What if churches considered geographic disparities and their local context?

An interview in the latest print issue of Christianity Today could provide insights for a lot of religious congregations: here is part of the lesson regarding geographic inequalities.

For me, geography is never passive. Why does a new freeway cut through a certain neighborhood? Who lives near that freeway, and why? Those are not just decisions of urban planners or politicians. There are a million little decisions that go into that process—public and private.

It’s impossible to live in a place, or move to a new one, without getting tangled up in the history of its particular structures—who they benefit and who they exclude. That’s a hard reality, because most of us didn’t pave the streets we live on. Yet someone designed those places, and that design will either encourage the flourishing of society or lead to patterns of exclusion…

So many churches, frankly, just don’t know their communities at all. Two or three days a week, a whole bunch of cars come in and then go somewhere else—and that’s the only relationship a church might have with its surrounding neighborhood. That’s more of a suburban reality, but it’s increasingly true of cities as well. The first step, for churches, is just asking, Who’s here? Who are the immediate neighbors that we serve? What populations are underserved? If churches begin to have that conversation more often, then they can look to their congregations and say, “Are we representing the people in this community, and why or why not?”…

The next step is asking, “How can our congregation use its resources—whether that’s a building, a program, or a professional with certain skills—for the sake of others?” Church buildings, for example, are notorious for inefficient usage. They’re filled up a couple times each week, but otherwise the heat is off and they’re just vacant. What a gift it would be for churches to think of their physical structures as resources not just for themselves but also for their surrounding communities. Especially in dense, gentrifying urban areas, where space is really at a premium.

Some related thoughts, many based on findings from the sociology of religion:

  1. A lot of religious congregations seem more interested in internal homophily – being with like people during church activities – rather than turning their attention to their actual neighbors.
  2. Many congregations do little in terms of local outreach – see Congregations in America and the ongoing data of the National Congregations Study. It is not as if they are doing misinformed outreach; little is being done in the first place so getting churches to care about their local community may be harder than it looks.
  3. I agree that urban design can certainly contribute to flourishing or exclusion but it is not necessarily a guarantee of either. Take the highway example given here (and famously illustrated by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago): it reinforced existing boundaries.
  4. Why can’t religious groups construct and maintain “cosmopolitan canopies” rather than leaving it to private commercial interests or the efforts of local governments?
  5. I assume there are some differences today in how different religious traditions and denominations approach the local community. This was certainly true in the past where Catholic churches did not disappear when the parishioners moved to the suburbs but rather transitioned to the newest waves of immigrants. Today, who takes their local context into account more and what could they teach others?

Decrease in families living in middle-income neighborhoods

A new study shows widening residential segregation by social class:

More than one-third of families in large metropolitan areas now live in neighborhoods of concentrated affluence or concentrated poverty, and middle-class neighborhoods have become less common, according to new research by a Cornell sociologist and her colleague. The effect on children could be critical, they say.

Kendra Bischoff, Cornell assistant professor of sociology, and Sean Reardon of Stanford University found that the percentage of families living in very rich neighborhoods more than doubled, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent, between 1970 and 2012. At the same time, the percentage of families in traditional middle-income neighborhoods fell from 65 percent to 41 percent…

Moreover, the rate of income segregation has accelerated in recent years, Bischoff said. From 2007 to 2012 – the period that spanned the Great Recession and the early years of recovery – income segregation grew by 3.2 percentage points in just five years, compared to growth of approximately 4.5 percentage points in each decade since 1970.

Creating and sustaining mixed-income neighborhoods is difficult. If neighborhoods are desirable, they can attract more buyers which can drive up prices. Once neighborhoods have a certain level of wealth, they are often reluctant to allow cheaper housing. On the other end, poor neighborhoods don’t tend to attract middle-class or upper-class residents – unless there is major redevelopment and poorer residents are moved out (ranging from urban renewal projects after World War II to gentrification today).

The authors emphasize the impact this can have on children:

These trends may be particularly damaging for children, Bischoff says. When the affluent live in isolation, it concentrates not only income and wealth in a small number of communities. It also concentrates social capital and political power, Bischoff said, such as the amount of time parents have to spend at the neighborhood school, the amount of green space or number of libraries in the neighborhood or the know-how and resources to organize political action.

Since the Coleman Report of the 1960s, we’ve known that having poorer kids in schools with wealthier kids is helpful for their development. However, increasing segregation by social class makes this even more difficult.

“Federal Officials Push to Urbanize Suburbia”?

Conservatives are still worried the Obama administration is against suburbs:

In its final months, the Obama administration has set up a strategy to bring inner city living to the suburbs by deploying three federal agencies to dictate to states and local communities how to set up schools, housing and mass transit…

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expanded the reach of its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to two other federal agencies: the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education…

State and local educational agencies, for example, are urged to develop “boundary-free open enrollment or lottery schools when drawing school attendance boundaries, and selecting sites for such a programs like charter schools or magnet school.”

