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Housing Segregation: Wake County, North Carolina

Adam Rust's picture

Posted December 20, 2010

One of the challenging issues surrounding the decision by the Wake County, North Carolina School Board to end its "Diversity Policy" is that it has done so in a community where residential housing patterns have established a de facto pattern of income segregation.

For years, Wake County's School Board had supported a system that transported students to schools. Many people didn't like that they weren't necessarily the most proximate, or that children frequently changed schools. In some instances, parents had children at different schools within the same grade sequence (elementary, middle...). Wake's goal was to insure an equitable distribution of low-income (free and reduced lunch recipients) students throughout all of the district's schools. Wake County was lauded for the idea, both by progressives in the educational community as well as by employers. Wake has been able to attract a skilled workforce. In the recent American

Community Survey update, Wake ranked in the top 25 nationally for the share of its residents above age 25 with a college degree.

Still, many parents were not happy. It didn't help that traffic can be a bear, either. Opposition grew, and over time, it became organized and vocal. The anger was years in the making.

Defenders of diversity argue that opposition isn't just about convenience. They assert that their opponents are driven by class tension. They say that a policy that fails to acknowledge how this change impacts racial dynamics is at best naive, and potentially cruel.

In spite of the success fostered by its reputation, the School Board voted to develop a new school assignment plan with an aim of creating neighborhood schools. Suddenly, a lot of people were worried.

Part of the anxiety stems from something that any local will tell you: most of the poor people in Wake County live in the southeastern corner of Raleigh. Moreover, this isn't a case of natural selection. These neighborhoods were drawn up during a period of extensive planning and zoning regulation. Wake allowed this to happen. Now we're stuck with the problem.

Even now, new home purchases only serve to exacerbate the existing inequality.

This table shows how low-income home buyers are much more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods. In any instance when a number exceeds 1.0, it means that this quadrant is over-represented. For example, low-income buyers in Wake bought homes in low-income neighborhoods at a rate that was almost twice (1.98 times) the share that would be expected given their share of the buying public.

The next chart is an expression of residential segregation. It shows that the problem is common to both Durham and to Wake County, but that it is far more serious in the latter.

To read this map, you need to understand a few things. It is based on a few calculations:

  • sort low-income borrowers by low-income neighborhoods.
  • imagine that low-income borrowers are spread out evenly across all neighborhoods. In this ideal world, low-income borrowers would purchase an equal share (25 percent) of their housing in each of the four quadrants (low, moderate, middle, and upper income).
  • this table only shows lower and upper - the extremes.
  • compare that ideal outcome with the real outcome. When the number is greater than 1, it means that buyers overbought in that area. Less than one, by comparison, means that they underbought.

Here are a few takeaways:

Low-income borrowers in Wake are much more likely to end up in a low-income neighborhood.

Upper-income borrowers are even more unlikely to make the opposite tract. Very few end up in a low-income neighborhood.

These are important facts for the evaluation of Wake's policy. It is no fault of the School Board that planners and developers have conspired to build housing that sorts people by income status. That is the fault of the planners and the developers. Still, once a neighborhood is built it becomes an immutable part of the landscape. That is particularly the case with the new planned communities that dot most of Western Wake. It is hard to imagine that there will be much infill development in the cul-de-sac communities with endless re-iterations of the same cookie cutter houses stamped on to cookie-cutter lots. The past is the prologue.