Seeing residential segregation in House Hunters

In showing buyers of different races and ethnicities as well as different priced homes in different locations, House Hunters helps reveal residential segregation in America:

I really notice this whenever Chicago is featured on “House Hunters.” My city is hyper-segregated and diverse, with a vast number of housing and neighborhood choices for aspiring homebuyers. I quickly noticed a pattern: Chicago-set episodes usually show couples on the hunt in white North Side neighborhoods or gentrifying Latino neighborhoods. They skip over the biggest geographic part of the city—the South Side. And their budgets are $400,000 and up. One agent said that price is typical for a first-time homebuyer. (According to Zillow, the actual median home price in Chicago is about $225,000.) People shell out double that for small condos in expensive neighborhoods, or they look to the Latino communities where whites continue to move in, driving up prices and igniting racial tensions.

Aspiring buyers never explicitly say they want to live in a white neighborhood: They rattle off amenities and architectural styles, and then they choose the whitest segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. Their money would go further if they shopped on the South Side, where I live. But few seem to venture there. I recall an interracial couple—wife black, husband white—who bought in a historic black neighborhood. She pushed the fact that the house was large and under budget. He complained it was too far to bike to work.

Chicago is vast—there’s plenty of housing choice here, but that concept has been muddied by the racially restrictive housing policies that the city fine-tuned in the 20th century; banks, income inequality, legacy wealth, and discrimination have all played a factor. The redlining and racial covenants are gone, but, as “House Hunters” shows us every week, their legacy remains.

The show’s white couples might not agree on much, but they do all seem to want the same thing in a neighborhood. In the new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, authors Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder provide some insight into why. They posit a different spin on why housing segregation remains 50 years after the Fair Housing Act. Housing segregation is self-perpetuating, they say: Segregation persists because it already exists. “[R]esidential moves are structurally sorted along racial lines, which individuals’ perceptions and knowledge of residential options shaped by lived experiences and social interactions within a racially segregated social system,” they write. If you grew up in white segregation, that’s what you know and the social networks, neighborhood experiences, and daily activities reflect that reality.

I might even go a bit further: the show suggests white buyers do not typically have to consider non-white neighborhoods in which to purchase homes. Because of the resources they tend to have, white buyers are mostly purchasing in middle-class or higher neighborhoods that are often mostly white.

Additionally, House Hunters International occasionally features families explaining that the reason they desire to live in a foreign country is to experience some cultural diversity. However, they often end up living in relatively well-off neighborhoods that are often white (even if they are not full of Americans). And the families could have found more diversity in the United States if they were willing to expand their options of where to live.

On the whole, House Hunters does very little with the neighborhood in which dwellings are located or even the block. Outside of very general descriptions, homes are treated as physical objects that could exist anywhere. This makes some sense given the way that Americans emphasize homes as private spaces. Of course, homes cannot be separated by their surroundings and certain aspects of neighborhoods matter a lot for buyers.

Can proposed legislation on housing prompt a public discussion?

A new bill proposed in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren attempts to address housing issues:

It aims to lower the cost of developing housing so landlords don’t have to make rents so high, coming at the issue from two different angles. From one end, it tries to increase the supply of affordable housing by pouring billions of federal dollars into programs that subsidize developments in rural, low-income, and middle-income communities.

From the other end, the bill attempts to strip away the zoning laws that made developing housing so expensive in the first place. Many of these zoning laws limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods. In Tegeler’s opinion, the laws are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability. Those laws typically exist at a local level, so in order to target them, Warren’s bill creates a competitive block grant program. The grant money could be spent flexibly—on schools or parks, for example—and is intended to appeal to suburban communities with stricter zoning laws.  Those communities can only access grants if they reexamine and redress their land restrictions.

The bill also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines. Notably, it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis. Under the bill, black families long denied mortgages by the federal government qualify for down payment assistance, helping many in formerly segregated communities to become first-time home buyers. The bill also invests two billion dollars to support borrowers still recovering from the financial crisis with negative equity on their mortgages.