The three federal agencies also want their local and state education officials to “consult with transportation and housing authorities and housing development agencies” when planning a school site.

The federal authorities want local and state transportation officials to create mass transit plans and more public transportation routes, as well as include local school districts, housing authorities, Head Start programs, community colleges and similar entities in putting together the mass transit plan.

The first two thoughts that come to mind when seeing the specifics here:

  1. It sounds like this applies to communities that receive HUD block grants for redevelopment. So, if suburbs don’t apply for this, the guidelines may not apply.
  2. At the least, the guidelines would encourage more conversations between some important actors – like developers, local officials, school districts, transportation planners, and others – that could build upon and expand existing infrastructure. Instead of doing all of their work independently, a little collaboration could go a long ways.

In other words, wealthier suburbs will still have ways to resist lower-income residents. And isn’t what this is really about? Or, more broadly, suburbs want the ability to have complete local control over land use – which is all about quality of life, property values, and attracting the right kind of people. For example, see this statement from a Westchester County official:

“This document proves what I’ve been saying for six years: The federal government is planning to take control of the American suburb and forever change it in the false name of equality. If HUD gets its way, small town America will literally disappear. It will be forcibly urbanized by Washington social engineers.”

Suburbs are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Plus, market forces may lead to denser suburbs anyway as there is plenty of demand for new housing in attractive suburbs. But, there could be more conflict in the future as wealthier communities want to retain control and regional and federal governments try to spread opportunities around.

Black homeowners not seeing the same rebound in home values

As if residential segregation and disparities in homeownership (and wealth) weren’t enough, black homeowners haven’t benefited as much from the housing recovery:

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. According to a new Washington Post analysis, the higher a Zip code’s share of black residents in the Atlanta region, the worse its housing values have fared over the past turbulent housing cycle.

Nationwide, home values in predominantly African American neighborhoods have been the least likely to recover, according to the analysis of home data from Black Knight Financial Services. Across the 300 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, homes in 4 out of 10 Zip codes where blacks are the largest population group are worth less than they were in 2004. That’s twice the rate for mostly white Zip codes across the country. Across metropolitan Atlanta, nearly 9 in 10 largely black Zip codes still have home values below that point 12 years ago.

And in South DeKalb, the collapse has been even worse. In some Zip codes, home values are still 25 percent below what they were then. Families here, who’ve lost their wealth and had their life plans scrambled, see neighborhoods in the very same county — mostly white neighborhoods — thriving…

These disparities, though, are not simply about income, about higher poverty levels among blacks, or lower-quality homes where they live, according to economists who have studied the region. The disparities exist in places, like neighborhoods in South DeKalb County, where black families make six-figure incomes.

Race strikes again in America. While the issues may not be the same as past actions such as official redlining or blockbusting or restrictive covenants, even in wealthier communities – ones like these that tend to look like the white suburban dream of a big house in a nice community – race continues to affect home and property.

This also reminds me of the book Crisis Cities which I had my urban sociology class read for the first time this past sentence. The one sentence summary: government and private sector actions after major urban crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina tend to privilege the already wealthy and do little to help the poorer residents of major cities. Similarly, poorer and minority residents were hurt disproportionately by the economic crisis (through means like subprime loans – another quote from the article: “Nationwide, black families earning around $230,000 a year, according to research by sociologist Jacob Fa­ber, were more likely at the height of the bubble in 2006 to be given a subprime loan than white families making about $32,000”) and then don’t share as much in the recovery. We need urban and housing policies that at least help everyone, if not provide more for those who need more help.

High performing school districts driving residential segregation

A new sociological study suggests schools are helping lead to residential segregation:

Study author Ann Owens, an assistant professor of sociology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, examined census data from 100 major U.S. metropolitan areas, from Los Angeles to Boston. She found that, among families with children, neighborhood income segregation is driven by increased income inequality in combination with a previously overlooked factor: school district options.

For families with high income, school districts are a top consideration when deciding where they will live, Owens said. And for those in large cities, they have multiple school districts where they could choose to buy homes.

Income segregation between neighborhoods rose 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, and income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without…

She recommended that educational leaders should consider redrawing boundaries to reduce the number and fragmentation of school districts in major metropolitan areas. They also should consider designing inter-district choice plans and strengthening current plans within districts to address inequities.

Generally, wealth and race leads to residential segregation but it is interesting to see through what mechanisms this works. As Bourdieu (and others) suggested, schools tend to reproduce existing social stratification and here they work to reify desirable housing locations.

Claim: white Americans unwilling to sacrifice for poor African Americans

A review of Mitch Duneier’s new book Ghetto ends with one of the book’s claims:

Despite the program’s vaunted successes, Mr. Duneier concludes that its limitations reveal a cognitive and moral dissonance at the heart of American life: No project to end the ghettos can work if it requires the white community to make tangible sacrifices on behalf of black people.

It is one thing to not intentionally commit racist acts and another to make certain sacrifices.

“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.