The Great Urban/Suburban Merge

by Jerome Dineen August 14, 2018

The American city has experienced huge changes in the last few decades. In many places, home prices have climbed, high school dropout rates have fallen, and incomes have risen. Those are numbers worthy of celebration, but underneath that good news is a demographic shift: Cities have become whiter, suggesting the perks of growth and revitalization have not been distributed equally.

That transformation of the nation’s cities has, in turn, spurred a greater remaking of entire metropolitan areas — cities and their suburbs — where demographic changes have contributed to shifts in everything from neighborhood composition to the makeup of voter rolls.

Taken together, these changes could have massive impacts on the partisan politics of metro areas over the next several decades. The evidence of this transformation is no clearer than in Washington, D.C. which is developing on two very different tracks.

The nation’s capital is geographically divided into eight Wards. In two of them, Wards 1 and 6, measures of educational attainment and income have improved markedly. These changes come, however, largely with an influx of younger, wealthier and whiter residents into traditionally minority-dominated neighborhoods.

Ward 6, which contains Capitol Hill and several more recently developed neighborhoods, saw median home values increase 290 percent between 1995 and 2015, according to an Urban Institute aggregation of census data for that time period.  In 1995, the median home value in Ward 6 was $224,940 (in 2015 dollars). That number rose to $877,920 by 2015.

Ward 1, which contains neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw and the U-Street Corridor came in just behind Ward 1, with median home values increasing by 270 percent between 1995 and 2016.

Incomes, for the most part, have increased across the District as well. The most extreme cases of these increases again occurred in Wards 1 and 6. Ward 1’s median family income, adjusted for inflation, nearly doubled, increasing from $57,495 in 1980 to $113,972 in 2015. Ward 6 saw an even steeper income spike, more than doubling between 1980 and 2015, again adjusting for inflation.

At the neighborhood level, some of these changes look even more extreme. A wave of money spreading from Capitol Hill has transformed Ward 6’s H Street Corridor (now dubbed the “Atlas District” by developers) from what Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson once described as an “equal-opportunity mugging zone” to a popular destination for young middle-class professionals.

Money has spread south of the Capitol as well. According to the 2000 census, the annual median income for individuals in the Navy Yard neighborhood (now rebranded “Capitol Riverfront” by developers) was only $10,434 in 2015 dollars. Between 2010 and 2015, that number rose to at least $196,791, accounting for the margin of error in American Community Survey 5-year estimates. That’s a 790 percent spike in the median individual income in less than 20 years.

Although this is old news with D.C.’s rapidly changing demographics, Shaw, another neighborhood in Ward 1, saw its annual median individual income grow by at least 204 percent between 2000 and 2015. As the Washington Post reported in late October, however, rents in Shaw and nearby Columbia Heights have dropped because higher-income residents left for more spacious apartments with better amenities in the Navy Yard and NoMa neighborhoods.

That’s the D.C. “success story.” Meanwhile, however, Wards 7 and 8, which contain some of the poorest neighborhoods in the District, have not seen the same prosperity. Those wards have witnessed modest family income declines over the same period of 2.8 and 4.9 percent respectively.

At the same time, education levels have also changed dramatically over the last few decades. In Ward 6, the high school dropout rate fell from 39.9 percent in 1980 to 7.5 percent in 2015, an 81 percent decrease. During that time, Ward 6’s unemployment fell from 7.8 to 6.2 percent.

But declining high school dropout rates have not lead to similar declines in the unemployment rate in Wards 7 and 8. In fact, in Ward 7, even though the high school dropout rate fell by more than half, the unemployment rate actually increased by 130 percent.

Along with all those changes, D.C.’s white population spiked in the first decade of the 21st century in some parts of the city. Between 1990 and 2010, Ward 1’s white population more than doubled. In Ward 6, the white population increased by 62 percent of its 1990 population. In both wards, roughly two-thirds of the of total growth in the white population occurred in only 10 years — between 2000 and 2010.

Those population shifts have not been missed by D.C. residents who have made their home in the city through the last few decades.

