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This article, part of the amazing work that Alan Greenblatt does at Governing, shocked me. A study by Alan Mallach has found that, of 300 predominately Black neighborhoods that were stable and economically healthy in 2000, the majority had become impoverished by the time the COVID-19 pandemic started. Why? Mallach and Greenblatt explain that it’s a vicious cycle.
Mallach examined more than 300 neighborhoods – all with healthy median incomes in 2000 – and found that a large majority had slipped into poverty by 2018. Fortunes improved in only a handful of neighborhoods; gentrification was barely a factor. In nearly all the neighborhoods, homeownership was down, while vacancy and poverty rates were up….
Something new has occurred over the past 20 years to drive once-stable neighborhoods into poverty. If policymakers are serious about addressing equity, they need to figure out those forces.
[One Black homeowner in Chicago] noted that in her neighborhoods, homes sell for $100 to $110 per square foot, compared to $300 per square foot in Chicago’s white communities. “I’m missing two-thirds,” she says.
The article identifies the drivers of this decline as a collection of recent challenges that lay on top of the segregation and redlining that led to the concentration of Black homeowners in these neighborhoods during the 20th century. The more recent blows include the loss of middle class industrial jobs, the subprime and predatory lending debacle, Black migration to suburbs and to the Southern U.S., and more. As Greenblatt writes:
All of this leaves Black neighborhoods in Northern cities with fewer potential buyers. As Mallach notes, white homebuyers are unlikely even to look in predominantly Black neighborhoods, let alone move in. Black homebuyers, by contrast, generally may consider not only predominantly Black neighborhoods, but mixed-race and mostly white areas as well. That means Black neighborhoods don’t see the benefit when there’s an increase in demand among white homeowners, who represent the biggest market, while having to compete for the relatively small share of Black purchasers.
The upshot is that there simply aren’t enough buyers when Black homeowners want to sell. Sometimes they have to settle for a lowball offer from an absentee investor. More often than not, in Mallach’s neighborhoods, they can’t find a buyer at all. In either case, their home may well sit vacant after they move out, dragging down their old neighborhood.
I think the implications of this study are incredibly deep and profound. We already know that Black families enjoy only a fraction of the generational wealth that white families have, and this means that for many Black families, their biggest asset becomes essentially valueless. It also might mean that we need to set the issue of gentrification in a larger context: how can the market pressures that lead to gentrification be redirected or encouraged to increase market demand for Black neighborhood properties? Can that be done without creating a new set of problems?