The bill also restructures the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a 1977 law proposed to monitor banks with discriminatory loan policies against communities of color. Warren’s bill gives the CRA more enforcement mechanisms and expands its policing power to include credit unions and nonbank mortgage companies, which were not as ubiquitous when the bill was passed. Lastly, the bill strengthens anti-discrimination laws by expanding Fair Housing Act protections to include gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income, attempting to limit housing segregation in the future.

It sounds like the bill tries to strike a balance between incentives for communities and developers and strengthening enforcement of guidelines against housing discrimination.

It will be interesting to see what tone the public debate takes, if it even reaches the level of public discussion. Housing issues are not on the national political radar screen. Historically, many Americans are reluctant to address housing concerns through the federal government. They would rather leave these matters to local governments, if government should address the matter at all. Support for public housing has always been limited.

Similarly, even stating an intention of trying to encourage certain suburban communities to open up their doors to different kinds of residents is a hard sell. Minorities and immigrants are indeed moving to suburbia but where they locate or can live is not necessarily even. (See this recent example from the Chicago suburbs of high black homeownership in certain communities.) A good number of suburbanites would attribute the residential segregation patterns to economic options and/or the ability of local communities to draw up guidelines of what kind of community they want to be (such as one without certain kinds of housing).

I would not expect such a bill to be an easy sell or even one that can garner much attention, even if it addresses issues that affect millions of Americans.

New study: “How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism”

A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:

I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.

I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…

In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.

But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.

Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”

This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.

These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?

 

Reasons why five south Chicago suburbs lead the way in black homeownership rates

A report from Pew Charitable Trusts ranks five suburbs south of Chicago – Olympia Fields, South Holland, Flossmoor, Matteson, and Lynwood – in the top ten nationally for homeownership rates for blacks. Here is how this happened:

“We took a strong approach to diversity back in the 1970s and 1980s,” De Graff said. “We passed the strongest fair housing ordinance in the nation.”…

Flossmoor and South Holland are among towns where policies embrace values of diversity. On Aug. 20, the Flossmoor Village Board adopted a set of “Guiding Principals for Diversity & Inclusion.”…

“The white population of this area shrank dramatically from a majority of 62.6 percent in 1990 to 37.6 percent in 2000,” his report said…

Mayors offered other analysis about the Pew report that sheds light on why several south suburbs lead the nation in black homeownership rates. Burke and De Graff said Olympia Fields and South Holland have few multi-family housing units and that their communities consist mostly of single-family homes.

On one hand, this would seem to signal progress. Many suburbs were closed to blacks and other minorities for decades. Only in the last few decades decades have blacks been able to move into more communities and the population shift has picked up in recent years. On the whole, the suburbs are now more non-white.

On the other hand, the story hints at ongoing difficulties. The homeownership rate for blacks on the whole in the United States is still low: 41%. The suburbs just to the west of these suburbs – categorized in the story as southwest suburbs – have a very low percentage of black residents. Finally, the white population dropped in these suburbs in the 1990s as blacks moved in. White flight continues.

Does this all represent success – access to the suburban American Dream for blacks – or an ongoing story of exclusion as whites flee and limit black homeownership to a relatively small portion of a large metropolitan area?

Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”)

The new documentary America To Me looks at race in a well-funded suburban high school in the Chicago area:

“When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we’re failing as a whole, everywhere,” James said in a telephone interview.

James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body…

“What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country,” James said, “even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park’s.”…

“Just because you live in suburban America,” James said, “if you’re black or biracial, it doesn’t mean everything’s cool.”

The setup is a good one: the suburbs are supposed to the places where the residents who live there can together share in amenities like nice single-family homes and local institutions, including schools, that help their children get ahead. If you live in the suburbs, many might assume you have a pretty good life.

But, of course, race and ethnicity matters in the suburbs as well. Historically and today, suburbs can work to exclude certain kinds of residents, often along race and class lines. Suburbs can have some of the same residential segregation issues as big cities. This means that students may be near each other in schools but may not necessarily live near each other or share other settings. Suburban poverty is up in recent decades. All together, just because someone lives in the suburbs does not guarantee a good job or a white middle-class lifestyle.

Regardless of where the documentary ends up at the end, perhaps it can help show what the suburbs of today often look like. The image of white, postwar suburban homes may match a few communities but many others are more diverse and face occasional or more persistent issues.

