Study: white flight led to increased homeownership rates for blacks

A new study suggests one positive outcome of white flight from American cities: more opportunities to purchase homes for blacks.

Historic data suggests, however, that the mass exodus of the white middle class from central cities had one positive result for the people left behind: Suburban white flight helped boost black homeownership in America. And the extent of the effect is striking. Economists Leah Boustan of UCLA and Robert Margo of Boston University have estimated that for every 1,000 white households that moved out of central cities for the suburbs between 1940 and 1980, about 100 black households became homeowners.

In a fascinating paper published in the Journal of Urban Economics, the researchers argue that the two trends didn’t simply occur in tandem. One directly helped cause the other. Between 1940 and 1980, a period during which Boustan and Margo examined data in 98 cities, the share of white metropolitan households in the U.S. living in the suburbs nearly doubled from 35 percent to 68 percent. Over that same time, the homeownership rate among black metropolitan households rose from 19 percent to 46 percent – a jump of 27 percentage points that had been unprecedented in American history…

By their calculation, 26 percent of the nationwide increase in black homeownership between 1940 and 1980 can be attributed to the white exodus to the suburbs. As white families left for newly created housing – following newly paved highways into the suburbs – demand (and prices) dropped for single-family homes in the city. As the cost of homeownership then declined, more blacks who had previously been renters – a group that now made up a much larger share of would-be home-buyers – were able to buy a home for the first time.

The effect was particularly strong in cities that had a large stock of existing single-family homes conducive to ownership, and in those central cities that had a relatively large black population. In New York City, for example, only 15 percent of the housing stock was owner-occupied in 1940. As a result, Boustan and Margo model that every 1,000 white household departures led to just 50 new black homeowners. But in Birmingham, Alabama, with its large black population and numerous detached single-family homes, 1,000 white departures generated 450 new black homeowners.

Interesting claims though it sounds like white flight only accounts for 26% of the rise in black homeownership. What were the other factors?

Also, this article says little about how we might reassess white flight. Does this suggest white flight was partly okay because it led to new homeownership opportunities? Even if blacks were able to purchase these homes, wasn’t it still the case that a massive amount of wealth, financial and social, left urban neighborhoods? It seems like this research could be used to highlight the paradoxes of homeownership – it isn’t a perfect good even if it is a American social ideal.

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