The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 22, 2015

Tackling the legacy of neighborhood segregation

May 22, 2015

Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.

Neighborhoods matter. They are the locus for essential public and private services—schools being perhaps the most significant. The availability of quality grocery stores, reliable child care, safe after-school activities, and healthy recreational facilities also shapes our quality of life, as does access to job opportunities. And where we live directly affects our exposure to crime and violence, which profoundly influences our physical and emotional well-being.

Some people think that neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and distress are inevitable, the products of “natural” or “normal” housing market operations. But in fact, public policies and discriminatory private practices built these neighborhoods over many decades.  

Beginning early in the last century, discriminatory policies and practices confined African Americans—who were markedly more likely than whites to be poor—to certain city neighborhoods, producing neighborhoods with much higher poverty rates than existed in white communities. Subsequent job losses and rising unemployment pushed poverty and isolation in many central-city black neighborhoods even higher.

These neighborhoods were also systematically starved of the resources and investments communities need to thrive, like financing for homeownership, business investment, and essential public-sector services, including schools. Non-poor families fled, further raising the poverty rate and accelerating disinvestment and distress.

Equally daunting forces have further undermined living conditions in distressed urban neighborhoods over recent decades. Globalization and technology have eliminated manufacturing jobs, while the low-wage jobs that replaced them have left as much as one-third of the population a paycheck away from poverty.

No single, silver-bullet solution can possibly fix this longstanding tangle of problems. What’s needed is a sustained commitment to changing the geography of opportunity in urban America. That means pursuing three interconnected goals at the same time, and for a long time.

  1. Invest in the most urgent needs of poor neighborhoods—safety, good schools, healthy places to play, and access to jobs—so residents can enjoy a decent quality of life and get a foothold on the ladder toward economic security. And when these investments start to pay off, attracting more affluent families, ensure that the neighborhood’s original residents can afford to stay, by preserving affordable housing and preventing displacement.
  2. Eliminate the barriers that block poor families, especially families of color, from finding affordable places to live in other neighborhoods of their choice. This means building low- and moderately priced housing in every neighborhood, whether city or suburban. Tools like inclusionary zoning and fair housing enforcement can open up real, affordable housing choices in safe neighborhoods with good schools.
  3. Use federal housing subsidies to help poor families move to safe neighborhoods with good public schools. New research shows that this kind of move yields huge payoffs for kids. Programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit can be used to build subsidized rental housing in non-poor neighborhoods. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently outlined four evidence-based recommendations for improving neighborhood outcomes in the federal Housing Choice Voucher program.

Over many decades, public policies built segregated neighborhoods of poverty and distress by simultaneously excluding poor families, especially families of color, from neighborhoods of opportunity and starving poor, minority neighborhoods of essential investments. Reversing that legacy requires today’s public policies to tackle both the disinvestment and distress plaguing poor neighborhoods and the barriers that exclude low-income people from neighborhoods of opportunity.

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.