Why are Chicago families fleeing for cheaper homes in the suburbs?

The Chicago Tribune leads with the story of a Chicago family who left the city for a townhouse in River Forest:

Megan Keskitalo and her husband, Glenn Eckstein, were enthusiastic city dwellers until the suburbs began calling. First it was Chicago’s crime, then it was worry about school districts, and in the end, it was money that pushed them past the city’s edge.

After a long search, the parents of two young daughters packed up their $1,300-a-month three-bedroom Lincoln Square apartment and in September paid $286,000 for a three-bedroom town house in River Forest.

“We were looking (in the city), but we couldn’t find anything in our price range, which was under $350,000,” Keskitalo said.

But, just how many Chicago families are doing this? The story sticks to general trends without any numbers:

They aren’t the only ones. While experts say Chicago’s housing market is sizzling — home sales were up about 8.1 percent in Chicago through November of this year, says the Illinois Association of Realtors — not everyone can afford to buy in the city. That’s because home prices are up too…

It’s not unusual for millennials and Generation Xers with children to flee to what real estate experts call “surbans” — walkable, amenity-rich suburbs — once they get married, have kids and are looking for less party and more quiet.

The implication of this article is that families like this are being priced out of Chicago: they might stay if they could find housing in their price range in attractive neighborhoods. Yet, there is a lot more going on here:

  1. The article also says real estate prices are on the rise in Chicago. This is generally seen as a good thing – unless it pushes desirable people, like young white families (or recent college graduates or older long-time city residents) out.
  2. There are real issues of affordable housing in Chicago and the whole region. However, there is often disagreement about who such housing should serve. Should it help keep wealthier residents in a community or serve those with much lower levels of income? Chicago is building plenty of high-end condos but there is not much action on the lower end of the market with affordable units in decent neighborhoods.
  3. This family had particular conditions for where they were willing to live: less crime, good schools, cheaper housing. Overall, they wanted a particular quality of life. They could have found cheaper housing in Chicago but without being willing to compromise on these particular issues, they left for the suburbs.
  4. How much of this is tied to the ongoing process of white flight? This family left a trendy Chicago neighborhood for an established wealthy and white suburb: River Forest is roughly 85% white and the median household income is over $113,000. Again, they could have found cheaper housing in the city (#3 above) if they were willing to live in more places that might not have been as white.

Residential segregation increases in the suburbs

A new study looking at 222 US metro areas between 1990 and 2010 finds increasing suburban residential segregation:

While segregation from neighborhood to neighborhood is decreasing (micro-segregation) within metropolitan areas, segregation from suburban communities (e.g., towns, villages, and cities) to other suburban communities within the same metropolitan areas and from major metropolitan cities to their suburban communities is increasing (macro-segregation). In other words, instead of people of different races living in distinct neighborhoods in the same major metropolitan cities and suburban communities, these major cities and suburban communities are becoming increasingly racially homogenous…

“One of our major findings is that suburban communities are becoming more segregated from each other,” Lichter said. “Cities and communities — not just neighborhoods — matter. Over the past decade or so, some suburban communities have become more racially diverse, even as whites have moved out to other growing suburbs farther from the city or have moved back to the city as part of the gentrification process. In the late 1970s, there was a famous study titled, ‘Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs,’ which highlighted that blacks generally lived in large cities while whites lived in suburban communities. Our study shows that minority population growth in the suburbs has fundamentally shifted historic patterns of residential segregation in this country.”…

Hence the claim that residential “segregation now taking new form.” This is consistent with other research showing the white flight scenario of the post-World War II decades has become more complex: more minorities and poor people live in the American suburbs but this hasn’t necessarily improved their lot in terms of quality and/or affordable housing, good schools, job opportunities, access to social services, and so on. Suburban communities have a variety of ways to promote racial (and class) homogeneity through means like zoning, minimum housing sizes, and appeals to patriotism. In this way, perhaps the suburban critics were/are right: they could never be the total panacea for the problems of American society.

