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Why Cities Should Be Leading the Push for Immigration Reform

Why Cities Should Be Leading the Push for Immigration Reform
Vigdor

Dylan Matthews over at the Washington Post has a good summary of some interesting new research from Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor comparing the immigration rates across America at the county level with local housing values. Vigdor's conclusion: The greater the number of immigrants in a county, the higher the home values there (each of the 40 million immigrants in the U.S. adds 11.5 cents to the value of the average home in the county).

Broadly, this implies that immigrants help boost housing markets, in much the same way that they've been shown in the past to shore up aging populations where large numbers of workers are retiring out of the workforce. And they've had the greatest impact boosting the housing market in areas that could use it most – specifically, in shrinking Rust Belt cities, or in the deteriorating neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas where it's elsewhere unaffordable to live.

Vigdor's research finds that for every 1,000 immigrants who settle in a county, 250 U.S.-born people eventually move in as well, drawn by the expanding economic opportunity. Those immigrants also "shift demand" for housing within cities to those less desirable neighborhoods, helping to stabilize them as viable places to live for middle-class Americans.

Some cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh are already actively trying to lure immigrants as a strategy for economic and population growth. And Vigdor argues that past immigration has likely already helped some cities like Chicago:

The number of U.S.-born Americans residing in Chicago and surrounding Cook County, IL, has declined by 900,000 since 1970. The arrival of nearly 600,000 immigrants over the same time period offset most of that decline—and most likely kept additional natives from leaving—blunting what could have been a catastrophic impact on the local housing market, along the lines of those seen in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities.

For cities desperately trying to repopulate emptying neighborhoods, welcoming immigrants is a logical idea, even if the tone of the national immigration debate makes it sound like a crazy one (as Gawker framed Baltimore's strategy: "Bizarro U.S. City Does Not Harass Immigrants").

But the findings about housing value make the strategy all the more compelling. In Harris County, Texas, home to relatively affordable Houston, Vigdor found that immigration over the past decade has contributed more than $25,000 to the value of the average home. The below map from his research, conducted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Partnership for a New American Economy, plots the impact of immigration on home values across the country, county by county.

It illustrates that the geography of immigration neatly aligns with the reality of housing affordability: Immigrants generally aren't pushing up home values in the places where it's already unaffordable to live, like Silicon Valley or Manhattan. Rather, Vigdor concludes, they're moving to places like Houston, or acting as a "barrier" against further declines in housing value in the many parts of the country where that's a problem.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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