Wealth gap seg­re­gat­ing sub­urbs

Many of Hous­ton’s out­ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties are be­yond the reach of its poorer res­i­dents

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Tol­son

When Dan and Gayle Patton wanted more room and bet­ter schools for their grow­ing fam­ily, they did what gen­er­a­tions have done be­fore them and headed for the sub­urbs. The trade- off they ac­cepted was one that Amer­i­cans un­der­stand al­most from birth— eas­ier life, longer drive.

In Hous­ton, how­ever, the sub­urbs aren’t quite what they used to be. They­may be just as pleas­ant, con­ven­tional and unin­spired as the count­less thou­sands of places that ac­com­mo­dated the coun­try’s grow­ing post­war pop­u­la­tion a half- cen­tury ago, but there’s a twist. Many of those sub­urbs re­quire in­come lev­els that can­not be reached by

av­er­agemid­dle- class jobs, or even two of them.

“I think ev­ery other house out here has a lawyer in it,” Gayle said at the kitchen ta­ble of their com­fort­able home in Fall Creek, a young mas­ter­planned community near U. S. 59 and Belt­way 8. “I’mnot kid­ding.”

As it hap­pens, their home has two. The in­escapable con­se­quence of the new style of subur­ban de­vel­op­ment is that house­holds fall­ing within the top third of an­nual Amer­i­can in­come are in­creas­ingly sur­rounded by oth­ers in the same in­come group. Twom­a­jor stud­ies, one last month by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter and one in 2011 by the Rus­sell Sage Foun­da­tion, have doc­u­mented a dra­matic rise in “res­i­den­tial in­come seg­re­ga­tion,” with Hous­ton lead­ing the way among the na­tion’s top 10 cities.

Like is at­tract­ing like as never be­fore, and that has po­lit­i­cal so­cial sci­en­tists con­cerned that the United States is veer­ing fur­ther to­ward par­al­lel re­al­i­ties — two Americas, side by side, not only sep­a­rate and un­equal, but largely un­fa­mil­iar to each other.

Im­mi­grant gate­way

Rosa Rosario lives with her two small chil­dren in Gulfton, the south­west Hous­ton community that of­ten serves as the gate­way for im­mi­grants com­ing from south of the bor­der. Most of the res­i­dents of the area’s large apart­ment com­plexes don’t have­much — though the prom­ise of plenty tan­ta­lizes be­hind the walls of the Gal­le­ria a mile or two away— but she still re­calls her­much more squalid child­hood in Mex­ico and is grate­ful.

So Rosario does not com­plain. She likes be­ing sur­rounded by so many who share her ex­pe­ri­ence, her needs and her lan­guage. At 28, she has been here for 17 years, so she knows there is a world be­yond Gulfton, parts of it quite grand. But she has not seen­much of it, or the peo­ple who live there. And nei­ther have her chil­dren.

“Ev­ery­body bor­rows from each other and helps each other, so I like it here,” Rosario said of her neigh­bor­hood. “But I hope some­day to have a lit­tle house and maybemy own busi­ness, so I can see my kids more.”

If she does, and even if it does well, odds are slim to none that she will ever fall within the Pat­tons’ or­bit. It is pos­si­ble that their chil­dren might, though sta­tis­ti­cally the odds are against that as well. Rosario’s big­gest hope is that her kids can get into one of the KIPP char­ter schools. She has heard that KIPP’s grad­u­ates typ­i­cally go to col­lege.

The­ma­jor­ity of Hous­ton’s neigh­bor­hoods are not as eth­ni­cally ho­moge­nous as Gulfton or, say, the in­cor­po­rated vil­lages of­fMe­mo­rial Drive in west Hous­ton just a few miles from Rosario’s mod­est apart­ment. But that isn’t true when the defin­ing fac­tor is house­hold in­come.

Should Rosario ever man­age to make enough money to buy a home in a sub­urb, it’s all but cer­tain to look noth­ing like those in Fall Creek, where the av­er­age list­ing tops $ 300,000.

“We are head­ing into a world of division not by eth­nic­ity but by class,” said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice Univer­sity so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor who has fol­lowedHous­ton’s chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics closer than any­one in re­cent decades and stud­ied their im­pli­ca­tions.

“It is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rigid­i­fied,” Klineberg de­clared. “The more in­come in­equal­ity there is, the more the up­per classes live in a dif­fer­ent world and in a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity than the poor kids or themid­dle­class kids.”

Time was when “mov­ing out” meant go­ing to a smaller fringe city away from the con­ges­tion of ur­ban life. They were quiet and com­fort­able and ac­ces­si­ble to most any­one with a de­cent job. In­creas­ingly, how­ever, the newer subur­ban neigh­bor­hoods are uni­form not only in ap­pear­ance but in class.

