The Washington Post
The Washington Post

A bit ago, I wrote about how conversations about neighborhood change often paper over very real conflicts of interest among members of “The Community”:

A very common refrain in gentrification debates is that “the community should decide,” or that changes should “benefit the community.” But as Michael Kendricks points out, “the community” is always made up of many different people, with many different interests. Virtually any decision that’s made about a new housing development, or store, or transit project, will benefit some members of the community at the expense of others. That is politics, and anyone who has been to a neighborhood meeting about anything, large or small, has seen firsthand that neighborhoods are not above, or below, politics.

It’s far from an original observation to note that homeowners tend to benefit from gentrification, since rising property values directly increase their wealth. (Of course, they may also be squeezed if their property taxes increase much faster than their income.)

But we rarely acknowledge just how huge those stakes are. A new series from the Washington Post on the black professional class suburbs in Prince George’s County, Maryland (and Pete Saunders’ astute take on it) helps to quantify what happens to black wealth when home values don’t increase. The massive wealth gap between whites and blacks – several times larger than the income gap – is driven in large part by the difference in home values in mostly white neighborhoods compared to ones that are mostly black. And, as the Post explains, the extremity of that gap is in large part a result of the collapse of home values during the Great Recession:

The recession and tepid recovery have erased two decades of African American wealth gains. Nationally, the net worth of the typical African American family declined by one-third between 2010 and 2013….

Overall, the survey found, the typical African American family was left with about eight cents for every dollar of wealth held by whites….

Many researchers say the biggest portion of the wealth gap results from the strikingly different experiences blacks and whites typically have with homeownership. Most whites live in largely white neighborhoods, where homes often prove to be a better investment because people of all races want to live there. Predominantly black communities tend to attract a narrower group of mainly black buyers, dampening demand and prices, they say.

And the only obvious way to rebuild this wealth in the short to medium term is to raise property values in black neighborhoods. Which, whether or not that’s accompanied by racial change, is likely to price some renters and prospective buyers out.

This is not a “gentrification is clearly good, so stop complaining” argument. According to the Post story, only 43% of black Americans own their own home, so even strong gains in to property values would only go so far. But the issue of wealth deserves a more central place in the story of changing real estate values, and anyone whose knee-jerk reaction is to condemn rising home prices in non-white neighborhoods ought to have something to say about how else we can close the wealth gap.