“One Naperville” sticker, more diverse suburb

While recently at a rest stop in Indiana, I saw a minivan with an Illinois license plate and this sticker on the back:

No automatic alt text available.

Given the uniqueness of the sticker and my scholarly interest in Naperville, I almost snapped a picture of the vehicle but did not feel so inclined with its passengers standing not too far away. Instead, I found the image on the Internet. I do not know if there are ongoing “One Naperville” efforts but I found an event from September 11, 2016 commemorating 9/11 put on by the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The similarities in style to the “Coexist” bumper stickers are due to the makers of this sticker (see bottom right). The peacemonger.org people are the same ones behind the original “Coexist” design.

Naperville is known for a number of features including its wealth, its high ranking in a number of listings of quality places (examples here, here, and here), its fast-growing population at the end of the twentieth century, its vibrant downtown, its office space along I-88, and, more recently, its diversity. According to QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau:

NapervilleQuickFacts

That this large and wealthy suburb is only 68.1% white alone is notable. The diversity is noticeable in different retail establishments, those using the city’s Riverwalk, the local government naming liaisons to minority groups, and the presence of different religious groups (including mosques).

However, Naperville was not always this way.

Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion

The most difficult choice in ranking the reasons Americans love suburbs came between this reason – which I ultimately put at #3 – and the #2 reason involving families and children. The reason this choice was so difficult is that race is a foundational factor in American life. I have argued before that race should be considered a factor until proven otherwise, rather than the other way around where it is easy to limit discussion of race to blatant racism or discrimination.

While the suburbs are a central feature of American life, they from the beginning reproduced one of the other central features of American life: the suburbs were primarily intended for white people. The segregation was more obvious and protected in the past. This included sundown towns, Levittown not allowing black residents, and restrictive covenants excluding a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Blacks did have separate suburbs. The separation between white and non-white residents, particularly whites and blacks, is still present today in suburbs through residential segregation. The more recent segregation is due to factors like a lack of affordable housing (often challenged by wealthier and whiter suburbanites – see examples here and here), exclusionary zoning, housing discrimination, and unequal lending practices such as predatory lending. This can be illustrated by one Chicago suburb that claimed to be “home to proud Americans,” words that hint at a largely whiter and wealthier population.

It is therefore not a coincidence that a factor that contributed to the postwar suburban boom in the United States was a phenomena known as white flight. As millions of blacks moved to Northern cities in The Great Migration, government policies (changing mortgage guidelines, redlining, the construction of interstate highways) and desires to avoid blacks led many white Americans to move to the suburbs.

But, this was not necessarily a new phenomena. As cities expanded in size in the late 1800s, fewer and fewer suburbanites wanted to be part of the big city. Until roughly the 1890s, many big cities annexed nearby suburbs (such as Chicago with Hyde Park, Boston with Roxbury, and New York City with Brooklyn) as there were still benefits to being part of the big city (such as tapping into sewer systems). However, this stopped around this time as suburbs could better afford their own public improvements and cities became less desirable. What were the urban problems that pushed suburbanites away? A combination of factors played a role including overcrowding and dirtiness but immigration and new groups moving to the city also mattered.

While all of this could also be couched in terms of Americans preferring small-town life (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true), it is worth thinking about what that small-town feel is really about. Americans like urban amenities, even if they do not want to live near them, and the suburbs offer easy access to many amenities within metropolitan regions. Americans do not want to live in rural small towns – even if Americans are nostalgic for such places, over 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Yet, many suburbs are not small (even as large ones, such as Naperville, claim to still have a small town feel). I suspect part of the small-town feel is really about racial and ethnic homogeneity.

Throughout all of this, the American suburbs have recently become more racially and ethnically diverse. More blacks are moving to the suburbs, whether outside Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, or elsewhere. Many new immigrants are moving directly to suburbs. But, it could be a long time before non-whites achieve parity of location in suburban areas.

(Of course, social class also plays a role in all of this as race/ethnicity and social class are intertwined throughout American history. Non-white suburbanites who are middle-class or upper-class may be more palatable to white suburbanites. For example, it is interesting to see responses to increasing suburban poverty: will more suburban communities address the issue, such as through offering social services, or will they try to limit lower-income residents?)