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Foreclosure Crisis Driving Black Flight in Chicago: Study

New econometric analysis brings statistics to bear in support of common-sense conclusions that people can’t stay in neighborhoods if they don’t have homes.

A vacant house in Ford Heights, a suburb south of Chicago.
An abandoned house at 1412 14th Place in Ford Heights on Dec. 7, 2020.
Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / TNS
Many American cities had a traumatic second half of the 20th century. Once proud metropolises like Cleveland and Detroit were laid low, falling from the rankings of the nation’s most populous urban centers.

Even cities that haven’t been as epically hollowed out still lost huge amounts of people. Philadelphia has roughly 500,000 fewer residents today than it did in 1950. Chicago is almost 875,000 short of its peak.

The original reason for this population drain could be linked to deindustrialization, and shrinking opportunities, along with a racist backlash to a growing Black population that manifested as “white flight” to the suburbs. That phenomenon has been studied extensively. Less well documented is the later exodus of African American residents from these same cities — even as some other racial groups have been gravitating toward urban life again.

Why Cities Keep Shrinking


“You now have a situation where Black population decline completely explains why many of these cities are not growing,” says Michael Snidal, a doctoral candidate in urban planning at Columbia University. “Most cities start seeing Black population decline as early as the late 1970s. One of the things that struck us is how little has been written on this issue, given that it’s not a new phenomenon in any way, shape, or form. In many cities, it’s grown.”

Snidal and co-authors Magda Maaoui and Tyler Haupert just published an article in the journal Urban Studies focused on Chicago, a city that lost 350,000 Black residents between 1980 and 2015. They bill their effort as the first econometric analysis of the variety of factors that might be pushing Black residents out of the Windy City.

Snidal, Maaoui and Haupert employed metrics including foreclosures, labor force participation, poverty, small business lending, the high school dropout rate, and violent crime (among others) to see which were related to Black population loss between 2010 and 2018.

Foreclosures Seen as Key Factor


They found that foreclosures were the best predictor of Black population loss in Chicago over that time period.

“We were surprised by our results in a way because media accounts of this topic, [focus on] employment rates and violent crime,” says Maaoui, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Cergy-Paris. “We were thinking that those [metrics] were going to lead in our results, but they didn’t.”

This finding doesn’t mean that violent crime, limited job opportunities, or other quality of life issues don’t also play a role in the Black exodus from Chicago. But in many cases, they are pressures that unfold over a longer time. A family can live amid gun violence for years, but the effect of foreclosure is immediate. You can’t stay in the neighborhood if you don’t have a home.

Alden Loury has been studying and covering Chicago’s Black exodus for years, both as a journalist and until 2018 as director of research and evaluation for the Metropolitan Planning Council. He says that the study’s findings are consistent with his experience on the ground.

Loury points out that two of the communities that have seen the steepest decline in Black population, Englewood and West Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, were also at the heart of the city’s foreclosure crisis.

“A lot of the dialogue that’s been happening in terms of Black population loss is focused on violence,” says Loury, the senior editor of the race, class and communities desk at WBEZ public radio. But “for people who know the history of violence in Chicago, they know it’s been high in many Black communities throughout. When violence was at its highest in the 90s, that’s the decade where there was the smallest level of Black population loss.”

Models for Policy Response


The authors and Loury are not arguing that violent crime, or other social ills, aren’t a factor in Black flight. Obviously, these are huge challenges in and of themselves, and some of the other metrics studied in the paper — like unemployment or poverty — can play a factor in foreclosure.

That’s because foreclosures are not isolated events. They are often preceded by factors like job loss and predatory lending. The subprime crisis of the 2000s was driven, in large part, by banks and other financial entities targeting Black and Latino homebuyers with viciously disadvantageous mortgage products.

Snidal, Maaoui and Haupert were partly inspired to analyze these “push” factors forcing people out of Black communities like Chicago because it would give policymakers an idea of where they can target efforts to stem the outflow.

The authors suggest interventions like reducing penalties for overdue residential property taxes and policies like Philadelphia’s Longtime Owner Occupants Program, which cap taxable value on a home for long-term homeowners under 150 percent of area median income. Once such programs are in place, communities need to be educated about their existence and applications kept simple. It could also help to brand such efforts under a larger campaign explicitly focused on helping Black residents stay in their homes.

“I can’t think of any major initiative that was done explicitly to preserve the Black population in the city,” says Loury.

There has been spending on affordable housing, of course, and a big economic development initiative underway — called Invest South/West — seeks to spark commercial activity in some disadvantaged neighborhoods. But fighting Black flight hasn’t become an avowed policy goal of the political class.

“In terms of somebody standing at a podium and saying we are going to retain our African American citizens and here’s our five strategies to do that — we have not seen that,” says Loury.

Snidal says that city leaders have focused too intently on attracting millennials and empty nesters and have not spent enough time crafting policy to retain legacy populations. Fighting foreclosure and other kinds of initiatives to keep existing residents in their current homes would be a boon. As immigration remains depressed amid the pandemic, cities in the Northeast and Midwest will need to keep the population they already have — or at least lose it at a slower clip.

“A big difference when you think about white flight is that it’s a voluntary story of exit,” says Snidal. “What we have here is an involuntary story of why people may be leaving neighborhoods…. [W]e have all these people in our neighborhoods right now that are leaving. What can we do to keep them?”

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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