Do housing costs affect diversity?
- Published: March 18, 2010
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN YELLOW SPRINGS This is the sixth in a series of articles that examine racial diversity in Yellow Springs, including its history, its current decline, and possible causes and solutions.
If local diversity can be measured by the number of African Americans who live within the geographical boundaries of Yellow Springs, the village has experienced three decades of decreasing diversity, and is likely wrapping up a fourth. Since 1970, the village has lost about 500 African-American residents, mirroring a larger regional trend. It’s debatable whether the relatively high prices of the Yellow Springs housing market has affected the village’s loss of African-American residents, according to 10 local persons of color interviewed for this article.
Because housing is an economic issue that affects all, some African-American villagers feel that there is little value inquiring into local housing issues through a race lens. But other African-American villagers cited persistent racial disparities in income, unemployment, and other socioeconomic indicators that suggest race and financial means are still significantly linked. For these villagers, rising housing costs are a sure factor affecting local diversity, impacting especially those who tend to have lower incomes like young families seeking their first home or retirees on fixed incomes.
Economic disparities between local whites and blacks can be identified in figures from the last census. Six percent of Yellow Springs’ families with a white head of household lived below the federal poverty line, while 10 percent with a black head of household and 11 percent with a bi-racial head of household lived below the federal poverty line. In Yellow Springs, just one house has sold on the open market for below $100,000 since January of 2009, according to Greene County Auditor records. The average sale price for properties sold in Yellow Springs in 2009 was $197,887, which is 79 percent higher than the average sale price in Xenia or Fairborn of $101,000, according to the Dayton Area Board of Realtors.
Village lacks entry-level housing
Yellow Springs native Daria Mabra recently purchased a home in Wilberforce. Though she works downtown at both Glen Garden Gifts and Ohio Silver, and greatly misses being able to walk to where she needs to go, 10 years of renting an apartment in town proved tiresome. Rent kept increasing, and she knew she wasn’t investing her largest monthly expense, which was housing costs, in her future. Though she was very interested in being a local worker who owned local property, she “couldn’t touch” the home prices in Yellow Springs, she said.
“The biggest thing I miss is being able to walk,” she said. “I work in town, so I still feel like I am a part of it,” but the shift has left her feeling a little detached from the community of which she has been a lifelong member. Even though she only lives eight miles outside of town, the perceptual distance seems much greater, she said. The idea that she is out in the “boon docks” affects how willing her friends and family are to visit her, and she hesitates to enjoy village night life with her friends because of the drive home.
“Yellow Springs has this idea of diversity,” Mabra said, noting that the tourist clientele with whom she interacts finds Yellow Springs to be a diverse community. “But when I look around, I just don’t see it,” she said.
For Theresa Bondurant-Wagner, who first came to the village in 1969 and later returned after going to school in the south, the way in which high housing costs affect African Americans locally “is purely a state of economics.” Bondurant-Wagner said conversations with friends and peers often quickly shift from remarks on what a nice place Yellow Springs is to how expensive it has become to live here.
“If it weren’t purely for the fact that I basically inherited this house, there is no way I could be here,” she said. The racial diversity of the 1970s in the village was beneficial for all involved, she said, and while she values living in the village currently, she wishes there were a way to reverse the trend which she called a “precipitous decline” in the number of African Americans in the village.
Tawn Singh, a Yellow Springs native whose father worked as an electrician at Antioch College and who recalls growing up in a vibrant African-American community, said that she has seen a noticeable difference in the village as diversity has dwindled. “I think there is less interaction,” she said. “There used to be plays and other events and people would come together. Now it’s more separate.”
Singh is a homeowner in the village because she was able to work with Home, Inc., a community land trust. The organization helps families and individuals with an income between $20,000 and $45,000 buy homes on publicly and privately donated property.
But even those with professional careers find the housing market difficult to approach. When Village Council member John Booth, a teacher, and his wife, Maria, a physical therapy assistant, were searching for housing, they earned too much to work with Home, Inc. and too little to afford a market-priced village home.
Though they have good jobs, the housing market was populated by homes more suited to people of upper middle economic brackets, he said. Renting proved not a good option because rents were higher than average for properties that weren’t necessarily well maintained. Instead, he said, they purchased a new home from Suzanne Clauser, who has built a small number of homes in the village with the intention of selling them directly to people with moderate incomes who were ready to buy, forgoing any larger profit that might have been realized on the open market.
Booth’s work with Village Council and the Human Relations Commission has given him a firsthand glimpse of local housing needs. In his informal survey of community members who struggle with housing issues, he feels that one factor in particular might be affecting the statistical diversity of Yellow Springs.
“Basically, the trend I’ve seen is that some people who have lived here most of their life are — from middle age and up — forced to move out of town because they can’t afford it,” he said. “It’s across the board tough if you are not in the position to set yourself up a nest egg.”
