Ann Arbor's Great Divide Part 1: How our metro has become segregated by class

There's nothing quite like having your hard work validated—even when your work has revealed some pretty dire news. In February, just a month after the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development's Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis uncovered a deep socioeconomic divide in the region (including the fact that housing in Ann Arbor is virtually unaffordable to the middle class), the Martin Prosperity Institute released a study identifying Ann Arbor as the eighth most socioeconomically segregated metro in the country. 

Think about that: There are more than 380 defined metropolitan areas in the United States. Ann Arbor is more socioeconomically segregated than all but seven of them. 
Of 380 defined metropolitan areas in the United States, Ann Arbor is more socioeconomically segregated than all but seven.

"It is certainly something to take notice of with concern," says Director of Washtenaw County's Office of Community & Economic Development Mary Jo Callan. "It was surprising to see though, that this is clearly a dynamic that is bigger than the Ann Arbor area, and interestingly, impacting college towns in particular."

The Martin Prosperity Institute report certainly exposes Ann Arbor's socioeconomic issues as a national trend. After all, the conversation about rising income inequality is nothing new, but this study goes a step further, considering income, education and occupation—factors that give a more comprehensive view of the issue.

"It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider," write researchers Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander in the study, "it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros."

What does that mean? While Florida and Mellander concede that affluent neighborhoods have long existed, "the people who cut the lawns, cooked and served the meals, and fixed the plumbing in their big houses used to live nearby—close enough to vote for the same councilors, judges, aldermen, and members of the board of education."

Not so much anymore. And, increasingly, not here in Ann Arbor. In this two-part series, we'll examine what is contributing to the socioeconomic divide here, as well as what steps could potentially be taken to correct it. 

The argument against socioeconomic segregation

First, it's important to agree socioeconomic segregation is a bad thing. Sure, it sounds terrible, but joining Ann Arbor on the top ten list are Austin, Los Angeles, Houston and some other pretty great places to live.

But according to the study, while this segregation does benefit one end of the socioeconomic scale with better schools, healthcare and 20 percent higher overall well-being, it makes the opposite true for the other side. 

"Conversely, less advantaged communities suffer not just from a lack of economic resources," it states, "but from related neighborhood effects like higher rates of crime and drop-outs, infant mortality, and chronic disease."

Socioeconomic segregation also was found to impact lower income residents' absolute upward mobility and the ability of low-income children to move up the economic ladder. And it's positively correlated with racial segregation, as we're seeing here. 

"Ann Arbor has always been a diverse community and espoused diversity, and it's actually becoming less diverse," says Callen. 

In 2010, in fact, Census data shows white residents accounted for 73.0% of Ann Arbor's population, just under Michigan's average of 78.9%, while black or African Americans accounted for just 7.7% of residents—nearly half of the state average of 14.2%. Ypsilanti, on the other hand, is made up of 61.5% white residents and 29.2% black or African American: a dramatic imbalance for two closely tied cities. 

The Washtenaw County report found racial and ethnic diversity to be "a value shared throughout the jurisdictions. But it is a spoken value not revealed in objective data regarding settlement patterns, market values, school district boundaries, and livability."

In other words, yes. We say ourselves that we want to reverse this trend.

What a segregated city looks like

What makes a city likely to be socioeconomically segregated? While not identified as causal factors, eight identifying characteristics were common among the most segregated communities: larger, more dense metros; wealthier, more affluent populations; knowledge-based economies; higher housing costs; higher rates of public transportation usage; liberal political orientation; racial diversity; and income inequality. 

Some of these factors apply to Ann Arbor more than others, primarily being a knowledge-based economy, densely populated, liberal, affluent, and, as Washtenaw County's study points out, steep housing costs. 

Not all of these are negative, nor contributing factors, of course. Having a knowledge-based economy or general economic prosperity aren't generally frowned upon. And focusing on populating density is something Ann Arborites have prioritized.

"There are trade-offs," says Callen. "We place a high value locally on environmental concerns, on trying to limit sprawl. When you focus on developing in an area that is finite—in fact, voters have said we want a greenbelt—that creates more of a scare resource inside city bounds, and those things drive up costs." 

On the other hand, some of these characteristics are less debatable, such as income inequality, and, in particular, wage inequality. And growing income disparity is happening locally, says Callen.

"A full third of our workforce essentially can't access the local housing market," she says. "When you start getting proportions of your talent below the threshold at which they can access housing…it creates all sorts of issues around segregation. And we're seeing that play out locally."

The occupational segregation factor

Because the Martin Prosperity Institute study considered multiple factors in their socioeconomic inequality index, it's relatively easy to identify the driving factors in Ann Arbor's placement on the list. In fact, Ann Arbor did not show up in the top ten metros for the subcategories under educational segregation, and in only one subcategory under income segregation: segregation of the poor. Though issues with educational segregation likely exist, compared to every other metro area, Ann Arbor's most extreme segregation issues are in occupational segregation.  

Specifically, Ann Arbor is the second most segregated city in the nation in service class segregation and fifth in working class segregation -factors controlled primarily by other classes.

"It is important to remember that service class segregation is more reflective of the residential choices of the creative class than those of the service class itself, whose members live where they can afford to," the study states. "It’s also important to remember that the majority of American workers belong to the service class, which has absorbed many formerly blue-collar workers." 

Of course, those workers are highly segregated in Ann Arbor as well. It's notable that these were just the demographics of most concern in the Washtenaw County housing study as well: the middle class. This underlines the connections between the two reports, as does one of the Martin Prosperity Institute conclusions about how cities like Ann Arbor ended up on the list of most segregation of the poor -such segregation is modestly correlated with housing costs. 

With a clearer picture of what factors make Ann Arbor so socioeconomically segregated, we can begin to better understand how the city can push back against the trend. Next week, we'll examine how some of the recommendations in the Washtenaw County study could have a positive impact on socioeconomic balance here, as well as what factors have helped the metro with the lowest levels of socioeconomic segregation in the nation grow a more integrated community. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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