How Does a Good Neighborhood "Turn Bad"?

What triggers the decline of an area? Some people claim that once minorities move in, the neighborhood starts to deteriorate.

There is a chain of events that will cause even the most affluent area to become an impoverished one. But it's not about who's moving in - it's about who leaves.

One thing leads to another…

  1. White Flight Begins
    When nonwhite residents (particularly Black and Latino) begin moving into a neighborhood, white homebuyers "perceive" that the neighborhood is in decline and choose not to move there. Residents - fearing that property values will fall - begin to move away, even if those moving in are their socioeconomic equals. Businesses and jobs soon follow suit.

    Once the minority share in a community's schools reaches 10 to 20 percent, white flight accelerates until minority percentages are more than 80 percent.

  2. Property Values Go Down
    Once residents begin to leave, the consequent decline in demand causes housing prices to fall. The nonwhite middle class is usually not large enough to sustain market demand. (If whites represent 80% of the housing market, then 80% of the potential demand is absent.)

    As prices decline, the community's socioeconomic level changes as well. Poorer families begin to move into the homes vacated by middle-class whites, especially when these homes are converted to rental housing.

  3. Taxes Go Up
    White residents take their wealth with them. Wealthy communities have lower tax rates and better services. Resource-poor communities have just the opposite. Why? Public services are largely funded through property taxes. When a community's total wealth diminishes, public services become underfunded.

    Taxes are increased to compensate, causing middle-class residents of all races to flee, resulting in a vicious cycle of increasing taxes and further population loss. The poor get poorer, and they get less for their money.

  4. Services Suffer
    As communities get poorer, they are less able to maintain the same level of public services. Schools, sanitation, public transportation, police, and fire protection all begin to decline, at the same time that demand for these services increases. For example, higher poverty means higher crime, which means higher costs for crime prevention.

    Eventually, commercial investment falls off as well, and basic amenities like grocery stores and banks begin to disappear, leaving only predatory businesses like pawn shops and liquor stores.

  5. Rock Bottom
    The community that hits rock bottom is further susceptible to the placement of highways, prisons, waste storage, toxic facilities, etc. At times, community leaders will invite these industries into their neighborhoods to create jobs and stimulate local growth, but they risk further depopulation and the safety and health of their residents.


Every family wants the best neighborhood they can afford. When schools and public amenities begin to suffer, even well-intentioned residents move away, and once-prosperous neighborhoods become impoverished.

Race does play a role, but it's not the one people think. It's not nonwhites moving in, but whites leaving and taking resources with them, that causes communities to decline. Most people don't realize that if whites didn't leave, this chain reaction might not take place.

The most important factor in the health of a community is not the race of its residents, but their ability to work across racial lines to preserve resources, property values, and opportunities.

   © 2003 California Newsreel. All rights reserved.