FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

US Middle-Class Neighborhoods Disappearing

Wither the middle class in America? If you wanted to search for it, you'd have an increasingly hard time finding it in American neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 2000, widening income disparity and new real estate options available to those who can afford them have sent middle-income communities on the decline. In Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, these neighborhoods have fallen by more than 20% in 30 years. In that same period, the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods in the top 100 US metro areas declined from 58% to 41%.

The Brookings Institute survey, which measured the decline, also noted that this decline has led to more segregated communities and lower quality services for poorer neighborhoods. Middle-income neighborhoods sometimes gentrify, attracting wealthy homebuyers interested in restoring quaint communities (and displacing their poorer neighbors in the process). More typically, the affluent move to newer "exurb" communities with larger homes and more property, inadvertently causing property values in their old neighborhoods to fall. That scenario becomes a downward spiral; high-income people move out, home values decline, low-income people move in, schools deteriorate, crime goes up, repeat.

Zoning laws also help make communities more homogeneous. "As upper-income Americans are drawn to the new houses, neighborhoods become more homogeneous," says Thomas Bier, executive in residence at the Center for Housing Research and Policy at Cleveland State University. "The zoning is such that it prevents anything other than a certain income range from living there. It is our latest method of discrimination."

So long as upper-middle- and high-income homebuyers have the mobility to move out of middle-class neighborhoods, the decline of those neighborhoods will be a future trend. Formulating a solution, however, isn't easy; some say that this isn't even a problem, that homebuyers are simply making intelligent choices for their families. Attempts to develop sustainable, moderate-income communities have had limited success, and have little appeal in an upwardly mobile housing market (though they may interest aging baby boomers seeking a tighter-knit community and smaller, more manageable homes). Just as the American preference for SUVs has been limited only by the rise in oil prices, it will likely take an economic crisis, such as a full-blown collapse of the housing market or a major recession, to put the brakes on this trend.

UPDATE: Visit this forum for an insightful discussion about this theme and the possible origins and future of our class divisions.

UPDATE 2: Newsweek explores new approaches to creating sustainable, attractive suburbs throughout the world.

Source: Washington Post