Ken Martin, a longtime D.C. resident and social worker who now sells newspapers for Street Sense, a local paper focusing on homelessness, said that these shifts have “sapped the District of its tradition of community involvement, participation and enhancement.”

“They wanted to see D.C. become a mini New York, a melting pot,” Martin said. “But what’s happening is instead of people forming stronger coalitions, we’re getting little clusters of people who don’t want to speak to one another.”

“Nobody trusts each other anymore.”

The Changing Burbs

As economic and educational outcomes improve for more centrally located residents — those either near downtown or closer to the Capitol — many of the poorest residents in the D.C. area have migrated either across the Anacostia River into Wards 7 or 8, or into surrounding suburban counties.

The result is a metro area that has taken on the look and feel of the city as the distinctions between urban and suburban wane.

Census poverty figures reflect this trend. Between 2000 and 2015, the percentage increase in people living below the poverty line in the four Maryland and Virginia counties that surround the District outpaced the rate of growth of poverty in the capital.

Even Fairfax County, Virginia, which is home to some of the wealthiest bedroom communities in the D.C. metropolitan area, saw its poor population increase by more than one-third despite total population growth of only 16 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to census statistics.

In Montgomery County, a wealthy D.C. suburban enclave in Maryland, the percentage of people who do not speak English at home, traditionally a sign of first-generation immigrant populations, climbed eight points between 2000 and 2015, to 39.6 percent from 31.6 percent. The poverty rate climbed by 25 percent there as well.

The differences can be seen in the broader racial and ethnic changes in the metro area as well.

In 2000, census data show that in the District of Columbia and nine nearby counties, the average white population was about 61 percent, the average black population was about 22 percent, the average Asian population was about 5 percent, and the average Hispanic population was about 8 percent.

By 2015, the average white population shrank to 52 percent, the average black population grew to about 23 percent, the average Asian population grew to about 8 percent, and the average Hispanic population grew to about 13 percent. Those are big changes for the 4,535,983 that live in those counties.

But this trend isn’t isolated to the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings Institution fellow who has studied the growth of suburban poverty since 2000, found with her colleague Emily Garr that the national suburban poor population grew by 25 percent from 2000 to 2008. This was five times the growth of poverty in urban areas during that same period.

Kneebone wrote in an email that the “growth of suburban poverty since 2000 was not due solely to more poor people moving to suburbia. It was also driven by the downward mobility of longtime residents.”

Gentrification’s contributions to the suburbanization of the poor vary with the local housing market, Kneebone wrote. Still, she asserted that “even in regions most affected by gentrification in recent years, the total growth in the suburban poor population is just too large to be solely the product of displacement.”

Gentrification or Swap?

Others see the growth of minority poor populations on the outskirts of cities like D.C. as part of a greater rearrangement in income, race and politics.

Alan Ehrenhalt, a contributing editor at Governing Magazine and a longtime student of American cities, makes the case that the blighted urban cores and leafy middle-class suburbs that characterized metropolitan areas in the second half of the 20th century may be in store for a major reversal in the 21st.

The American city of the future will look and feel more like the prototypical 19th-century European city, Ehrenhalt suggests. In Paris and Vienna, for example, the city center was home to the aristocracy, business and political elite. The peripheries housed the construction and service industry workers in tight, often squalid living quarters.

This urban/suburban divide has persisted in Paris, where the suburbs have remained the home to poorer immigrant populations.

Now, as Ehrenhalt argues throughout his book The Great Inversion, similar living patterns are forming in and around American cities, even if at a glacial pace. “In the first decade of the 21st century, Chicago lost 200,000 people, 180,000 of which were African Americans,” Ehrenhalt said in an interview. “They were largely replaced, if that’s the word, by affluent white professionals settling in on the North side.”

To many readers, this might sound like gentrification, cut and dried. Yet Ehrenhalt argues that gentrification fails to capture the scale and complexity of the shift happening in metro areas.

The term Ehrenhalt uses is “demographic inversion.” He argues that gentrification occurs when a wealthier, often whiter, population displaces a poorer, often minority population in a single neighborhood or a cluster of neighborhoods. Demographic inversion, on the other hand, is a broader “rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place roughly at the same time.”

