Here’s a little trend I’ve noticed as I travel around the country. As substantial numbers of both Millennials and Boomers continue to migrate away from car-dependent suburbs toward walkable mixed use neighborhoods there’s a matching shift in the quality of public schools and other city services. The photos above are an example. This 1950’s elementary school next to Days Park in Buffalo, New York is being renovated and reopened as a charter school. I spoke with a young man who recently bought and renovated a home across the street from the school. He explained that his father warned him not to buy property in that location. When his father was young in the 1980’s Days Park was a dangerous drug infested area and the school was of the lowest quality. The homes along the park were in disrepair and occupied by people that might not be the best neighbors for a family with small children. But his father hadn’t been back to the area in many years and he had no idea the demographics had shifted so radically. While large portions of Buffalo are still depressed and may never bounce back there are specific neighborhoods that are rapidly emerging as the premium real estate for the region. Buildings are being renovated, older natives are boomeranging back after many years away, and young people are fleeing the cul-de-sacs of their childhood in search of more dynamic places to live. Money and political pressure are forcing the city to make improvements – and the city now has the extra tax revenue to comply – selectively.
Of course for every revitalizing urban neighborhood with improved schools, renovated parks, and safer streets there is a corresponding suburban neighborhood that is in decline. Below are two photos – one of a fully gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia, the other a nearby suburb in southern New Jersey. Fifteen years ago the row house in Philly would have been worth considerably less than the comfortable tract home just twenty miles away. The schools in the urban core were terrible while the suburban schools were highly regarded. Today the schools in this particular part of Philly are rated among the top ten percent in the entire state of Pennsylvania while the suburban school district is in sharp decline. Now the row home is worth substantially more than the tract home, both because real estate in the urban core has become far more sought after by people with deep pockets and because suburban real estate now has more sellers than buyers. As money migrates so do public resources and political will.
As you might expect poorer residents are displaced as rents rise in these gentrified city neighborhoods. But even for those working class people who manage to continue to live in the city there are new barriers to their children attending the improved local schools. Many school are transformed into “magnet” schools that specialize in science and math or the performing arts. Some schools are for “gifted and talented” students. These are typically schools in which students must test in to a particular program rather than register through simple open enrollment. Still other schools institute geographic parameters that limit attendance to children who live on very specific streets near the school, whereas in previous years any child could attend from any part of the city. The lines on the map alway reflect the new economic reality and demographic shift.
Examine the map below which depicts the enrollment parameters for the much sought after Meredith public school in the newly gentrified Queen Village neighborhood in Philadelphia. It’s basically a neat little rectangle… except for that funny little sawtoothed chunk missing from one corner. It’s funny how that’s the precise location of a failed 1960’s low income housing project. Funny…
I’m not suggesting that these shifts can or should be challenged. This is simply the way we organize things in America for better or worse. But it might be wise for people to take note of these shifts when looking to buy or sell property moving forward. That lovely split level ranch on a pristine cul-de-sac near the premium outlet mall might not hold up as well as you think. And that crappy 1880’s white elephant in a downtown slum might just become a million dollar mansion in another decade or so.