The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Shifting Sands In Black America

A young African-American girl rides her bike in a suburban community.  Source: pdxmonthly.com

A couple of recent articles seeking to offer an understanding of what happening to black residents in cities, and how the presence of blacks in cities is changing, are calling for some kind of response.

The first piece, in the Washington Post and written by Emily Badger of Wonkblog fame, talks about the diverging fortunes of black homowners in suburban Atlanta.  The piece documents the differences in real estate price recovery since the Great Recession in north DeKalb County, which is largely white, and in south DeKalb, which is largely black:

“When the new subdivisions were rising everywhere here in the 1990s and early 2000s, with hundreds and hundreds of fine homes on one-acre lots carved out of the Georgia forest, the price divide between this part of De­Kalb County and the northern part wasn’t so vast.

Now, a house that looks otherwise identical in South DeKalb, on the edge of Atlanta, might sell for half what it would in North DeKalb. The difference has widened over the years of the housing boom, bust and recovery, and Wayne Early can’t explain it.

The people here make good money, he says. They have good jobs. Their homes are built of the same sturdy brick. Early, an economic development consultant and real estate agent, can identify only one obvious difference that makes property here worth so much less.

“This can’t happen by accident,” he says. “It’s too tightly correlated with race for it to be based on something else.”

The communities in South DeKalb are almost entirely African American, and they reflect a housing disparity that emerges across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the nation.”

The second piece is by urbanist blogging colleague and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Aaron Renn, whose article entitled Black Residents Matter was published in the Institute’s City Journal.  Here, Renn discusses how many West Coast and Midwestern cities seem to be losing absolute numbers of black residents, while Southern (and to a lesser extent, East Coast) cities are experiencing growth in the numbers of black residents:

“Among major American cities, three main typologies emerge: the high-flying progressive enclaves of the West, the historically large cities of the Northeast and the Midwest, and the fast-growing boomtowns of the South. Though results vary to some extent, the broad trend is clear: the most progressive-minded cities are either seeing a significant exodus of blacks or, never having had substantial black populations, are failing to attract them. These same cities, home to some of the loudest voices alleging conservative insensitivity to blacks, are failing to provide economic environments where blacks can prosper.”

My concern stems from the conclusions drawn by Badger and Renn for the issues confronting blacks in cities.  For Badger, the uneven nature of the housing recovery is leaving black homeowners behind, no matter their income, wealth or stature.  For Renn, progressive policies are driving up home prices in the very cities that could be attractive to upwardly mobile blacks, so they opt for less expensive alternatives in the South.

They’re both wrong.  Racism trumps the economy.  Racism trumps progressive policy.  Where blacks choose to live today is still shaped by racism.

Let’s look first at the Washington Post article.  Every bit of what’s mentioned in the article is true — blacks have been disproportionately hit by the housing crash, and have homes whose value has been far slower to recover.  Blacks were more often the recipient of the kinds of questionable mortgage products that ultimately sent to the economy into free-fall.  But what’s happening in suburban Atlanta has virtually little to do with the aftermath of the Great Recession.  It has far more to do with longstanding social and cultural practices that have been passed down for generations.  This is the result of collapsed demand because once neighborhoods reach a “tipping point” in the number of blacks, white homebuyers consider other areas.  I’ve personally witnessed this in south Cook County outside of Chicago since the early ’90s, as an influx of black homeowners replaced white residents.  There was a time when housing values in, say, South Holland were comparable to what you’d see in, say, Buffalo Grove, two cities with a similar housing stock.  Now the difference is huge.  The same can be said for Prince George’s County, MD outside Washington, DC.  It’s still the most affluent majority black jurisdiction in the nation, but do housing values there compare with Montgomery County, MD, or Fairfax County, VA?  Hardly.

This is notable in metro Atlanta only because it’s happening now.  It’s happened in other places and will continue to happen elsewhere.  An interesting research project for someone who might consider it: I wonder about the number and demographic composition of people who looked at houses for sale in south DeKalb in 2000, and again in 2015.   I’d wager that in 2000 the numbers were higher, and largely white; in 2015, vastly lower, and largely black.

Similarly, the data in the City Journal piece is incontrovertibly true as well.  As more whites choose an urban lifestyle, more blacks are choosing a suburban one.  Rust Belt cities, and the Bay Area, may be the most significant sources of black migrants to other cities.  The numbers of blacks are booming in the South.  But I’d be hard-pressed to say that progressive land use policies that drive up housing costs are the chief reason for this.  That may play a role in high-cost West Coast cities.  However, the bulk of the return-Great-Migration is from cities like Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis, which are far less expensive than the coastal metros.

Renn comes a little closer to the truth in this excerpt from his piece:

First, like whites, blacks are attracted by strong, broad-based economies. Pro-growth polices that allow workaday, not just elite, businesses to flourish are foundational to inclusive success.

I’d argue that the increasing reliance on the New Economy in coastal cities is making economic life difficult for those who aren’t on the elite end of the spectrum (in terms of education, work experience, and connections), and that many blacks find the less-elite economies of Southern cities to be easier to enter and navigate.   I’d also argue that racism plays a significant role in that as well, in that elites have done little to be inclusive in their respective industries.  Also, Southern cities come more often with the suburban environment that blacks increasingly prefer.

Unfortunately, while racism may be far closer to the reasons for the shifts we see, it’s not clear what the solution for greater economic and social equality will be.  Blacks are obviously making decisions in their own best interests, but how is that working out?  In suburban Atlanta, as in suburban Chicago and in suburban DC and others before it, blacks are being left out — again — of the wealth generating function of homeownership.  As blacks move away from the coastal cities that increasingly drive a larger share of our nation’s economy, they lose opportunities for inclusion.

Perhaps we need to be even more cautious than we already are about these trends.

3 Responses to “Shifting Sands In Black America”

  1. Kevin Ryan

    Thank you for your insights into what seems to be an increasing number of blog posts/opinion pieces about the migration of urban Black residents. Providing a deeper level of analysis that goes beyond the stale conservative/progressive framing that so many bloggers use is helpful because it cuts through these false narratives to focusing us on solutions to equity issues facing our communities.

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  2. Kim Mitchell

    I am wondering about the idea that black people prefer the suburbs. I would say, in Atlanta, a lot of blacks live in the suburbs already. On the other hand, many living in the City of Atlanta are fighting not to be priced out. A very-not-PC thing for me to say, but I prefer the suburbs/SW parts of Atlanta/S. DeKalb County because that's where WE are. I can't relate to Midtown Atlanta. A black person walking down Peachtree Street not wearing a suit can easily get a \”What are you doing here?\” stare.

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  3. NickD

    Just looked at the data for South Dekalb County… it seems like it was already overwhelming black pretty much everywhere in 2000. Aside from the heavily Hispanic areas with a lot of apartments like Chamblee and Doraville, North Dekalb County was already about 2x wealthier than South DeKalb. Not that racism didn't play a role in the decline of that area, but the process seems to have been more advanced in the early 00s than Emily Badger and Pete Saunders are suggesting.

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