Some community members have never lived here. Longtime YS Federal Credit Union employee Cynthia Sanford does not live in Yellow Springs. Instead, she lives in nearby Xenia, and the chances that she will ever move into the village are slim, she said. Some years ago, when she and her husband first began looking around for housing, they were confronted with a strong barrier — money.
“At one point I was interested in moving to Yellow Springs, but it’s expensive,” said Sanford.“It’s the affordability that keeps me from moving here.”
Sanford says that she has since stopped looking for village housing. Her husband, who worked at Vernay Labs for more than 20 years, now works in Dayton, so the move would be less convenient, but she still hopes to help more African Americans and others interested in finding affordable Yellow Springs housing meet their goals. Using her own professional encounters as a reference, she said, “There are so many people that come through the credit union who want to move to Yellow Springs but simply can’t afford it.”
The elephant in the room
Enshané Nomoto is a new African-American resident. Economic disparity between blacks and whites is often “the elephant in the room” that no one wants to talk about, Nomoto said, but “it all trickles down to the reality that the lifestyle in Yellow Springs is not affordable” for many African Americans.
A Columbus native who recently purchased a home in Yellow Springs after living near her husband’s family in Japan for 15 years, she said she is fortunate to have employment through the Air Force that has given her a stable income and the opportunity to purchase a home, but it can be disheartening to see so few black families here. She might not have chosen the village if it weren’t for learning about the community’s rich black history through her realtor, Sam Eckenrode, who helped her search through nearly 20 properties on the market.
But other factors can be at play too, she said. For African Americans who do come from lower income families who have been trying hard to break out of poverty, there is an intense family pressure to do better than the generation before, Nomoto said. Seen from this light, the Yellow Springs housing market might not appeal to certain upwardly mobile African Americans who, otherwise, would like to live in a community like Yellow Springs.
“A 100-year-old house with a wet basement isn’t beautiful and rustic” when seen from this light, she said. “It’s kind of the opposite.”
While Nomoto cautioned that black cultural preferences are as diverse as any other, African Americans may be less likely to gravitate towards what might be termed the “granola culture” of Yellow Springs than other groups, she said. However, a strong sense of black history is very important to many African Americans, and she feels that Yellow Springs would be on the radar of more African Americans looking to establish themselves in a good community — such as her peers in Columbus or at Wright Patt — if it marketed its black history.
“It isn’t that I need to be surrounded by black people everyday to remember that I am black,” she said. “But you have a brain drain here. People take their culture and their history with them when they go.”
When people from Springfield and Dayton look at Yellow Springs prices, longtime community member Bomani Moyenda said they are just shocked that the cost is three times as much as they could pay for a similar property where they currently live. Moyenda has friends who would like to live in Yellow Springs, he said, but they simply can’t afford it.
Describing the street in town where he grew up, he noted that many of the black families’ properties have exchanged hands and are now owned by white people. And as the black population in the community ages, and taxes and other costs of living continue to rise, he expects the trend to continue. “Simply enough, when these older people pass on, housing costs are so high and out of reach that the people who come in are usually not African American,” he said.
While Yellow Springs is still his heart and soul, Moyenda lives in Springfield now. His mother sold the family’s Yellow Springs property about four years back, which he sometimes rented. Taking part in the community from afar brings him mixed emotions, he said. For Moyenda, some in the community are afraid of lower class persons coming in and dropping property values. He feels many in the Yellow Springs community have taken on the same NIMBY perspective on change (Not In My Backyard) as he would expect to see in a mono-cultural community like Beavercreek or Centerville, he said.
“Housing costs control who comes and goes. It’s an old reality, whether it’s intentional or not,” he said.
Land use ramifications
Longtime resident Joe Lewis feels the pattern of rising housing costs shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Homeowners invest into their property each year, pay taxes each year, and eventually sell at market value, he said. No community is immune to larger regional trends that can impact housing, he said, but one trend that Yellow Springs has chosen for itself — preserving green space and declining opportunities to build new housing developments — has a very real economic effect.
“If we take any commodity, and restrict its use, then it becomes more valuable and more expensive,” Lewis said. “We value the green space and the farm land around here. The village itself, the council, is budgeting more and more funds that will go to purchase green space,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing — green space is good — but as you make developable land less accessible, then the land that you have becomes more precious.”
Lewis noted the 2007 proposed development of the Fogg Farm land on the outskirts of the village as one opportunity the community could have chosen to add enough housing to the local stock to make an impact. But before Village Council could vote on the land’s annexation into the village, a private purchase ensured that the land remained undeveloped. Had 100 or so houses been built on the Fogg land, he said, it would have affected the cost and availability of housing across the board.
Nomoto agrees that the energy put into preservation needs to be balanced with energy invested into development, which she said can be seen as a kind of recycling.
