Endangered species: middle-income neighborhoods

Urban Chronicle

July 27, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

The recently released report of the Baltimore City Task Force on Inclusionary Zoning and Housing lists as a key goal that "growth and development throughout the city should occur in a way that promotes healthy, mixed-income neighborhoods."

A nearly contemporaneous study by the Brookings Institution suggests just how needed -- and maybe even belated -- such a goal is.

Titled "Where Did They Go? The Decline of Middle-Income Neighborhoods in Metropolitan America," the Brookings study analyzed census family and neighborhood income data from 1970 to 2000 for the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas and the cities and suburbs of a dozen selected regions, including the Baltimore area.

Its conclusion: There was sharply increasing neighborhood economic polarization during those three decades.

"Although middle-income families have declined considerably as a share of the overall family income distribution, it is noteworthy that middle-class neighborhoods have disappeared even faster in metropolitan areas, especially in cities," says the study by researchers Jason C. Booza, Jackie Cutsinger and George Galster of Detroit's Wayne State University. "This trend suggest increased sorting of high- and low-income families into neighborhoods that reflect their own economic profiles, and increased vulnerability of middle-class neighborhoods `tipping' towards higher- or lower-income status."

For their study, the researchers divided families and neighborhoods into six classifications. They ranged from very low-income, families and neighborhoods with incomes at 50 percent or less than the area median income, to very high-income, families and neighborhoods with incomes at 150 percent of the area median income.

What they found was that the proportion of middle-income families -- those making between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area median income -- declined from 28 percent to 22 percent in metropolitan neighborhoods in the three decades, part of a nationwide trend. At the same time, families with the highest and lowest incomes increased by 4.5 percent and 3.4 percent respectively.

(The authors of the study say it's not their purpose to discuss the cause of the growing economic disparity, but they briefly cite other studies that offer a variety of reasons, from the decline of labor unions to the growing division between two-earner couples and single-parent families.)

But they found that the proportion of middle-income neighborhoods (actually, census tracts) declined even more rapidly, from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, high-income neighborhoods grew by nearly 10 percent and low-income neighborhoods rose by 8 percent.

Among the central cities of the 12 metro areas examined in greater depth, the change was even more pronounced: The number of middle-income neighborhoods declined by nearly half, from 45 percent to 23 percent.

Besides Baltimore, the other cities looked at were Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Louisville, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco and Washington.

In Baltimore, the trend was even more exaggerated.

"Among the 12 cities, Baltimore experienced by far the steepest decline in middle-income neighborhoods, as their share of total city neighborhoods plummeted by 36 percentage points over the three-decade period," the study notes. "This magnified by many times the 8 percentage-point drop in the share of Baltimore families with middle incomes during that period."

Where did those neighborhoods go?

Virtually all became lower-income communities. The number of very high-income neighborhoods in Baltimore increased by just 1 percent during the decade. That's the third-lowest among the dozen cities, and far below the increase of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Atlanta at 9.3 percent, San Francisco at 8.9 percent and Washington at 6.8 percent. Since 2000, the percentage of wealthy neighborhoods in Baltimore may well have increased as higher-income residents have been drawn to pricey new developments.

In the suburbs, middle-income neighborhoods remain far more prevalent than in the cities, but they too have declined over time, according to the study. In contrast to the cities, however, there was a greater increase in the percentage of upper-income rather than lower-income neighborhoods.

The study suggests why this kind of polarization is problematic.

"If rising economic inequality has contributed to rising economic segregation, the ability of lower-income individuals to choose and access middle-income neighborhoods may have declined," it says. "A lack of middle-income neighborhoods may also limit opportunities for low and moderate-income homeowners to `move up' the property ladder, if the house-price differential between lower- and higher-income neighborhoods is too high."

That kind of economic segregation the study describes is what Baltimore's inclusionary task force seeks to address. Whether the group's recommendations -- for more resources, affordability requirements and tax breaks -- will be enough to break a 30-year trend or merely help stem it is an open question. Either way, they are worth pursuing.


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