Big metropolitan cities are seeing high levels of residential segregation, study finds

  • Apartment List found "significant patterns of residential segregation" across metropolitan regions in the United States.
  • Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland ranked among the most segregated housing markets in the country, the data showed.

A doorman walks under an awning of a residential building on Park Avenue in New York.
Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A doorman walks under an awning of a residential building on Park Avenue in New York.

Some of the largest housing markets in the United States also happen to be the most racially segregated, according to a study released Thursday.

Online rental marketplace Apartment List found "significant patterns of residential segregation" among major areas — even though many of those places enjoy reputations as cultural "melting pots."

Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland round out Apartment List's five most-segregated housing markets — with places like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington also ranking high on the list.

The segregation effect is most pronounced in cities like New York, where affordable housing is particularly scarce. A recent study commissioned by New York City Councilman Brad Lander found the Big Apple was "more segregated than most metropolitan areas in the United States."

"Although this year represents the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, we still have a long way to go to ensure that equality of opportunity is not negatively impacted by the neighborhood in which a person is raised," wrote Chris Salviati, Apartment List's housing economist. He analyzed Census figures and its own data compiled from 66 million users in more than 40 cities.

"The presence of residentially segregated neighborhoods affects all minority groups, but the issue is most extreme for black households," Salviati said. "Black populations are the most segregated minority group in all of the nation's 25 largest metros except for Phoenix, where the Hispanic segregation index is highest."

The racial divide in major cities also tends to exacerbate gaps in homeownership between white and nonwhite households, Apartment List's data showed, with some of the fastest growing populations seeing relatively high levels of segregation.

"Across the U.S., 72.4 percent of white households own homes, compared to 57.3 percent of Asian households, 48.4 percent of Hispanic households, and just 42.2 percent of black households," Apartment List's study found. "These gaps in homeownership rates vary by metro, and we find that higher levels of residential segregation are correlated with more severe homeownership rate gaps."

Apartment List's study underscores how many American neighborhoods, even in ostensibly cosmopolitan areas, remain defined by a combination of factors — including a dearth of affordable housing, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and historical trends.

Renters and homeowners who earn more money have better living options than comparable individuals that are economically disadvantaged, Salviati said via email.

"High-income households with a wide range of housing options can easily act on a preference to live in a homogenous neighborhood," Salviati said. "Meanwhile, low-income households can generally only afford to live in low-income neighborhoods, which tend to have more concentrated minority populations; in this case, the sorting is more a function of necessity than of preference."

The study found that residential segregation varied across regions, as well as different minority groups. It also dovetails with a separate analysis released this month in the journal Social Science Research, which documented the persistence nationwide of "white flight" — a phenomenon in which white homeowners are reluctant to live in areas where ethnic minorities move in.

According to Apartment List, policies that boost affordable housing and promote more socioeconomic mixing of neighborhoods "could go a long way toward addressing the persistent problem of residential segregation."