The nation’s most- and least-advantaged neighborhoods are separated by income, assets, and educational attainment and by hundreds or thousands of miles. But even inside commuting zones—regions sharing housing markets and employment opportunities—the top and bottom neighborhoods are separated not just by opportunity and life chances, but also by jurisdictional boundaries.
Gentrifying cities and suburbanizing poverty conjure up images of a world turned inside out, with well-off households displacing low-income residents from inner-city neighborhoods. Our recent analysis using the Neighborhood Change Database shows, however, that today’s cities and suburbs remain a lot like they were 20 years ago, only more so. Privileged neighborhoods, most of them in suburbs, have gotten much richer and more numerous. Distressed and disadvantaged neighborhoods are still mostly in cities and in areas of entrenched rural poverty, and many of them have either gotten poorer or benefitted only a little from rising national and regional prosperity. In short, the nation’s top and bottom neighborhoods are, as much as ever, worlds apart.
Government policies build neighborhood inequality
The Bridgeport, Connecticut, commuting zone exemplifies both how much and why American regions can be so internally divided. Its top neighborhoods are protected in suburbs like Darien and New Canaan, where exclusionary zoning effectively turns entire towns into private clubs endowed with the power of local governments. Average incomes here are $240,000. Its bottom census tracts, all of which are in struggling cities like Bridgeport and New Haven, had average incomes of just $38,000: six times less than its top tracts. Decades of local, state, and federal policies have concentrated a disproportionate share of the state’s rental housing in these cities, especially its assisted rental housing. The result: 89 percent of the households in Bridgeport’s top tracts own their houses, compared with only 22 percent of households in the bottom tracts.
This combination of exclusionary zoning and concentrated rental housing powerfully reinforces racial segregation. The residents of Bridgeport’s top tracts are over 90 percent white; its bottom tracts are 30 percent black and 44 percent Hispanic. This concentration is reflected in the schools in Bridgeport and New Haven, which have not shared in the progress toward integration recently observed by The Civil Rights Project in some of Connecticut’s small cities and older suburbs. Fewer than 10 percent of Bridgeport public school students are white, compared with more than 90 percent of Darien’s.
The Bridgeport commuting zone straddles the Northeast Corridor. Elsewhere along the Corridor, low-income central city neighborhoods in Boston, New York, and Washington are gentrifying while many small-city and inner-suburban tracts are getting more distressed. This contrasts with the Bridgeport, Baltimore, and Newark commuting zones. Their most distressed neighborhoods, all of which are in the big cities, declined from 1990 to 2010. Their most privileged ones—all of them suburban—grew even more advantaged.
Policy solutions must consider changes that affect top neighborhoods, not just bottom tracts
What’s to be done to bring these separate worlds closer together? Where will the resources come from? One answer: Population growth. The United States will grow by nearly 100 million people between now and 2060. A significant share of that growth will occur in the Northeast Corridor, a national economic engine and center of decisionmaking. This means that inclusive cities and regions can be built by incremental additions to communities at both the top and the bottom, rather than just by evacuating bottom neighborhoods.
In commuting zones like Bridgeport, Baltimore, Newark, and Camden, people who routinely choose to leave the central cities for the suburbs need more reasons to stay, reinvest, and work for improvement where they already live. Until recently, most efforts to make that happen have focused on reinvestment in infrastructure and the housing stock. As recent events in Baltimore show, for these cities to thrive and for their neighborhoods to become livable, we need to go beyond bricks and mortar to reduce extreme violence in homes, on streets, and in the criminal justice system.
At the same time, the sixfold difference between Bridgeport’s top and bottom neighborhoods makes it plain we can’t build more inclusive cities without building more inclusive suburbs. When high-income households hold so much territory as their exclusive domain, they stifle growth, inflate land values in their communities and nearby, and contribute to further suburban sprawl. Ending exclusionary zoning would complement improvements to distressed neighborhoods—not just by increasing suburban affordable housing but also by expanding housing choices for everyone. Demand for rental housing is intense, making this a moment of urgency for a sustained assault on suburban barriers to apartment construction.
The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. Urban Institute work utilizing the Neighborhood Change Database is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. Funders do not determine research findings or influence scholars’ conclusions. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.