“Just buying up land without looking to develop other lived spaces” creates an imbalance and can be exclusive to those who are really trying to come back to the community, she said.
For Bondurant, anything that has the potential to “inflate the cost of living in the village” should be very carefully weighed, she said, and she feels the community has placed more value on preserving green space than other concerns. As residents, she said villagers tend to have a particular view of things, a cosmos in and of itself, but they need to question themselves sometimes.
“I love green space and it is part of what Yellow Springs is,” she said. “But Yellow Springs is also about having a diverse community, and now we are pricing out a diverse group of people. Housing, economically, is just not accessible.”
A closer look at the statistics
In the 1940s, Ted Jackson, a young black American, fell in love with Yellow Springs. It was calm, had the small town community feeling he sought to raise a family in, and it happened to be the hometown of his sweetheart, Phyllis. By the time they purchased their first home in town, he had saved in anticipation for four years: two while he was in the service, and another two while living with family as a young married couple.
Jackson recalled that blacks lived all across the village then, as they do today. But while it’s difficult to ascertain why, he said it’s clear that many blacks who used to live in town are now gone. Though he was the only African American in the Emporium’s Under Dog Café at the time of the interview, he said this did not affect him negatively.
“It’s people, we’re all just people,” he said.
For Jackson, we live in an open society and blacks simply have more options today. Yellow Springs’ loss in numbers of African Americans may actually represent individual gains for those who chose to move, he said.
Housing is a universal issue that affects all, Jackson said, and he isn’t sure that the link between the rising cost of village living and the decrease of African-American residents is as clear as it seems. While surely some blacks struggle here, surely some whites and others also struggle, he said. Yellow Springs was already seen as a premiere and unique small town back in the 1940s, and it was somewhat more expensive than surrounding areas, too.
Many interviewed through this series remember the 1970s as a particularly racially diverse era in Yellow Springs, but it was also a particularly diverse era for the entire midwest. The rising costs of the community’s housing stock parallels another trend: since a high point in the 1970s, people of color have left the midwest, and Ohio especially, for places of better opportunity.
Between 1965 and 1970, Ohio gained more than 22,000 African-American residents, about 4,000 of whom established themselves in the Dayton-Springfield Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Greene County. Since 1970, African Americans have left Ohio in droves — 1,800 between 1995 and 2000 from the Dayton-Springfield area alone. Between 1970 and 2000, Yellow Springs lost approximately 500 black residents to other areas, from approximately 27 percent of the village population down to a current figure near 18 percent, according to census figures for villagers who identified as black and biracial. Of those who left, between 150 to 200 may have been Antioch College students, according to college archivist Scott Sander’s survey of college reports.
Today, African Americans leaving the midwest tend to be college educated, according to a report from the Brookings Institution that analyzes the above figures. Further, the trend out of the midwest is marked by a growing middle class of African Americans elsewhere, especially in southern metropolitan areas.
“The black folks that helped build this village were middle income people who were college educated, with white collar jobs,” said Jocelyn Robinson, a Yellow Springs native who remains, like much of her family, in Yellow Springs today. “They weren’t poor folks — today they can live wherever they want, and they do.”
And, according to longtime residents Jackson and Lewis, their own children who were born and raised in the village have left the area for greater opportunities. Lewis himself would have been happy to remain in his own hometown elsewhere in Ohio, but “you do what you have to do to better yourself,” he said.
Increasing mobility for many upward-bound African Americans is a trend that must be recognized to avoid misconceptions that are too-easily placed onto people of color, Robinson said, but you still have to “face the facts.” Nationwide, African Americans face an unemployment rate nearly twice that of whites, and other disparities, such as access to healthcare and effects of the recession, loom large, she said, noting that the recession is having a greater impact on persons of color nationwide. Recognizing that Yellow Springs is not immune to larger regional trends is a necessary step the community must take to better understand community issues surrounding diversity, according to Robinson.
“There are moments in the history of this community where great strides have been made,” she said, “but largely we are just like everywhere else.”
Sheer economics are complicated by other social factors, she suggested, some of which can be impacted by individual actions. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to live here, but there is also a culture war in this community, she said. If Yellow Springs is serious about increasing diversity, it must increase its interest in different people from different walks of life — a vision begun by Antioch College, she said, that has since dwindled. And community members shouldn’t have to look far to consider how to be more inclusive.
“The population of people of color in this community goes up every Saturday,” she said, speaking of students who commute to Antioch University McGregor to attend its Saturday college degree-completion program. The school has won an award for the racial diversity of its student body.
Yellow Springs’ public discourse is often dominated by too few perspectives, she said, and the loudest voices too often have an elitist bent. Many in the community live and work under “the assumption that we all have the same values,” according to Robinson, who believes this culture clash is a very real factor affecting local diversity.
Freelance writer Stephanie Beasley contributed to this article.