It’s a pretty well-established fact that neighborhoods that are predominantly white tend to enjoy significantly higher property values than communities that are more racially diverse and integrated. Here in Sacramento, for example, properties in Land Park, East Sacramento, and River Park (predominantly white) tend to be valued more highly than those in Oak Park, South Sacramento, and Del Paso Heights, communities with high concentrations of African-American, Southeast Asian, and Latino residents, respectively. Moreover, there seems to be somewhat of a tipping-point effect – some racial and ethnic diversity may enhance a neighborhood’s desirability, but once the percentage of minority residents (particularly African-Americans) reaches 15 to 20 percent, property values take a nose-dive.
In contrast, when we look at same-sex couples (particularly gay male couples), we get an entirely different story. A number of studies have noted that when gay couples move into a neighborhood, property values actually tend to rise, not fall. Sociologist Manuel Castells introduced the concept of gay men as “gentrifiers” in San Francisco, citing the fact that they tend to be financially well-off and unshackled by children. Robert Florida, a professor of urban studies who authored the book The Rise of the Creative Class, utilized “the Gay Index” as a litmus test of a city’s creativity (and potential desirability). If this is the case, then marginalized status itself doesn’t necessarily bring down a neighborhood – it’s a more complicated picture than that. Perhaps the intersection of class status makes a difference – gay men living in the Castro district of San Francisco tend to be more financially privileged than their black heterosexual counterparts living in Bayview-Hunter’s Point or East Oakland. Invisibility may play a role too – a black man’s “blackness” is usually more obvious than a gay man’s “gayness.” Along with that, white privilege likely plays a role. And perhaps gender privilege makes a difference as well, given that studies of “gay gentrification” don’t typically bring lesbian couples into the mix.
Whatever the case, a new study to be published in the Journal of Urban Economics sheds some new light on this issue. Using a database of over 20,000 home valuations, David Christafore of Konkuk University and Susane Leguizamon of Tulane University compared home values in various neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio, controlling for other factors like proximity to the city center, education, and crime rates. The factor that made the most significant difference, interestingly, was how people in those neighborhoods voted on the state’s Defense of Marriage Act in 2004. The two researchers found that same-sex couples increase property values in neighborhoods that support marriage equality, and devalue prices in neighborhoods that do not. Clearly, it’s not just the presence of same-sex couples that affects property values – it’s the attitudes of the existing residents that make the difference.
I think this study has the potential to change the tone of the “there goes the neighborhood” conversation. It’s not “the gays” that are the problem – the real problem lies within people’s homophobic attitudes. In some ways, I see some parallels with the U.S. military’s recently-overturned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – a policy that was implemented based on the idea that the presence of homosexuals would significantly disrupt the cohesion of the military unit. Note that the targeted problem was the presence of visibly gay people, not visibly homophobic people. If we eliminate gay visiblity, unit cohesion will be preserved. If we keep the gays, or the blacks, or whatever marginalized group out of our neighborhood, our property values will be preserved. Focusing on homophobia rather than homosexuality brings the discussion to an entirely different level.
I wonder, when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity in neighborhoods, what would happen if we shifted the focus from race to racism. Do property values go down because racial and ethnic minorities are moving in, or do neighborhoods devalue because of racist attitudes?