Middle Neighborhoods

by Allyson Lehr

The “middle neighborhood” is found in most legacy cities –defined by the Legacy Cities Partnership as those “located in the Great Lakes and Northeast region, with over 50,000 residents that have lost 20 percent or more of their population since the mid-century.”  There are 48 of these cities across the United States, including like Detroit, Baltimore and the even the cities of the Lehigh Valley.  Each of these cities has a “middle neighborhood,” characterized by decent, but older housing, low crime rates, and that historically housed the working and middle-class residents that contributed to the fabric of the larger city.  They are typically composed of single-family residences with an occasional small shop on a corner and are likely what comes to mind when we think of the small city, urban living in the middle of the last century.  There is nothing particularly distinctive about these areas. They are neither the most distressed in a city nor the most affluent, hence, their name.  Upon closer inspection, these neighborhoods have some great assets: many are walkable to shopping areas, have parks and green space and are near good community schools.  All of these elements harken back to a time where cars were less prevalent, walking distance to amenities was key, and people valued the neighborliness and familiarity of their community.

Despite their lack of distinct identity, these neighborhoods remain critical to a city’s success and overall stability. These properties have provided a relatively stable tax base for city operations, for despite overall population losses in legacy cities, middle neighborhood populations have remained fairly flat.  Because of their important economic contribution to their city, these neighborhoods are becoming a focus of urban planners as cities are observing their historically stable tax base becoming a bit less reliable.  Perhaps there has been an uptick in foreclosures and sheriff sales in the area. Maybe more children are qualifying for free or reduced lunch at the area school. A drive down the streets may reveal a number of homes that need repair.  There may even be an abandoned house on the once bustling block.

These areas are frequently surrounded by more distressed neighborhoods which puts residents on alert for any signs of bleed-over onto their streets. Many middle neighborhood homeowners are still financially able to make a choice as to where they live, unlike residents of truly distressed areas of cities, and many decide to leave as indicators of further neighborhood decline appear. Longtime residents may be observing a shift away from a middle-income neighborhood to a moderate income one, and any perceived negativity can result in a panic for homeowners who may decide it’s time to sell their home before conditions worsen. The more properties there are for sale, the lower the prices are pushed, artificially deflating the value of these homes.  Older homeowners are unlikely to have disposable incomes to invest in older homes, many of which need substantial upgrades and maintenance, making them unappealing to potential homebuyers.

People with less disposable income for upkeep and maintenance purchase these now-affordable homes, defer the much-needed maintenance and continue the cycle of decline. Homeownership rates in these areas are decreasing disproportionately to national and regional averages, while the rate of rental properties is increasing.  Moreover, property values in these neighborhoods are fairly low to average in comparison to other areas in the legacy cities where they are located, but costs to rent these very same properties are quite high, making the homes very attractive for investors.  Tenants are not likely to heavily invest in homes they do not own, and unfortunately, the vast amount of investors are not going to infuse the amount of capital improvements needed into this older housing stock to revitalize a neighborhood.  Municipal leaders are now targeting these more transient, destabilized areas for revitalization.

Middle-income neighborhoods need to market themselves to who they were originally built for in order to survive: working-class residents and middle class.  Unlike 50 years ago, they cannot be marketed only to families with children.  Empty nesters looking to downsize, first-time homebuyers who are looking to establish roots in a true community, potential residents attracted to the unique geography and offerings of the area are all potential targets for any middle neighborhood revitalization.   Providing a way of communicating the good things going on in these areas is critical to restoring confidence in the neighborhood and attracting long term homeowners and quality investors. Municipalities, neighborhood associations, and realtors need to tout the benefits of sustainable homeownership for families – less school transiency, better educational attainment and stronger social ties to their communities.  Even those communities who have realized that these neighborhoods are no longer attractive to homeowners must implement policies that promote stable, responsible landlords purchasing properties and put investors on notice as to acceptable property standards.  Providing quality municipal services to property owners, fostering a sense of community and allowing residents to participate in shaping the future of these neighborhoods will all allow the middle neighborhood to again be a sturdy, stable base of a postindustrial city.

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