City Housing Costs Send Low-Income Families Packing

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In large numbers, black families are leaving cities where the cost of housing is rising sharply. They're moving to the suburbs, and those who leave the city say the change is splitting up tightly knit communities.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

There's an exodus taking place across the country. In large numbers, black families are leaving cities where the cost of housing is rising sharply. They're moving to the suburbs, where housing costs are low, but commutes are long.

Those who leave the cities say it has scattered extended families and split up tightly-knit communities. From San Francisco, Nancy Mullane reports.

NANCY MULLANE: Hello.

Ms. ERICA GRIFFIN(ph): Hi, how are you? Did you get a little (unintelligible)?

MULLANE: Not much.

Ms. GRIFFIN: Come on in. Pleased to meet you.

MULLANE: Erica and Carl Griffin(ph) in the kitchen of their new home in a suburb east of San Francisco. Carl Griffin was born and raised in this city. His wife, Erica, moved to San Francisco when she was three. They attended city schools, got married and raised their two daughters in an extended community of neighbors and friends.

Then, eight years ago, they got a phone call from their landlord.

Ms. GRIFFIN: We were renting a home and it was our daughters and then Carl and ourself, and we had a dog. And then we were told that the owner was going to be selling.

MULLANE: First, they looked for another home in the city but couldn't find anything reasonable.

Mr. CARL GRIFFIN: It's just too expensive to live in San Francisco now. You can get a home that's practically ran down and they want $800,000 for it. And you're looking, I say it's not even livable.

MULLANE: Increasingly desperate, they heard from a friend about a house for sale out in Vallejo, a suburb to the east. Though they'd never considered leaving the city, they decided to take a look.

On the way they crossed two bridges and drove 45 minutes on the freeway. They loved the house they saw. It had three bedrooms and two and a half baths. They qualified for a mortgage and bought it, but they didn't know how much time they'd be spending in their car.

Mr. GRIFFIN: We could walk to the store, walk to the cleaners, walk to Walgreen's, walk to the post office. Now you have to drive to wherever you need to go.

MULLANE: And, Carl says, getting to and from work eats up his family and friend time. The Griffins are not alone. According to recent Census Bureau data, a quarter of black families living in San Francisco in the year 2000 now live in the suburbs. For many, the move has meant the loss of an extended family.

When the Griffins moved, they left behind their church of 18 years. They checked out churches closer to their new home but were unsatisfied.

Unidentified Man: Praise God.

(Soundbite of organ music)

MULLANE: Now every Sunday morning the Griffins get up extra early to commute back to Ingleside Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MULLANE: Reverend Roland Gordon is pastor. He says he welcomes the Griffins back but wonders how long they can do the commute.

Mr. ROLAND GORDON (Pastor, Ingleside Presbyterian Church): We're a small church family, so when we lose one or two families even, you know, we feel it.

MULLANE: Sitting in the church pew one recent Sunday morning is Michael Chappig Bryce(ph). He's education co-chair of the San Francisco NAACP. Bryce says he sees a fundamental shift. The white population has tired of the suburbs and the long commutes. It's moving back to the cities, increasing property values and in turn displacing blacks.

Mr. MICHAEL BRYCE (Education Co-Chair, San Francisco NAACP): What you see really is an economic engine where people who have the resources have decided that they would rather live in the city than make that commute from the suburbs. And they are moving back to the city. And this is happening in Chicago and Philadelphia and New York.

MULLANE: Margaret Brodkin is director of the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and their Families. She says what's happening is the most profound demographic change in decades, and city officials are alarmed.

Ms. MARGARET BRODKIN (Director, San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and their Families): We are in tremendous danger of becoming a place where only our most affluent families can survive. And it's a loss to everyone. It's a loss to the children in those families who don't have exposure to other kinds of families, and it just turned San Francisco into a much more sterile place.

MULLANE: Back in their kitchen, Carl and Erica Griffin say even though they love their new house, San Francisco will always be home.

Ms. GRIFFIN: When you can't afford certain areas anymore that you was raised in, you know, you leave. I would say San Francisco is turning into more of - do I want to say suburb?

MULLANE: The Griffins say they're lucky to have moved when they did. Today, families leaving the city for more affordable housing buy or rent homes even further out, with two, sometimes three-hour commutes. And by 2030, according to one study, they'll face freeways as congested as those you'll find in Los Angeles today.

For National Public Radio, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.

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