White population of Detroit increases 12,000 in recent years

The tide of white flight out of Detroit has reversed slightly in the last few years:

No other city may be as synonymous as Detroit with white flight, the exodus of whites from large cities that began in the middle of the last century. Detroit went from a thriving hub of industry with a population of 1.8 million in 1950 to a city of roughly 680,000 in 2014 that recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In those decades, the city’s population has gone from nearly 84 percent white to a little less than 13 percent white.In the three years after the 2010 U.S. Census, though, Detroit’s white population grew from just under 76,000 residents to more than 88,000, according to a census estimate. The cheap cost of living, opportunities for young entrepreneurs and push by city-based companies to persuade workers to live nearby have made a big difference, experts say…

Blacks appear to be weary of waiting for Detroit to turn things around and have been migrating to nearby suburbs in search of comfort, better schools and lower crime.

The city’s black population was nearly 776,000 in 1990. By 2013 it had dipped to an estimated 554,000.


The first paragraph cited above is key: the level of white flight in Detroit was so staggering that even an increase of 12,000 white residents in three years might just be seen as a major success. However, this pace would need to pick up and/or continue for a decade or two before there could be legitimate claims about a rebound. Of course, as the later paragraphs above note, even black residents have left in large numbers in recent decades. Would it be considered a success if the white population continued to grow but the black population continued to leave?

In other words, there is still a lot to be done here before we can qualify the changes as successful for the whole city.

Troubled football player to be saved by move to the suburbs

It could be the content of an urban sociology Onion article: ESPN reports that Johnny Manziel is showing progress by leaving the city for the suburbs.

Johnny Manziel is taking a positive step since checking out of a rehab facility in early April.

The Browns quarterback has moved out of his downtown Cleveland apartment and into a golf course community in a suburb west of town, according to a source.

Golf has been a constructive outlet for Manziel since his return, the source said…

The QB’s old home, the Metropolitan at The 9, was the site of an alleged Nov. 22 assault of a fan by a member of Manziel’s “entourage” at 2:36 a.m. Manziel was not listed as a suspect, and the fan, Chris Gonos, later apologized publicly. Manziel said shortly after the incident that the fan aggressively approached him.

Like many white millennials or young professionals before him, Manziel had his bachelor days in the city but now has decided to take up golf and live a more conservative life amidst the big houses and greenery of the suburbs. No word yet on whether he will add the frustration of commuting into the city to his list of issues facing him on a daily basis.

Black congregation in Seattle follows its members to the suburbs

Here is one illustration of the demographic changes in American suburbs: an African-American church heads for Seattle’s suburbs.

The Rev. Leslie David Braxton saw the writing on the wall in 1999. Members of his former congregation at Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District were moving south, and in Seattle, the black middle class was already starting to shrink…

A data junkie and sociologist by training, the reverend rattles off statistics effortlessly. In 1999, he gleaned that in 20 years, the Central District wouldn’t be the epicenter of the black community…

He pushed for Mount Zion to open a satellite campus south of the city. After some internal conflicts, he resigned and, in 2005 started his own church, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, south of Seattle…

“We’re sitting on 8½ acres. There’s no way you’d be able to get that kind of property in the city.” And, if a similar building existed, he said, “it certainly wouldn’t be affordable.”

To Braxton, there’s an upside, however. For many black families, the suburbs offer an opportunity to live out the American dream — good schools, the house with a two-car garage and a spacious yard — far more easily than the city. It’s a reversal, he says, of white flight, common in the East Coast.

Churches can often go where a majority of their members go. The pattern described here sounds similar to that of numerous white urban churches after World War II: as whites moved to the suburbs, so did a number of the congregations. Such moves weren’t necessarily immediate; it took time for some established institutions to leave buildings and neighborhoods where they may have been for decades and/or served multiple waves of white immigrants.

But, the suburbs today have a wider range of residents including more non-whites, immigrants, and lower- and working-class people. Suburban religious congregations already reflect some of these changes and will likely demonstrate these further in the future.

