Many American cities experienced a traumatic second half of the 20th century. Once upon a time, proud metropolises like Cleveland and Detroit were shot down, falling from the rankings of the nation’s most populous urban centers.
Even cities that weren’t hollowed out so epically still lost huge amounts of people. Philadelphia has about 500,000 fewer residents today than in 1950. Chicago is nearly 875,000 fewer than its peak.
The initial reason for this population flight may have to do with deindustrialization and diminishing opportunity, as well as a racist backlash towards a growing black population that manifests as a “white flight” to the suburbs. This phenomenon has been widely studied. Less well documented is the subsequent exodus of African-American residents from those same cities – even as some other racial groups gravitate toward city life again.
Why Cities Keep Shrinking
“You now have a situation where the declining black population completely explains why many of these cities are not growing,” says Michael Snidal, a doctoral student in urban planning at Columbia University. “Most cities begin to see black populations decline by the late 1970s. of a new phenomenon. In many cities it is cultivated.
Snidal and his co-authors Magda Maaoui and Tyler Haupert have just published an article in the journal Urban studies focused on Chicago, a city that lost 350,000 black residents between 1980 and 2015. They present their efforts as the first econometric analysis of the variety of factors that could push black residents out of Windy City.
Snidal, Maaoui, and Haupert used measures such as foreclosures, labor force participation, poverty, small business loans, school dropout rate, and violent crime (among others) to see which were linked to loss of black population between 2010 and 2018.
Foreclosures are considered a key factor
They found that foreclosures were the strongest predictor of black population loss in Chicago during this period.
“We were surprised by our results in a way because the media reports on this topic, [focus on] employment rates and violent crime,” explains Maaoui, associate professor at the University of Cergy-Paris. “We thought those [metrics] were going to top our results, but they didn’t.
This finding doesn’t mean that violent crime, limited job opportunities, or other quality-of-life issues aren’t also playing a role in the black exodus from Chicago. But in many cases, these are pressures that unfold over a longer period of time. A family can live in the midst of gun violence for years, but the effect of lockdown is immediate. You can’t stay in the neighborhood if you don’t have a house.
Alden Loury has been researching and covering Chicago’s black exodus for years, both as a journalist and until 2018 as director of research and evaluation for the Metropolitan Planning Council. He says the study’s findings are consistent with his experience in the field.
Loury points out that two of the communities that saw the largest black population decline, Englewood and West Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, were also at the heart of the city’s foreclosure crisis.
“A lot of the dialogue that’s taken place in terms of black population loss is focused on violence,” says Loury, bureau editor of race, class and communities at public radio WBEZ. But “for people who know the history of violence in Chicago, they know it was brought up in many black communities everywhere. When the violence was at its peak in the 90s, that was the decade with the smallest level of black population loss.
Models of policy response
The authors and Loury do not argue that violent crime or other social ills are not a factor in black flight. Clearly, these are huge challenges in themselves, and some of the other metrics explored in the paper – like unemployment or poverty – may play a role in the lockdown.
This is because seizures are not isolated events. They are often preceded by factors such as job loss and predatory lending. The subprime mortgage crisis of the 2000s was caused, in large part, by banks and other financial entities targeting black and Latino buyers with extremely disadvantageous mortgage products.
Snidal, Maaoui, and Haupert were partly inspired to analyze these “push” factors forcing people to leave black communities like Chicago, as it would give policymakers an idea of where they can target efforts to stem the exodus. .
The authors suggest interventions such as reducing penalties for delinquent residential property taxes and policies such as Philadelphia’s Long-Term Homeownership Program, which caps the assessed value of a home for long-term homeowners at less than 150% of the region’s median income. Once such programs are in place, communities should be educated about their existence and applications should be kept simple. It could also help mark those efforts as part of a larger campaign explicitly aimed at helping black residents stay in their homes.
“I can’t think of any major initiative that’s been done explicitly to preserve the city’s black population,” Loury says.
There has been spending on affordable housing, of course, and a major economic development initiative underway – called Investir Sud/Ouest – seeks to stimulate commercial activity in certain disadvantaged neighborhoods. But fighting against the flight of blacks has not become an avowed political objective of the political class.
“In terms of someone standing at a podium and saying we’re going to retain our African American citizens and here are our five strategies for doing that — we haven’t seen that,” Loury says.
Snidal says city leaders have focused too much on attracting millennials and empty nesters and haven’t spent enough time developing policy to retain legacy populations. Fighting the foreclosure and other types of initiatives to keep existing residents in their current homes would be a boon. As immigration remains depressed amid the pandemic, cities in the Northeast and Midwest will need to retain the population they already have — or at least lose it at a slower rate.
“A big difference when you think about white flight is that it’s a story of voluntary release,” says Snidal. “What we have here is an unintended story of why people may leave neighborhoods…. [W]We have all these people in our neighborhoods right now who are leaving. What can we do to keep them?