Here in the District of Columbia we’ve got rumblings and grumblings about gentrification. Young strivers (mostly white) choosing to live in the city. Driving up housing costs in formerly affordable, if often rundown neighborhoods. And so driving out low-income families. Saddling the remainder with heavy rent burdens.
Gentrification — and the related debate over the pluses and minuses — are hardly unique to the District. We read about skyrocketing rents and displaced minorities in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and other urban centers.
But a new report tells us that gentrification, though real is rare — at least, in the 51 major metro areas it covers. We should be much more concerned, it says, about high-poverty neighborhoods, i.e., those where at least 30% of the residents are officially poor.
We’ve got more of these neighborhoods now for two reasons. The first, which speaks to gentrification, is that most neighborhoods that were high-poverty in 1970 still were forty years later. The second is that well over 1,200 more neighborhoods became high-poverty during this period.
A relatively small percent of urban poor people live in high-poverty neighborhoods — roughly 4 million of the 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010. But that’s twice as many as in 1970.
Looked at another way, the percent of urban poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods increased from 28% to nearly 39%. In other words, we have not only more high-poverty neighborhoods, but more poor people in them.
I recently heard a presentation by a mother who lives in one of the District’s public housing complexes. She objected strenuously to plans that would convert what’s surely a high-poverty neighborhood into a mixed-income community — foreseeing, it seems, that she and her fellow public housing dwellers would be dispersed.
“Deconcentration offends me,” she said. It means “I’ll be better if I live next to you,” referring to her mostly middle-class audience. This is surely a perspective worth considering.
Yet we’ve research indicating that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods are worse off specifically because that’s where they live.
For example, our public housing resident understandably wants ready access to good schools and healthful, affordable food. Well, supermarket chains generally don’t open stores in high-poverty neighborhoods, for obvious economic reasons.
Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are frequently underfunded. And it’s not only money they lack. They tend to have less-qualified teachers and principals, in part because they’re challenging places to work. So teachers who don’t quit, as many do, will often transfer when they can.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson has long argued that lost job opportunities in the city helped explain a host of problems in high-poverty, predominantly black urban neighborhoods — more crime, deteriorating housing, failing schools, breakdowns in family and other social structures, etc.
These lead to more concentrated poverty because people who can flee to better, safer neighborhoods. So there are fewer local retail businesses because residents don’t have the income to support them. Nor can potential risk-takers get financing. And so there are fewer nearby job opportunities — and fewer working neighbors to serve as role models, mentors and networks into the labor market.
In short, as one of the authors of the high-poverty neighborhood study says, “Place plays a significant role in shaping individual economic opportunity.”
We see the results in several studies conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts. One found that children raised in high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to move up the income scale as adults — and considerably more likely to move down if they hadn’t been at the bottom to begin with.
Another found lower rates of economic mobility in metro areas where neighborhoods were highly segregated into pockets of wealth and poverty. These include the District and nearby suburbs, which had a higher economic segregation score than all but two of the other metro areas assessed.
The Urban Institute’s Marjorie Turner reminds us that “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty aren’t the products of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ housing market operations.” Nor, as she and a colleague earlier wrote in reference to the Washington metro region, do they “reflect the ‘choices’ of poor families about where to live.
Public policies created them — legal segregation, then permitted race discrimination and decisions about where to locate public housing. All but the first are generally true in all the urban areas with high-poverty neighborhoods.
Now, highly-concentrated poverty isn’t only an urban problem. Nor are blacks the only people affected, though much of the research has focused on them. We find extraordinarily high poverty rates on Native American reservations, for example, and in predominantly-white hill towns of Appalachia.
We increasingly find it in suburbs, as we know (if we didn’t before) because the cop shot the kid in Ferguson — a case study in its own right of the legacy of segregation, persistent race discrimination and a failed public housing policy.
There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem — not even for high-poverty urban neighborhoods like those clustered “east of the river” in D.C.
Turner (and others) recommend multi-part, multi-partner “place conscious” strategies. These connect families to opportunities outside their neighborhoods, while at the same both expanding opportunities within their neighborhoods and helping those who want to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods to do so.
“A big structural challenge,” she acknowledges. But it sounds like the right approach to me. And I think the mom in public housing would like it too.