a photo of a foreclosed home in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2011.
A foreclosed home in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2011. Joshua Lott/Reuters

A new study explores the relationship between housing distress and voting shifts at the neighborhood level in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Like many others, Deirdre Pfeiffer was shocked by the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A housing researcher at Arizona State University, she wondered whether the housing distress triggered by the 2008 financial crisis had a role to play in reshaping the nation’s political trajectory.

Her new study with Jake Wegmann and Alex Schafran, published online in Urban Affairs Review, takes a stab at answering that question. In it, she and her colleagues examine the link between foreclosure rates and neighborhood voting behavior in Maricopa County, Arizona. TL;DR: Yes, it did.

“We can’t really say that what was going on in Arizona was a factor in Trump’s election,” Pfeiffer said. “Our research is suggestive that what was going on in the housing market may have contributed to that outcome in other places in 2016.”

In the study, Pfeiffer wanted to drill down to the neighborhood level—“the geography where the effects of foreclosure are most acute,” she said. “It’s where they really penetrate into people’s lives.” So she and her colleagues took a close look at foreclosures in the Phoenix region in election cycles that preceded the 2016 race. They looked at elections between 2006 and 2010—years that “closely bracketed the economic crisis.” If they ended up not seeing an effect in that time period, they figured, they wouldn’t see it later.

Then, they analyzed precinct-level voting patterns in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections in the county, which they see as a microcosm of the U.S. That second governor’s race was a particularly interesting test case to study how voters view the incumbent: Tea Party Republican Jan Brewer was running for reelection against Democrat Terry Goddard.

Indeed, after running regressions to test that relationship and holding all else equal, the researchers found that neighborhoods with higher foreclosure rates were less likely to vote Republican in the second election: An increase in the rate by 52 foreclosures per 1,000 homes was associated with a 1 percent point decline in Republican vote share between 2006 and 2010. In other words, those areas hardest hit by foreclosures appeared to shift leftwards, displaying anti-incumbent voting behavior.

But they also observed a surprising pattern in other neighborhoods: The ones that saw greater increases in shares of African American and Hispanic voters displayed a conservative shift in the election. The study didn’t have clear explanation of this pattern, but the researchers have some theories. One is that in some of these neighborhoods, single-family homes were being converted to rentals, so black and brown families who experienced foreclosure in other neighborhoods may have moved in. The conservative voting behavior thus reflects a backlash among white residents who find themselves with a more diverse set of neighbors. (As this 2018 study explores, having non-white neighbors can increase a sense of discrimination and threat for white residents.)

But it’s also possible that the newcomers “assimilated” to their new neighborhoods and adopted the voting preferences of longer-standing neighbors. “We’re not sure why we’re seeing this pattern,” Pfeiffer said, “but it’s concerning and surprising.”

The bottom line is that housing distress, measured here through foreclosures, appears to be a factor in changing voting behavior from one neighborhood to the next. And that has two major implications for voters and political hopefuls.

One, if housing distress is, in fact, influencing voting behavior, then candidates in the 2020 presidential election need to be more mindful of it. “Our political leaders need to take a closer look at housing issues in the country,” Pfeiffer said. “Housing issues tend to be seen as more localized, but [given these findings], people in federal office need to take more of a stand.”

Second, Pfeiffer notes that even though foreclosure-hit voters appeared to shift liberal in the 2010 gubernatorial election in Arizona, the incumbent—Jan Brewer—still ended up winning. The partisan shifts weren’t significant enough to sway the outcome in the race, which means voters may have felt a sense of helplessness at status quo. To Pfeiffer, that signals a need for people around the country affected by housing distress to “find ways to get power that are not linked to government systems.”

In other words, the findings of this study suggest that the time has come, again, for America’s housing problem to become a national-level political issue that people organize and rally around to create a movement.

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