People and policies have shaped our cities. But how much has anyone thought about how those resulting cities have, in turn, shaped us?
If you’re Indiana University Ph.D. student Samuel H. Kye, you’ve been thinking about housing market preferences for people who have grown up mostly in segregated neighborhoods.
Kye’s research examines a key assumption for those in cities like Chicago or Dallas or Minneapolis or beyond that are seeking ways to counter the racial and economic segregation resulting from racist policies and the racist practices among lenders and real estate agents — the assumption that people today actually want to live in racially and economically integrated neighborhoods.
So far, Kye has found, that assumption is incorrect, at least when it comes to white residents.
In a paper, called “The persistence of white flight in middle-class suburbia,” published in the May issue of the journal Social Science Research, Kye’s findings show that white residents are likely to move out of neighborhoods when black, Hispanic, and Asian residents become a greater share of neighborhood population. Adding class to the equation, Kye found that middle-class white residents are more likely to move out than poor white residents.
“It really takes away the legs of that counterargument, that these are decisions that are largely being driven by socioeconomic differences,” Kye tells Next City. “Where we see white flight today, race still remains a fundamental factor motivating these moves.”
His findings challenge what Kye calls the “racial proxy hypothesis,” which holds that white residents choose to leave neighborhoods not because of their racial makeup but because of conditions related to poverty and instability. Kye’s conclusions suggest the opposite: White flight is actually more common in stable middle-class communities than in poor ones.
To identify communities in which white flight occurred, Kye looked at census tracts that lost at least white residents between 2000 and 2010. Kye determined that white flight occurred in those tracts if the total proportion of white residents also shrunk by at least 25 percent. So a neighborhood that went from 80 percent white to 60 percent white over the course of the decade experienced white flight, but one that went from 75 percent to 60 percent white did not.
Of the suburban tracts that had a significant white presence in 2000, some 3,252 census tracts, around 12 percent experienced white flight, according to Kye’s research. The average “magnitude loss” in those neighborhoods, or decrease in white residents’ share of the overall demographic of a tract, was 40 percent.
“We’re still trying to find the best and most robust ways to identify white flight, but for my research, my goal was to identify over a decade a significant loss of white residents,” Kye says.
Kye then constructed a neighborhood index to show concentrated disadvantage, with characteristics like percent of female-headed households, percent poverty, percent of residents on welfare, percent unemployment, and the percent of residents under 18 years of age. He constructed a second neighborhood index to show high educational and occupational attainment.
Using a regression analysis, Kye found that the growth of non-white residents within a census tract was a stronger predictor of white flight in middle-class neighborhoods (based on his indices) than in poor ones. In other words, white residents were more likely to leave relatively well-off neighborhoods than relatively poor ones when black, Hispanic, and Asian residents began forming a greater share of the population.
While zoning laws that lock segregation in place can be changed to encourage more affordable housing in all areas, Kye says, there currently aren’t policies that can prevent whites from leaving neighborhoods that are diversifying, and it’s hard to imagine what those would look like.
“White flight is something that’s more difficult to address directly with policymakers, because in large part, our policies have worked to ensure that the housing attainment process for minorities is the same as it is for whites,” Kye says. “To a large degree, the government can’t determine where it is that certain groups do or do not move, so this is something that is a little more difficult to directly act upon.”
Kye, who is studying the persistence of white residential enclaves for his doctoral dissertation, says that research on the mobility behavior of whites has shown that younger people are more likely to choose to live in racially diverse communities than older people. But it remains to be seen whether that divide will hold over time.
“Is this something that is indicative of a true sea change, where we’re going to see rising levels of integration?” he says. “Or is it the case that these older millennials, when they have children of their own and start to think about what it means to live in a good neighborhood, are they going to move back into whiter neighborhoods that are more segregated?”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.