What can we do about rapid gentrification of Savannah’s older neighborhoods and the likely increase in suburban poverty?

In my City Talk column today detailing reasons why Savannah should be encouraging more residential density downtown, I touch again on the massive demographic shifts that we’re seeing in some neighborhoods in Savannah.

If you want to get a sense of the dramatic swings that we’re seeing in terms of race and total population, check out this interactive map for individual Census tracts at the New York Times.

Here’s what happened in the tract where I live (more or less bounded by MLK, 33rd, Habersham, and Park) between 2000 and 2010:

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That’s right — the number of white residents in my tract (which doesn’t align neatly with any existing neighborhood boundaries, btw) almost tripled in that 10 year period. At the same time, the number of black residents declined by a third. There is abundant evidence that trend is continuing, and I’d bet a large sum that white residents now outnumber black residents.

And take a look at the tract immediately south, that extends out to Victory Drive, where the white population more than doubled and the black population declined by half:

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As I say in today’s column, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with a process like this — assuming we are doing everything we can to make a neighborhood’s quality of life as vigorous as possible, with solid policies that encourage affordable housing. But we aren’t pursuing the right policies here in Savannah, and many of the black residents are leaving because of the dual ironies of overly expensive housing and inadequately maintained housing. Rampant street crime, which has been largely ignored by officials, has obviously prompted a lot of longtime residents to move. (Click here for my 2011 post detailing similar trends elsewhere in the city.)

Bad public policy continues exacerbating the exodus. More residents will be displaced by the city of Savannah’s shameful and cynical plan to demolish historic homes that have been rented to black families for up to 130 years and build a new Central Precinct. The fact that this destruction of modest, affordable, and historic black-occupied homes is being done on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard raises the move to the height of absurdity.

So we have a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and the city is pursuing policies that will make it gentrify even faster. And we’ll likely one day see that portion of MLK as a sharp dividing line between wealthier mostly white residents and poorer black residents. This process might take another 20 years, but it’s clearly well underway.

And demographic trends like this are hard to reverse, much less halt.

So those people who are leaving the neighborhood — where are they going?

As I note in today’s City Talk, across the country we’ve been seeing a sharp rise in suburban poverty. In part, that’s because people already living in the suburbs experience economic hardship during and after the recession, but we’ve also seen more poor and economically vulnerable people move to the fringes of cities and metro areas.

Check out a fascinating piece in Business Insider published just this week: The 15 US Cities Where Poverty Is Soaring Fastest.

And from the Brookings Institution:

The concentrated poverty rate remains highest in big cities, where almost one in four poor residents (23 percent) lived in a distressed neighborhood in 2008-2012, compared to 6.3 percent in suburbs. However, suburban communities experienced the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty over this time period. Between 2000 and 2008-2012, the number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139 percent—almost three times the pace of growth in cities. Of poor residents living in concentrated poverty in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, 26 percent lived in the suburbs in 2008-2012, up from 18 percent in 2000.

As I note in today’s column, the suburbs are especially bad places for poorer Americans to live because of the cost of transportation and the limited transportation options.

Atlanta saw a particularly large increase in metro area poverty (it came in 4th on the Business Insider list), and witnessed a sharp rise in suburban poverty according to Brookings, with the number of suburban Census tracts with more than 20 percent poverty increasing from 32 in 2000 to 197 in 2008-2012.

It’s silly to think that the Savannah metro area is immune from these trends, especially given the recent investments and ongoing trends in the greater downtown area.

I’m going to keep arguing that Savannah will be a stronger city if we have more people living in the downtown area and that the city’s historic neighborhoods will be richer places to live if they are welcoming places to would-be residents of all income levels.