De­cent job won’t cut it

Ex­perts call it “res­i­den­tial in­come seg­re­ga­tion,” which means that in many cases a de­cent job sim­ply won’t cut it. More and more the well- off are liv­ing with other well- off.

And the poor are liv­ing with poor.

The Pat­tons were not de­lib­er­ately seek­ing neigh­bors who looked and thought like them­selves, or en­joyed the same in­come bracket. They just wanted a life­style more con­ducive to their needs, and it so hap­pened that the clos­est mas­ter- planned community— and all it en­tails— was what they chose.

“We didn’t have a yard suit­able for two boys,” said Gayle Patton, whose daugh­ter was born later. “We had con­cerns about the school, and we’re both big pro­po­nents of pub­lic schools. We knew we were go­ing to have to move.”

The long com­mute from TheWood­lands and the traf­fic on the Katy Free­way pushed them to­ward some­thing closer.

“It was Fall Creek or bust,” Dan said. “We had friends here who liked it. And we’ve been pleased.”

As are their neigh­bors, who the Pat­tons say of­ten just move to a larger Fall Creek home as their fam­i­lies grow. The community is sta­ble and at­trac­tive. What’s not to like?

But it’s the im­pli­ca­tions of these developmen­ts that con­cern those who re­search class- re­lated hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion. How much of a role the trend plays in fu­el­ing po­lit­i­cal division is am­at­ter for end­less spec­u­la­tion.

Jour­nal­ist Bill Bishop ar­gued in his 2008 book, “The Big Sort,” that peo­ple are choos­ing to live among like- minded peo­ple as a mat­ter of cul­tural choice, not sim­ply by eco­nomic ac­ci­dent. A pref­er­ence for sim­i­lar life­styles and like- minded opin­ions is Balka­niz­ing the coun­try, Bishop ar­gued, and turn­ing peo­ple’s worlds into “a gi­ant feed­back loop.”

Re­gard­less of whether an in­creased cul­ture of sep­a­ra­tion fu­els the grow­ing di­vide or is the re­sult of it, the 2010 cen­sus data sug­gest class is be­com­ing the dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods, es­pe­cially in Texas.

The city’s score on Pew’s Res­i­den­tial In­come Seg­re­ga­tion In­dex is 61, a num­ber that is ri­valed only by Dal­las, one point lower, among the na­tion’s 10 largest cities. Com­plet­ing the Texas tri­fecta is San An­to­nio, which leads all ma­jor cities in the coun­try with a score of 63.

As Greater Hous­ton grew enor­mously in re­cent decades— dou­bling in size from 1980 to 2010 — the in­crease in classspe­cific neigh­bor­hoods was re­mark­able. The score of 61 re­flects the 24 per­cent of up­per­in­come house­holds that share a cen­sus tract with ama­jor­ity of other up­per­in­come house­holds, and the 37 per­cent of low­er­in­come house­holds that are sim­i­larly sit­u­ated to­ward the bot­tom.

In 1980, the score was 32, with only about 7 per­cent of cen­sus tracts con­tain­ing ama­jor­ity of up­per- in­come house­holds.

The per­fect storm

“Cer­tainly cheap land and lack of zon­ing or mas­ter plan­ning, along with rapidly grow­ing im­mi­gra­tion and rapidly grow­ing up­per in­come jobs and ris­ing in­come in­equal­ity — that’s the per­fect storm to cre­ate more and more in­come seg­re­ga­tion,” said Sean Reardon, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at Stan­ford Univer­sity and the lead re­searcher on a sim­i­lar study done by the Sage Foun­da­tion.

Reardon and other ur­ban pol­icy spe­cial­ists fear that the loss of mid­dle­and up­per- in­come house­holds from many neigh­bor­hoods will suck away even more re­sources and po­lit­i­cal power from those left be­hind. In a real sense they be­come trapped, less and less rel­e­vant to the world around them.

“There cer­tainly are neg­a­tive con­se­quences if poor peo­ple are iso­lated and liv­ing on­ly­with other poor peo­ple,” said John Hen­neberger, co- di­rec­tor of Tex­as­Housers, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for af­ford­able home own­er­ship. “The money tends to gowhere more af­flu­ent peo­ple live, where the peo­ple are more po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. So­cial cap­i­tal is highly re­lated to eco­nomic cap­i­tal. Those iso­lated poor are go­ing to be con­sid­er­ably dis­ad­van­taged.”

The­ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans still live in cen­sus tracts dom­i­nated by mid­dle- in­come house­holds. But how­long that will re­main true is a big ques­tion. Hous­ton’s boom sent de­vel­op­ers out to claim large tracts of un-

de­vel­oped land, and there were enough­well- pay­ing jobs to sup­port more than old- style tract home sub­di­vi­sions.

Al­though those still flour­ished, slightly more ex­clu­sive mas­ter- planned com­mu­ni­tieswere added to the subur­ban mix: King­wood, Friendswoo­d, Great­wood, TheWood­lands, Si­enna Plan­ta­tion, NewTer­ri­tory and so on.

