Neighborhood Change in the Washington Metropolitan Area
Patterns of Inclusive Growth, Concentration of Poverty, and Displacement (2000–2019)
Using public U.S. Decennial Census and American Community Survey data, Montgomery Planning has investigated neighborhood change across Montgomery County and the Washington, DC, metropolitan region in support of more equitable and data-driven decision making. In examining how shares of low-income versus middle-high income households in neighborhoods changed from 2000 to 2019, Montgomery Planning found that—contrary to popular perception—concentration of low-income households is a more prevalent issue in Montgomery County than displacement and that low-income concentration disproportionately burdens Black and Latino households.
Building on methods used by the University of Minnesota’s 2019 report American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century, Montgomery Planning used more recent data for the greater Washington, DC, area to track changes in neighborhood composition over time (not individual resident movements). In the United States, as in Montgomery County, rising concentration of low-income households is by a wide margin the most common form of neighborhood change. Displacement as the prevailing type of neighborhood change is limited to a handful of major coastal cities, including Washington, DC. Yet, even where it occurs, displacement tends in many cases to be limited to the central city, often not reaching its suburbs.
Montgomery County Findings
Simply put, the main housing issue facing Montgomery County is that too many lower-income families live in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poverty. This results in de facto segregation. The dynamic in Montgomery County (as well as Prince George’s County) is different than the rest of the region—in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, Alexandria City, and Washington, DC, displacement is the bigger issue.
Most neighborhoods in Montgomery County (81%) have not experienced significant economic changes over the past 20 years, but a concentration of low-income households in certain neighborhoods is significantly more prevalent in Montgomery County than the displacement of low-income households is. In other words, poor neighborhoods tend to stay poor while rich neighborhoods tend to stay rich. Black and Latino households are also more likely to be living in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty, perpetuating longstanding systemic racism in housing.
Though displacement occurs and needs to be addressed, our research finds that, in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, it is a secondary concern to poverty concentration in county neighborhoods, with major racial equity and social justice implications.
The study’s other key takeaway is that new housing construction, in large part thanks to affordable housing requirements, has critically enabled neighborhood diversity in the last two decades. In turn, neighborhoods with more construction have also had inclusive growth (that is, adding more residents of all income levels). Building more housing has given residents more options when deciding where to live. By contrast, not building new units has limited their options and exacerbated concentrations of low-income households in a few areas.
To explore the data employed in this study, check out Montgomery Planning’s programming code and dataset on the online software development repository GitHub.
Building new housing throughout Montgomery County, including in areas that have not seen new development, will play a critical role in enabling neighborhood diversity—and in promoting inclusive growth everywhere.
Looking ahead, this research can more generally inform neighborhood-level strategies to expand inclusive growth by allowing people to stay in place, creating opportunities for new residents, and increasing racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. In addition to building new housing, other proven strategies include providing associated public amenities like transit, parks, and affordable housing.
It’s also worth noting that, despite widespread and understandable concerns about the potential displacement of existing residents, the data show that limiting new housing development is actually more likely to displace current residents—or to further embed them in a heavily concentrated low-income neighborhood.