As Bay Area residents have known for a while and as readers of The New York Times just read and NPR listeners just heard, much of downtown San Francisco real estate is being snapped up by young, hip, affluent workers in the information technology industry. The Facebook-Apple-Google-Etc. folk are willing to commute long distances to their desks in Silicon Valley – albeit in special, wired, comfort buses. Some tech firms have moved into or expanded office space in the City, most notably Twitter, in part for clear business reasons, but in large measure, it seems, because their employees live nearby. The effects on housing are evident. (A San Francisco blogger several months ago listed the reasons “all my friends are moving to Oakland.” Included were “Divis [Divisadero Street] is clogged with Google buses” and “The [Oakland] landlords aren’t looking for ways to kick you out. You won’t have to have six roommates. You won’t get outbid for a room by some dot-com f***face.”)
That thousands of well-heeled buyers and renters are choosing inner-city San Francisco — as many others are choosing inner-city New York or Chicago — illustrates a trend that has been going on for quite a while and that has been accentuated by the Great Recession: affluent Americans moving and segregating themselves to pursue the lifestyles they associate with particular places.
In a previous post, I pointed out the widening differences between metropolitan areas by social class and the increasing segregation, since at least the 1960s, between urban neighborhoods by residents’ income. Here I review a few new studies on a byproduct of these trends, separation by cultural taste. One take-away is that America’s widening economic inequality is being more deeply inscribed on the residential landscape. Another is that in age of jet travel, instantaneous communications, and 3-D downloads, an age just a bit short of Star-Trek beaming, where Americans live seems to matter to them more, not less.
In the background to this story is the fact that American are moving less often. Rates of geographic mobility have certainly declined since World War II and probably for 150 years (see earlier post). The possible explanations include increasing security – for most of American history, most moves have been forced ones – and more technologies that make commuting and communicating faster. As a new Russell Sage Foundation study (pdf) by Michael Stoll shows, migration rates – moves between counties or states – kept dropping slowly during the Great Recession. However, rates of local moves, within counties, bumped up. Stoll’s analysis shows that the spurt was disproportionately among low-income Americans, blacks, and Latinos searching for cheaper housing and employment. Considerably fewer Americans were moving to upgrade their housing than before the recession. Stoll concludes, “Many Americans have moved historically to improve their lives. In the Great Recession more people moved locally just to cope with their losses.” And, of course, such unfortunate movers were concentrating themselves even more among neighbors who were also unfortunate. In the 1990s, during the brief return to widespread economic growth and fuller employment, poor Americans deconcentrated in American urban areas, moving out of poverty pockets, but that reversed in the 2000s to re-concentration.
That residential separation and concentration matters has now been well-documented: Living among the well-off multiplies the advantages of being well-off; living among the poor multiplies the disadvantages of being poor. Another new study shows that the residential separation pervades people’s daily lives, even away from home. In a large survey of Los Angelenos, researchers asked respondents about the places where they worked, shopped, went to church, and so on. In general, respondents who lived in disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially blacks and Latinos, spent their time away from home also in disadvantaged neighborhoods (although not quite as bad off ones) and respondents who lived in affluent neighborhoods conducted their other activities in affluent neighborhoods. This connection between the condition of respondents’ home neighborhoods and where they traveled holds up even after taking into account the respondents’ own race, income, education, and so forth. The bottom line is that ending up in a “bad” (or “good”) residential neighborhood shapes people’s experiences even outside their own neighborhoods.
Then comes a new study suggesting that Americans who move choose their destinations in part to find people who match their own political views. I doubt that the many Americans literally move to be in politically red or blue zip codes, but political position is (increasingly – see here and here) an indicator of lifestyle. Thus, a conservatively religious person who finds the social climate of, say, Berkeley or Boston too uncomfortable and seeks a more congenial place to live will see a high Republican vote in a community as a good sign. The same would be true in reverse for, say, a gay person in rural Texas or Kentucky.
But who can indulge such cultural or political tastes when moving? Typically, not a laid-off worker with only a high school diploma. It is usually the affluent, like those San Francisco techies* or New York Wall Street types, who can make moving decisions by lifestyle. In that regard, one last study (pdf), just out of Stanford, reported that, contrary to some predictions, a 1996 drop in the state taxes on California millionaires did not attract more of them to the state and a 2005 tax hike specifically targeting millionaires did not lead to an exodus of them from the state. (These findings replicated the authors’ earlier work on New Jersey millionaires.) These tax changes did not affect millionaires’ incomes really that much – not enough to make a perceptible dent in the personal and lifestyle reasons they have for being in California. They can afford to pursue such tastes.
Americans as a whole are moving less and less. But where the remaining movers — both those forced by poverty and those liberated by affluence — are moving is reinforcing the economic and, increasingly, the cultural separations among us.
*Correction: Cathy Fischer points out that workers in information technology do not like to be called techies; it’s come to have a negative connotation. According to a Bay Area news story, they prefer labels like hacker or nerd.
(Cross-posted on the Boston Review’s BR Blog on December 4, 2013.)