Oddities in St. Louis County that led to tensions: significant revenues from fines, permissive incorporation laws

Radley Balko points out some interesting features of St. Louis County, Missouri that contribute to racial and socioeconomic disparities:

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash…There are many towns in St. Louis County where the number of outstanding arrest warrants can exceed the number of residents, sometimes several times over. No town in Jackson County comes close to that: The highest ratios are in the towns of Grandview (about one warrant for every 3.7 residents), Independence (one warrant for every 3.5 residents), and Kansas City itself (one warrant for every 1.8 residents)…

Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging…

“Until only relatively recently, the state of Missouri had almost no rules for municipal incorporation,” Gordon says. “In just about every other state, when a new new subdivision would spring up in an unincorporated area, the state would say, ‘If you want public services, you need to be annexed by the nearest town.’ In Missouri, you didn’t have that.”…

“The state’s one requirement before giving you the power to zone was that you had to incorporate and draw up a city plan,” Gordon says. “That plan could be as simple as getting an engineer to slap a ‘single family’ zone over the entire development. Your subdivision is now a town.”

Some interesting individual cases – of both individuals penalized and municipalities acting badly – interwoven throughout the piece. But, a complex maze of issues: a number of communities with limited tax bases which leads to a heavier reliance on fines, hitting residents with multiple penalties, and incorporation laws that led to a lot of small communities that can set up their own systems and struggle (or if wealthier, thrive) on their own.

While it might be temping to these issues as separate and important issues in their own right, I was struck that this is the sort of system that arises when white and wealthier residents are determined to keep poorer and non-white residents out. This goal was widespread in the American suburbs after World War II but it sounds this mix of communities outside of St. Louis was able to put together a potent system for keeping blacks in other suburbs. Even with civil rights legislation, there are still plenty of “legal” means to limit or harass non-white residents in such a way to keep them out of white and/or wealthier suburbs.

Donald Sterling and residential segregation

ESPN host Bomani Jones suggests the Donald Sterling affair is less about his recorded comments and more about his contribution to a large issue in the United States that fewer people pay attention to: residential segregation. While others have noted Sterling’s tainted past, particularly his historic $2.725 million settlement in a housing discrimination case, Sterling is part of a bigger system where white people have generally moved out of neighborhoods that blacks and others have moved into. Jones ties Sterling’s past with the problems facing poor neighborhoods in Chicago that have a lack of economic resources and opportunities after whites left for the suburbs. As noted in American Apartheid and numerous other sociological works, the disparities in where people live affect a wide range of outcomes including jobs, social networks, educational opportunities, political power, crime rates, and health.

Of course, tackling residential segregation is much harder to address. As I noted earlier this week, whites tend to argue they should be able to move where they want and take advantage of their economic power. Others don’t have such options. Various efforts to limit some of these geographic disparities – like busing to schools or moving poor urban residents to suburbs – tend not to be met with favor with suburbanites who see such moves as intrusions on their self-rule. It is one thing for whites to tolerate other racial and ethnic groups in society but a much different thing to live in close proximity, share local institutions, and interact regularly with others.

“Why Did Chicago’s Middle Class Disappear?”

Whet Moser explains the GIF of Chicago’s disappearing middle-class through the work of sociologist Lincoln Quillian:

What’s most striking about Hertz’s map is the transition from 1970 onwards; when the map begins, the lowest-income census tracts are extremely concentrated. Then, as if a switch was flipped, they radiate out from the city center by 1980. (It almost looks like watching Conway’s Game of Life.) The change in those 20 years is immense. And Quillian gives a clue as to why, laying the groundwork for what was happening before Hertz’s analysis begins (emphasis mine):

Modern poor urban neighborhoods, formed after 1970 or so, thus stand in sharp demographic
contrast to poor and minority neighborhoods earlier in the century. Accounts of racial succession of neighborhoods in the 1950s indicate that neighborhoods undergoing racial transition tended to increase in population density, especially in passing through a late phase in racial succession referred to as “piling up,” in which previously white-owned homes and apartments were subdivided into smaller dwellings to accommodate the housing demands of black immigrants (Duncan and Duncan 1957). Although the affluent have always made efforts to segregate themselves from the poor, immigration into cities before about 1970 was proceeding at too rapid a pace to allow inner city neighborhoods to drop substantially in population as part of this process. Indeed, a chief reason blacks desired to exit predominantly black areas of the city before 1970 was because the housing supply in black neighborhoods was insufficient to keep up with demand (Aldrich 1975). With the end of black immigration to urban areas, poor African-American neighborhoods have changed from densely packed communities of recently arrived immigrants to areas gradually abandoned by the nonpoor. The cessation of the flow of black immigrants to the nation’s cities, and the corresponding decline in the population density of poor neighborhoods, may be one unexplored factor responsible for the change in the nature of poor African-American neighborhoods in the early 1970s that Wilson (1987) describes.