The Pat­tons’ Fall Creek has homes rang­ing from around $ 250,000 to more than $ 1 mil­lion, but there are rel­a­tively fe­wof ei­ther. The bulk fall in the mid­dle, and that mid­dle re­quires in­come ( or at least as­sets) that put the res­i­dents in the up­per 10 per­cent of Amer­i­can earn­ers. In the 1960s, such a de­vel­op­ment­would have been all- white in its ra­cial de­mo­graph­ics.

Eth­nic diver­sity

As the Pat­tons point out, that is no longer true, with­Asians, His­pan­ics and African- Amer­i­cans among the res­i­dents. Only blue- col­lar­work­ers are un­rep­re­sented.

Of course, not all of Hous­ton’s boom has been on the up­per rungs of the lad­der. Mas­sive im­mi­gra­tion has meant huge con­cen­tra­tions of new res­i­dents, most poor, in parts of town­where the rents could be man­aged.

Most prom­i­nent of the­se­was Gulfton, whose sprawl­ing apart­ment com­plexes once housed young, mid­dle- in­come of­fice­work­ers be­fore the oil and real es­tate busts of the 1980s emp­tied them, spurring the area’s trans­for­ma­tion into an er­satz El­lis Is­land for eco­nomic refugees fromMex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Their ar­rival ex­plains some of the huge growth of poor- dom­i­nated cen­sus tracts. And though con­cen­trated poverty is not seen as ben­e­fi­cial— think crime, youth gangs, drugs, un­der­per­form­ing schools — the fact that so many newres­i­dents live so close to­gether has ad­van­tages. They speak the same lan­guage, lit­er­ally, and can help new­com­ers tran­si­tion to a new­land that is un­fa­mil­iar and in­tim­i­dat­ing. So­cial ser­vice agen­cies and pro­grams have sprung up, pro­vid­ing ev­ery­thing from den­tal care to lan­guage classes to credit unions with­in­walk­ing dis­tance.

This ex­plain­swhy Carla Juarez, who came from Hon­duras with her hus­band 15 years ago, likes the Gulfton area and has no plans to leave, even as she hopes her three daugh­ters ven­ture out to a bet­ter life.

She and her hus­band at­tended the univer­sity back home, she said. But a hur­ri­cane de­stroyed all that they had.

Gulfton is poor, Juarez ac­knowl­edged, but the peo­ple feel a com­mon bond and the area thrives, prob­lems not­with­stand­ing. She prays the schools will be good enough to pre­pare her daugh­ters for higher ed­u­ca­tion. Juarez’s big­gest dream is that she and her hus­band can build their own home. Not so far away fromwhat is fa­mil­iar, she said, but not in Gulfton.

ForHous­ton’s more tra­di­tional pock­ets of poverty, from the old Fifth Ward just north­east of down­town to Sun­ny­side on the south and huge chunks in be­tween, there is less of a sil­ver lin­ing. In the days of seg­re­ga­tion, those com­mu­ni­ties had black pro­fes­sion­als and mer­chants. But the bet­teroff folks are long gone to bet­ter neigh­bor­hoods. On some streets, the most af­flu­ent role model may be a drug dealer.

Long- term im­pli­ca­tions

As in­come in­equal­ity grows, slowly and in­evitably the af­flu­ent and the poor will keep ex­pand­ing, with pre­dictable ef­fects on hous­ing pat­terns. Even for ma­jor­ity- poor cen­sus tracts that gain house­holds on the higher end, the con­se­quences are not al­ways good. In his­tor­i­cally black Freed­man’s Town, the iconic home to post- CivilWar AfricanAme­r­i­cans here, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has spiffed up the neigh­bor­hood. But most of the old res­i­dents have been driven out.

“We have toworry aboutwhat the im­pli­ca­tions are for the long term in so­ci­ety,” said Stan­ford’s Reardon, whose 2011 study em­pha­sized the ef­fect that “neigh­bor­hood con­text” can have on the fate of its res­i­dents, good and bad.

“You need there to be an op­por­tu­nity to move up. But there’s a pointwhere toomuch in­equal­ity mat­ters,” he said. “You end up with a dis­af­fected un­der­class­who face a sit­u­a­tion where … no amount of ef­fort will move them up the lad­der.”

J. Pa­tric Sch­nei­der

Dan and Gayle Pat­ton moved to an Hum­ble sub­di­vi­sion for a larger home and bet­ter schools for their three kids, Cole, 6, Brady, 8, and Lyla, 4.

J. Pa­tric Sch­nei­der

Rosa Rosario and her chil­dren — Jes­sica, 4, and Car­los, 2 — live in an apart­ment in Gulfton, an area that serves as a gate­way to im­mi­grants in Hous­ton.

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