As the largest city in North Carolina, the Charlotte metro area stretches across 13 counties in two states. As the metro’s population has grown substantially over the past few decades, so have affordable housing pressures: HUD estimates that Charlotte needs 34,000 affordable housing units to meet demand, and over 32,000 households recently applied for the Charlotte Housing Authority’s Section 8 program.
Another challenge to affordable housing in Charlotte is gentrification. Several (but by no means all) of the city’s low-income neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification, which further constrains Charlotte’s low-income housing stock.
Income mixing and inequality is especially important in Charlotte, as a 2013 study ranked the city dead last in income mobility. In a more recent study, Charlotte ranked 99th out of 100 (only Baltimore fared worse). The study’s authors found that segregation by both race and income, as well as school quality, were important factors in determining residents’ economic mobility.
Here, we map two measures across the Charlotte metro: the Simpson Index (which measures income segregation and mixing) and the 100/25 ratio (which measures income inequality). Like our previous post on the Triangle, higher Simpson scores (in green) indicate greater mixing (and lower income segregation), while lower mixing is in red. Higher 100/25 ratios (in blue) mean that a neighborhood has many more wealthy households than poor ones. Lower values (in red) mean the opposite: more low-income households than wealthy ones.
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County: Some mixing, but very segregated
In contrast to Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte does not have especially large concentrations of income segregation—measured here through the Simpson Index. While there are some areas with low levels of income mixing—like neighborhoods immediately north and south of Uptown, and the northern and southern areas of Mecklenburg County—these are not as concentrated as they are in the Triangle.
Unlike the Simpson Index, however, the 100/25 ratio shows stark patterns of income inequality in Mecklenburg County. Neighborhoods west, north, and east of Uptown have many more low-income households than wealthy ones—sometimes as many as 25 times more. In contrast, the northern and southern suburbs of Mecklenburg County—which extend into Iredell and Union counties—have many more wealthy households than poor ones.
What explains these apparently contradictory findings—some mixing and yet high inequality—is the presence of households earning between $25,000-$49,999 in many low-income neighborhoods. Because we consider them to be in a separate income bracket, they improve the mixing statistics of several neighborhoods around Uptown. However, the lack of wealthy households in these neighborhoods result in 100/25 ratios showing very high inequality.
Outlying Counties: High mixing, but few upper-income households
Beyond Mecklenburg County, we see a pattern similar to the Triangle. More rural areas have relatively high income mixing, while cities and larger towns—many of which are county seats, like Shelby, Gastonia, and Salisbury—have lower levels of income mixing.
The 100/25 ratio shows that these outlying counties—like those in the Triangle—have many more low-income households than wealthy ones. This holds true both for more rural areas (which have greater income mixing) and for smaller cities and towns (which have less income mixing). What accounts for rural area’s higher mixing rate, then, is the presence of working and middle class households—who are not captured in the 100/25 ratio.
Improving income segregation and mobility
Compared to the Triangle, Charlotte has fewer areas of income segregation—or, put another way, neighborhoods with low levels of income mixing. However, what should trouble Charlotte’s leaders is the city’s high levels of income inequality and highly polarized income distribution. Wealthy households are concentrated south of Uptown and in Mecklenburg County’s northern suburbs, while low-income families make up a substantial proportion of neighborhoods west, north, and east of Uptown.
Planning efforts in Charlotte should prioritize reducing income inequality in Mecklenburg County. One way to address this is by expanding the amount of affordable housing outside of highly-unequal neighborhoods west, north, and east of Uptown. While undoubtedly controversial, scattered mixed-income housing can provide low-income families better access to high-quality schools. This, in turn, could improve Charlotte’s almost worst-in-the-country income mobility.
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