Wealth gap segregating suburbs
Many of Houston’s outlying communities are beyond the reach of its poorer residents
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.