Concentrated Poverty, Ypsilanti’s Biggest Problem

SOMA is a Great Example of Housing and Income Inequality in Washtenaw County

Thanks to former City Council Member, Ricky Jefferson, Mayor-Pro-Tem, Lois Richardson, and Washtenaw County Commissioner, Ronnie Peterson, and, of course, the Ypsilanti Tenants Rights Association, inequality is firmly on the local agenda. While housing and income inequality has worsened considerably over the past couple of decades, Washtenaw County and its cities faced a far deeper problem of increasing racial and economic segregation, along with concentrated poverty. The South of Michigan Avenue (SOMA) Report shows how concentrated neighborhood poverty shapes everything from higher crime rates to limited social mobility for the people—and especially the children—who live in these neighborhoods.

The South of Michigan Avenue (SOMA) Report reveals the devastating growth of geographically concentrated poverty and its connection to race across Ward 1 in Ypsilanti proper. To get at this, City of Ypsilanti Staff, the Washtenaw County Department of Energy and Economic Development (WCDEED), and the Washtenaw County Employment Training and Community Services (ETCS) used detailed data on the 4106 Census tract, which incorporates the Heritage Park Neighborhood, the Worden Gardens Neighborhoods, the Ypsilanti West Commerce Park, and numerous high-density multiple-family developments.

Concentrated poverty is defined as neighborhoods or tracts where forty percent or more of residents fall below the federal poverty threshold (currently $24,000 for a family of four). The SOMA Report looks at this change across Ward 1 in Ypsilanti proper as a whole and within its neighborhoods.

The Statistics

Ypsilanti is nearing a thirty percent official poverty rate and the city’s population has declined by double digits since 2000. This is a troubling reversal of previous trends, particularly of the previous decade of 1990 to 2000, where university scholars’ across the nation research found that concentrated poverty declined.

Concentrated poverty also overlaps with race in deeply distressing ways. One in four African Americans and one in six Hispanic Americans live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to just one in thirteen of their white counterparts.

In the year 2010, city-wide, 28% of the population identified as Black, or African American. 80% of the population, in southwest Ypsilanti, the southwestern portion of the SOMA, are African-American, a decrease from the 90% portion from the 2000 census.

The Landscape

The SOMA area contains some 1,044 residential parcels. 63% of these parcels are home owner-occupied residences. The amount of owner-occupied residential parcels has increased by approximately 8%, compared with the City at large decreasing by 1% in the same measurement. Future investigation could build on the positive trends in the SOMA area that is increasing home ownership, and evaluate how that success can be supported and potentially expanded into other areas of the City, including south of Michigan Avenue.

All of the 192 units of Public Housing managed by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission are located in the SOMA area. Residents expressed a significant amount of concern and feedback, regarding public safety. From a safety perspective, residents at one meeting expressed frustration that in the summer months, it is difficult to let young children outside to play due to loitering and other activity that compromise the safety of residents.

This frustration by residents seemed to be primarily focused at “friends of residents” or others who perhaps don’t have an affiliation with the property to justify their presence.

Additionally, both Housing Commission residents and residents outside the YHC complex expressed operational concerns, along with suggestions, that could be addressed to improve the quality of life for residents. Concerns over responsiveness by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission (YHC) and a perceived general low quality of maintenance seemed to be a shared concern by several participants. By way of evaluating this, City of Ypsilanti Rental Housing Inspection Records indicated that 1,182 violations of housing code currently exist in Ypsilanti Housing Commission units. This represents an average of 6 violations for each unit. Additionally, recent Housing and Urban Development Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) review, the YHC has been designate as “troubled” or substandard for financial, physical and/or management indicators, or other such deficiencies identified by HUD. The YHC is engaging with a Recovery Agreement with HUD and the City of Ypsilanti to improve its status to that of “Standard Performer.”

 The Inequalities

The SOMA area currently has no full-service grocery store within a reasonable walking distance for residents. The topic of grocers was brought up in every meeting and all residents are supportive for a grocer to locate in Ward 1. Residents also expressed their interest in specialty-type stores such as: butchers, a pastry shop, produce store (fruits, fresh breads, veggies) and an Italian market, yes, an Italian market.

Do elected leaders in Ypsilanti have the political will to address this in a substantive way? Ypsilanti neighbors Ann Arbor, the 8th most segregated city in America, according to Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros Report. Read the appendix pages, and you’ll notice that in four years since the SOMA Report was published, housing, public transportation services, etc., South of Michigan Avenue hasn’t improved, especially for those Ypsilantians who remember Harriet Street being lined with apple trees.

Mark Maynard, Ypsilanti-based blogger said it best, “People many deny it, but I suspect a great many like living in a community that’s trending toward greater economic segregation. It means that low achievers have been forced out, and replaced with people who are more successful. It means that tax revenues are rising, and that schools are getting “better.” It means having to provide fewer costly services for the poor. It means being surrounded by individuals who are more likely to look and act like you.”

Related Content:

Jargowsky, Paul. “Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems: The Dramatic Decline of Concentrated Poverty in the 1990s.” May 2003.

Florida, Richard and Mellander, Charlotta. “Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros.” 23 February 2015.

Spencer, Naomi. “Rising inequality, poverty in Ann Arbor, Michigan.” 2 April 2015.

Maynard, Mark. “New Harvard study shows Washtenaw County among worst places to grow up when it comes to social mobility.” 8 November 2015.

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SOMA, circa 2014