Urban Institute

From 1990 to 2010, wealth has accumulated in ever-richer neighborhoods, thanks in part to exclusionary housing practices.

The opinion with the greatest impact from the Supreme Court’s latest term may very well be the case that decided the future of fair housing. The Court’s decision last week in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project affirms that it is unconstitutional to set housing policies that discriminate implicitly against a protected minority.

This decision is as wide reaching as the court’s mandates on healthcare and marriage equality, yet its impact can be harder to understand. That’s because economic stratification and racial segregation have been built into our neighborhoods over the course of many years, even decades.

A new interactive map released by the Urban Institute shows how income inequality has shaped neighborhoods across the nation since 1990. Nationwide, the top 10 percent of income earners live apart from the bottom 10 percent of earners. From 1990 through 2010, the neighborhoods where the wealthiest Americans live have remained relatively fixed. Meanwhile, tracts where the poorest Americans live have shifted and expanded over time—and grown poorer, too.

Exclusionary and discriminatory housing policies are one of the main tools that wealthy Americans have used to maintain wealthy neighborhoods. These bastions of prosperity enable them to consolidate, protect, and pass on their wealth.

This map depicts the commuting-zone tracts with the top 10 percent of advantaged residents (in blue) and bottom 10 percent (in black) for the year 1990. (Urban Institute)

To demonstrate just what this looks like over time, the Urban Institute, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, used data from the Neighborhood Change Database to examine the change in relative advantage and disadvantage between 1990 and 2010. The researchers used a composite index drawing on four factors: average household income, share of college-degree attainment, homeownership rate, and median housing value.

The Urban Institute’s map tool shows the tracts at the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of this advantage index. The main difference between the map above (a snapshot of economic disparity in 1990) and the map below (the state of disparity in 2010) is the spread of disadvantage.

The top 10 percent (in blue) and bottom 10 percent (in black) of advantaged tracts in 2010. The bottom 10 percent has shifted and spread, especially in the South and West. (Urban Institute)

“Neighborhoods close to the top or the bottom of the advantage index are among the nation’s most advantaged or disadvantaged on all four components of the index,” the report reads. “Therefore, the index’s meaning is easy to interpret at the extremes: either all factors are very high, or all of them are very low.”

How does this stratification happen—and what’s it got to do with the Supreme Court decision? The Urban Institute’s report focuses on Bridgeport, Connecticut, as particularly egregious. Here, in the top census tracts—suburbs such as Darien and New Canaan—average incomes are $240,000. In the area’s poorer central cities, namely Bridgeport and New Haven, average incomes are just $38,000. Exclusionary zoning keeps poorer residents out of wealthier suburbs.

“Decades of local, state, and federal policies have concentrated a disproportionate share of the state’s rental housing in these cities, especially its assisted rental housing,” the report reads. As a result of exclusionary zoning, both white residents and home ownership accrue to Bridgeport suburbs. The top 10 percent tracts are 90 percent white; 89 percent of the households in these tracts own their homes.

The question at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project was whether Texas could concentrate low-income housing tax credits in poorer minority neighborhoods—away from wealthier white neighborhoods. The answer is no: Exclusionary housing practices that result in adverse racial segregation are unconstitutional.

In cities such as Bridgeport, Blatimore, Newark, and Camden—cities where income disparity and racial segregation are extreme and growing—residents of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods need reasons to stay. “At the same time,” the report reads, “the sixfold difference between Bridgeport’s top and bottom neighborhoods makes it plain we can’t build more inclusive cities without building more inclusive suburbs.”

So the Supreme Court has put lawmakers in wealthy white communities on notice. What this means will take a very long time to play out. The entire map needs to be rewritten.

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