseases, as routine septic tank failures lead to the leaking of raw sewage into private wells that residents must rely on for drinking water.

"We have our own cesspools, which is not easy, because water doesn't sink in like it used to," said Jackson Hamlet resident Ida Mae Murchinson in the report, "We definitely need sewers."

In addition to serious health and safety concerns, the UNC study said that underbounding has had severe economic consequences that have widened the region's economic divide, sometimes along racial lines.

According to the study, Jackson Hamlet, which is 95 percent African American, has a poverty rate of 43 percent and a medium family income of $25,625 per year, compared to neighboring Pinehurst, whose poverty and African American residency rate are both about three percent with a medium family income of $67,353.

These gaps, however, show little hope of narrowing, as minority enclaves are left with little recourse.  Researchers and residents alike are quick to note the difficulty of pressuring public officials into extending municipal services to these communities, as their residents cannot vote in municipal elections, despite being subject to town land use and zoning regulations.

"We can't do nothing standing on the outside... hollering, nobody hearing our voice," said Midway resident Steve Utley in the report. "Everybody outside has a voice, but inside the little circle, no voice. Just making noise and saying nothing."