The Politics of Dispersion

This rearrangement of living patterns between wealthier, typically white residents and poorer, typically minority residents has implications beyond the “character” of a neighborhood. Dispersion of minorities and a white middle-class ingress into the cities could also invert geographic voting patterns across the United States.

Ultimately, the dispersion of minority groups has two probable outcomes. First, the presence of minorities could boost Democratic chances in suburban, traditionally Republican districts.

As New York Times opinion writer Thomas B. Edsall wrote in a 2015 article, the suburbanization of minorities could “lessen one of the Democrats liabilities: the huge concentration of favorable voters in city districts that vote democratic by 3 to 1 or better margins, effectively wasting voters who would be more beneficial to the party if located in competitive districts.”

But a second possible result of the suburbanization of minority populations is political erasure, said Michael Harrington, a writer at the Root.

“America is getting browner, it’s getting blacker,” Harrington said in an interview. “That’s irrefutable. But the argument is whether that spread-out diversity gives blacks a different kind of power, whether it makes the voting population nationwide, statewide, citywide or countywide more diverse. It might.”

Harrington warned, however, that the suburbanization of minorities might be too scattered to make a real dent in Republican-dominated counties on the urban periphery. And by extension, local black populations still in the city center could lose the kind of concentrated political power they had in the last two decades of the 20th century.

“If 20 blacks move away from Washington, D.C. — one is in [Prince George’s] County, one is in Delaware, one is in Virginia — there will be a minimal impact on the surrounding area,” Harrington said. “If there are 20 whites moving into the city, it’ll have bigger impact on local politics.”

Harrington’s point can be seen in the larger data about metro Washington that show growing racial and ethnic diversity. Even as the white, non-Hispanic population has dropped by nine points to 52% in the nine-county DC metro area, the political transformation has been much slower.

According to 2015 census figures, across nine DMV counties and the District of Columbia, whites are the largest share of residents in 62 percent of census tracts, blacks are the largest share of residents in 28 percent of tracts, Hispanic non-whites are the largest share of residents in 10 percent of tracts, and Asians are the largest share of residents in only 2 percent of tracts. (A Census tract is a neighborhood of roughly 2,500 to 8,000 people)

The faceted graph below illustrates how group percentages across all census tracts can differ sharply with the percentage of tracts in which a group is the largest share of residents. Steeper slopes mean larger differences between a group’s percent of the population across all census tracts and the percentage of the time that group constitutes the largest share of the population across all census tracts.

Although Hispanics and Asians constitute a sizable chunk of the total DMV area population, they are relatively spread out, living mostly amongst whites. In Montgomery County, Maryland for example, Asians on average make up about 14.5 percent of the population across all census tracts but are the largest share of residents in only 1.8 percent of census tracts.

Robert Griffin, the Director of Quantitative Analysis at the Center for American Progress, said in an interview that although the suburbanization of minorities is indeed happening, it’s happening too slowly to predict any kind of seismic shift in the partisan makeup of right-leaning districts in suburbia and exurbia.

“I would feel confident within a 10-year range saying that [conservative outlying districts and liberal urban ones] is a trend that’s sort of locked into our politics,” Griffin said.

Griffin also said that beyond migration patterns, life in the suburbs or in cities can also alter the political behavior of local residents.

“There’s a bit of evidence that cities make people more liberal,” Griffin said. “It’s not just the case that people move around and self-select into neighborhoods based on their preferences for living, which correlates with party. It’s also the case that once people move to a place it has an effect on who they are and the way they see the world.”

Still, the dispersion of minority groups out into the suburbs may have already changed politics, at least at the state level. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, received the majority of his votes in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election from urban and suburban areas in Northern Virginia and in the Capital region — both places where Asian and Hispanic population shares have spiked in the last 20 years.

Jerome Dineen is a journalism and statistics student at the George Washington University. He’s interested in the intersections of housing, urban policy, inequality and political representation. Follow him on Twitter @JeromeDineenUS
Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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