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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The Sociology of Housing: How Homes Shape Our Social Lives

In today’s overheated housing market, gentrification remains a pressing concern. Yet, disinvestment and decline remain surprisingly common in lower-income neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2021, the number of high-poverty census tracts in the United States – those with poverty rates over 20 percent – grew more than 50 percent, from 13,400 to 20,241 tracts. Many of these declining communities are concentrated in the post-industrial Midwest, the Northeast, and in slow-growth cities in the South. Due to the troubling history of racism, most residents of these declining neighborhoods are Black.

In “Housing in the Context of Neighborhood Decline,” a new JCHS working paper and a chapter in The Sociology of Housing: How Homes Shape Our Social Lives (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press), we discuss not only the extent and consequences of urban decline, but also unanswered questions about housing in these neighborhoods. The chapter draws on work that each of us have done in declining neighborhoods. One of us (Sharon) lived for three years in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit, a place where every other property had become a vacant lot and every third house stood empty. The other (Christine) led a large-scale research team in Baltimore to study how investors made decisions about buying, selling, and maintaining properties, investigating how an informal housing market emerged in the absence of formal institutions.

Drawing on that work, as well as research by others, we argue that declining neighborhoods merit greater attention and that practitioners and policymakers can better understand housing inequalities through the lens of decline. We argue that declining neighborhoods create unique contexts for housing markets. They often invite distinct institutional responses from local governments, but also give rise to informal housing practices. The lens of decline can enrich our understanding of housing in three ways:

1. Housing precarity unfolds differently amidst decline

While we often talk about eviction, forbearance, and foreclosures as part of national trends, local neighborhood trajectories impact the type and incidence of housing precarity. For instance, in his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond famously taught us about the national eviction crisis through his study of inner-city Milwaukee. But we may learn new things about how and why evictions happen if we explicitly consider Milwaukee’s experience of post-industrial decline. Landlords make different investment and eviction decisions in the context of a poorly maintained housing stock, weak demand for housing, and depressed property values. For example, Eva Rosen and Philip Garboden show that landlords often invest resources in “training” tenants to conform to mainstream notions of self-reliance. They also use the threat of eviction to gain leverage over tenants. The training and threatening of tenants are presumably more likely to occur in neighborhoods where new tenants are harder to recruit. Phenomena like housing loss and eviction happen differently in declining neighborhoods.

2. Decline has shaped racial inequalities in neighborhoods and housing

Historically, urban decline has disproportionately impacted Black neighborhoods, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Black homeownership rates have been among the lowest in highly segregated, post-industrial Northern cities, including Albany, Syracuse, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. Recent research has also highlighted how the values of homes in majority-white neighborhoods have risen much faster than those in neighborhoods of color. As the economic fortunes of many Black Americans remain tied to post-industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and the South, the ongoing decline and disinvestments in many of these places perpetuates racial inequalities.

3. Decline is an ongoing reality for many disinvested cities, including as shaped by climate disasters and socio-political transformations

Nationally, urban decline reached its peak between the 1960s and 1980s, when politicians and journalists declared an “urban crisis.” Nowadays decline has become more regional. Beyond major cases like Baltimore and Detroit, decline impacts many medium-sized to small cities, such as Gary, Indiana, East Cleveland in Ohio, and Prichard, Alabama.

Decline today is also triggered by events such as COVID-19 – which changed where we live and work – and climate change. For instance, our analysis of Census data found that the wildfire-affected Paradise, California lost 82% of its population from 2000 to 2020. Still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost 21% of its population over that same period. As new causes reshape how and where decline is happening, we need new research to help craft housing policy aimed at tackling decline today.

Promising Areas for Studying Housing Decline and Policy Responses

Even as urban decline is ongoing and ever-changing, most research on declining neighborhoods is from the 1960s to 1980s. These past insights need to be revisited to adjust for recent political, economic, and demographic changes. We identify several promising areas for studying housing decline and its policy responses.

Researchers should examine the policies and practices of local governments. For example, the way local governments deal with tax delinquencies, code enforcement, and abandoned properties has significant consequences for local housing markets. Facing similar dynamics of decline, municipalities can learn from the mistakes and best practices enacted elsewhere. Research on Detroit’s property tax assessments, for instance, concluded that the city continued to over-assess the lowest-valued homes, even after a 2017 city-wide adjustment. Inflated property taxes in struggling housing markets may be a nation-wide problem that disproportionally burdens lower-income homeowners and increases foreclosure risks. Moreover, lessons from Massachusetts highlight how policy responses to decline can also be sought through collaboration at the state level, such as through the official designation of “Gateway Cities,” a set of post-industrial, lower-opportunity cities that have been earmarked for additional public funding and investments, and which designation has fueled best-practices sharing between similarly positioned municipalities.

Moreover, we should look at the role of homeowners and investors, how they make decisions, and how they grapple with the emergence and prevalence of informal housing markets. A recent Pew Study showed that approximately 1 in 5 home borrowers used alternative financing to buy a home at least once in their adult lives, making alternative financing a highly understudied topic. Other studies have shown that alternative financing is more prevalent in lower-income, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Alternative financing may include seller-financing and its variations (land installment contracts, lease option agreements), but may also include private loans. For borrowers, alternative financing such as seller-financing provides flexibility and can reduce transaction costs associated with buying a home. However, alternative financing methods vary widely in terms of interest rates, hidden costs, and when legal title transfers to the buyers. This inconsistency and lack of regulation can put buyers at greater risk of predatory practices. Yet cash purchases or alternative financing are often the only options in declining neighborhoods where property values are too low to attract lenders’ interest. Regulations to protect borrowers against unscrupulous actors and to expand Community Reinvestment Act obligations to underbanked areas, represent key areas of policy development.

Finally, we should pay attention to how residents experience living in declining neighborhoods, and what meanings they attach to their homes and communities. Many declining cities have adopted “creative place-making” strategies, using grant-funded arts and culture projects to attract new investors and middle-class residents to struggling downtowns. But policymakers and practitioners can benefit from better understanding the points of view of residents. For instance, through her three years of ethnographic research in the depopulated Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit, Sharon found that city policies and white newcomers promoted a vision of a green, low-density place: reimagining Brightmoor as a rural town rather than a de-urbanized city neighborhood. Yet, this vision put little funding behind supporting long-time residents to stay in place, who often struggled with precarious and inadequate housing. Listening to local perspectives can help mitigate the ongoing departures and displacement of long-time residents, while bringing to the fore the distinct strengths and identities of each place.