The Second Great Migration ends in 1970. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thomson, Hertz’s 1970 map appears to be the point where you can see the wave break and roll back.

Quillian’s data then picks up the narrative, which adds texture to Hertz’s map. Between 1980 and 1990, there’s a substantial leap in the lowest-income-level census tracts, then things plateau from 1990-2000. Here’s Quillian again:

There is no indication in the PSID data that stayers in black and/or poor neighborhoods experienced increases in their poverty rates in the 1970s and 1980s, except during the recession of the early 1980s. During this recession, increases in the poverty rate among the nonpoor were spatially concentrated in black moderately poor neighborhoods. Since these neighborhoods were already moderately poor to begin with, this suggests that increasing poverty rates in the early 1980s had a strong effect in increasing the number of extremely poor neighborhoods.

Quillian was writing in 1998 (here’s another paper from him in 2012, addressing similar issues), but his conclusions accurately foretell the changes you can see from 2000-2012: “Neighborhoods in transition to high-poverty status empty first of whites, then of many middle-class blacks, leaving more-disadvantaged and less-populous areas. The overall result is that high-poverty neighborhoods have been becoming geographically larger and less densely settled.”

So some of these neighborhoods that changed over to high levels of poverty aren’t necessarily the result of increasing number of poor people but rather the departure of higher-income and white residents. They may be poor neighborhoods but they are not necessarily dense because few people of any background (regardless of class and race) are moving in.

Another thought: some conversation about white flight focuses on the 1950s and 1960s when whites moved to the suburbs due to (1) policies that helped make the suburbs more attractive (interstate construction, new rules about mortgages that made home purchases available to more Americans plus (2) continued waves of the Great Migration of blacks to Northern cities. All this is true but this map is a reminder that the processes affecting poor neighborhoods continued from the 1970s to 1990s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that academics started writing important books like this, whether from William Julius Wilson or Paul Jargowsky.

Of course, a key question is how much this is still happening today. Can poor neighborhoods spread even further as better-off urban residents and suburban residents move to wealthier pockets while lower-class and poorer residents are left in emptying out locales? The process may not be over yet and it is hard to find cases where truly poor neighborhoods from recent decades made substantial turnarounds.

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.

Over 600,000 leave London in “white flight” between 2001 and 2011

White flight is not just an American phenomenon; Census figures from Britain show over 600,000 white residents left London in the last decade.

Census figures show that between 2001 and 2011 the level of ‘white flight’ reached 620,000.

It is the equivalent of a city the size of Glasgow – made up entirely of white Britons – moving out of the capital.

The figures, reported by the BBC yesterday, mean that for the first time, white Britons are now in a minority in the country’s largest city.

At the same time, the census shows, some rural areas have seen a rise in the proportion of people who describe their ethnicity as ‘white British’.

Some 3.7 million Londoners classified themselves as white British in 2011 – down from 4.3 million in 2001 – despite the city’s population increasing by nearly one million over the decade to 8.2million.

White Britons now make up 45 per cent of the population, compared with 58 per cent in 2001…

Behind white Britons, the largest ethnic group in London is now Asians – including those born here and those arriving from overseas – who make up 18 per cent of the population.

Black Londoners – including Africans, black Britons and those from the Caribbean – make up 13 per cent.

This is quite a change in a short amount of time for London, which is truly a multiethnic city.

I would enjoy seeing more comparisons in the urban sociology literature between the major American cities and London which is located in a country with some similar social and cultural background. How does this white flight differ from what took place in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s? How are both the city and the suburbs affected?