How neighborhood stability hinges on expectations:  If people don’t believe things are going to get better, many will leave

One of the most perplexing urban problems is neighborhood decline. Once healthy, middle-class or working class-places seem to gradually (and then abruptly) fall from grace.

As we documented in our report Lost in Place, the number of urban high poverty neighborhoods in the United States almost tripled from 1970 through 2010. Most of the growth was in places we called “fallen stars” places that had lower than average rates of poverty (under 15 percent) in 1970, but that were places of concentrated poverty (with poverty rates of 30 percent or more in 2010). What had been the solidly blue collar neighborhoods of many cities had, over four decades, become among the nation’s poorest–the kinds of places that the research of Raj Chetty and his colleagues shows permanently reduce the lifetime economic prospects of kids raised locally.

The mental picture we draw of neighborhoods and their residents is often a highly idealized, and simplified one. Particularly in describing high poverty areas and gentrification, we often focus on its impacts on “long time residents.” The idea is that people tend to be very tied to a particular neighborhood and are either scarred by its deficiencies (high poverty neighborhoods) or disadvantaged by change (higher rents due to gentrification). What this simplified picture misses is that not everyone who lives in a neighborhood has (or necessarily wants) long term tenure.

Some people may have deep ties to a place. Their family may have lived there for generations, they may own a home (or a business), they may be deeply involved in community institutions and activities. They may have a enduring attachments that lead them to stay, regardless of whether the neighborhood improves or declines.

But many residents, and arguably most renters, have far weaker ties to particular neighborhoods. The average tenure of a renter in the United States in her or his apartment is less than two years. For these residents, a particular neighborhood may be simply one stop on a journey that ultimately takes them elsewhere. And for many, moving to a different neighborhood, may be aspirational–getting a bigger yard, a shorter commute, better schools or safer streets–may be more important than staying where you are now. There’s abundant evidence that moving to a different neighborhood is one key way that families better their living conditions and prospects.

In his famous book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman boiled the choices a citizen had for influencing a larger organization into three broad categories.  Exit (one could leave if one wasn’t satisfied), Voice (one could try to change the organization by speaking out, and Loyalty (one could go along with the organization as it was, and expect some reciprocity for their commitment).

In urban neighborhoods, we would adapt that trio as “Exit, Hope, and Loyalty.” In the face of neighborhood decline, it seems that residents have a couple of choices. They can stick around (loyalty) or, if they want, they can leave.  Whether they do so or not depends critically on that middle factor “hope”–if people lose hope, if they have no reasonable expectation that things are going to get better, they may be well advised to cut their losses and leave before things get worse (for example, selling before their home has lost even more value).  Some will be extremely loyal to a neighborhood.  They may have deep ties, personal, social, and financial, and be willing to expend considerable personal energy to help their neighborhood survive, thrive and improve.

But for many, the choice of exit may be highly pragmatic. Some may not have deep roots in a community, and leaving may imply little personal or social loss. Even those with roots or loyalty however, may make the carefully calculated decision that they can’t afford to wait for the neighborhood to get better in order to improve their own lives (and the lives of their families and children). Even those who are loyal are unlikely to remain, if they’ve lost hope.

One of the paradoxes of civic engagement is that it is essentially uncorrelated with measures of community satisfaction.  People tend not to speak out, attend meetings, write letters, and so on, when they’re satisfied that things are going well in their neighborhoods.  A 2010 survey of residents of 29 cities by the Gallup Organization for the Knight Foundation found that civic engagement was the factor least correlated with community satisfaction.

The challenge, of course is that once the dynamic of “exit” gets put in place, it is self-reinforcing. When the people with means and choices start leaving a neighborhood, it can lose its economic and social vitality.  Fewer residents, and fewer middle class families means less money to support local businesses and more limited social capital to support schools and other institutions and to maintain the community’s collective sense of identity and well-being. As Alan Mallach describes, the neighborhood decline starts a cascade of events, a decline in property values that saps community wealth, leading to a downward spiral:

As the number of vacant properties increases, the value of the remaining properties declines further, and the confidence of the remaining homeowners begins to disappear.  Signs of disorder begin to appear, from litter in the gutters to graffiti on the walls of vacant houses or storefronts. Decline gradually undermines a neighborhood’s ability to maintain its stability in the face of problems.

Writ large, this process is fueling urban decline and concentrated poverty in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas. A recent report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity shows that the most common pattern of neighborhood change in the US is for low income residents to find themselves in neighborhoods of even more concentrated poverty.  As Jason Segedy writes:

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities could be described as displacement by decline – as black middle class residents, in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

Whether residents of struggling urban neighborhoods choose to remain loyal to the place they live, or whether they instead decide to exit depends directly on hope:  do they have a reasonable expectation that their neighborhood is going to get better, or at least not deteriorate further? Consequently, one of the critical factors in stabilizing or revitalizing these neighborhoods is addressing these expectations. Our colleague Carol Coletta once asked then Mayor, now Senator Corey Booker what the toughest challenge was that he faced as Mayor of Newark.  “He replied, “convincing people that things can be different.”  If the residents of a community no longer believe it is going to get better, not only will they be less inclined to invest their time and energy in supporting it, but their attitudes will likely fuel a more widespread perception of neighborhood decline, and this stigma, once established may be impossible to reverse.

A key challenge for fighting neighborhood decline, and overcoming concentrated poverty is building a credible expectation on the part of neighborhood residents that things are going to change, and change for the better. Building hope is needed to reinforce loyalty and minimize exit. That’s a major task for urban leaders.