Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
An uneven geography of disappearing wealth.
Since the start of the recession, median home values have dropped across America's largest cities: in New York (by about $40,400), in Los Angeles ($124,100), in Phoenix ($80,400) and Miami ($94,300). Thirty-five of the 50 largest cities in the country saw a significant decline, comparing the American Community Survey data from 2010-2012 to the 2007-2009 stretch encompassing the recession.
Slice the data at the county level, and the number is even higher: Home values dropped in 43 of the 50 largest counties.
The remaining counties – places where home values held steady or even inched up after the recession – seem like anomalies in an era when so much family wealth tied up in housing evaporated. After all, the median home value nationwide lost $17,300 over this time period.
But a different trend actually emerges from this new Census data. The housing woes in America's biggest cities are not particularly representative of the country at all. Across the U.S. during this time, housing values held firm in most of America's smaller counties. Look at the 1,038 counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000. Housing values weren't statistically different for about 70 percent of them in 2010-2012 than they were in 2007-2009. (The three-year ACS dataset makes it possible to focus on these small communities in a way that's more reliable than with the one-year data.)
So why would housing values broadly decline in the biggest counties, while they held steady in the small ones? Primarily, large urban areas like Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas) and Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California were at the heart of the housing bubble. Less populous places like Marion County, Kentucky didn't get the boom. But they also didn't suffer the bust.
This map from the Census illustrating this data shows red clusters of lost housing wealth in California, Florida, and Arizona, and in big cities like Seattle, Chicago and Boston. But an awful lot of places in between actually lost no value or even gained some between these two periods:
These numbers are expressed in absolute dollars, not as a percentage of lost value. So it's not surprising that the biggest hits came in the places with some of the highest home prices. Lose $50,000 off the value of a million-dollar home in suburban Los Angeles, and that probably hurts about as much as losing $20,000 off a much more modest house in Milwaukee. But the difference is still stark between the green dots (which are almost entirely absent from the West Coast) and everywhere else.
In tandem, most of these cities where home value has declined have also seen a drop in homeownership rates. At the metropolitan level, this is true in 49 of the 50 largest metros (save metro Oklahoma City). Here is the map at the city level:
People living in many of these smaller communities have undoubtedly been hurt by the recession in other ways. But at least lost home value is not one of them.