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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Middle Neighborhoods in the Mountain West

The dramatic changes in residential patterns, housing markets, and urban life that have occurred since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic have had deep and lasting impacts on cities, specifically on the composition of their neighborhoods. These changes have been especially pronounced in Mountain West states—Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming—where an influx of remote workers from more expensive, denser cities has fueled substantial increases in home prices that continues to shape the metro areas of the region.

Because of their precariousness, “middle neighborhoods,” or the areas of cities that have historically teetered between economic expansion and disinvestment, neither growing nor declining, have been particularly impacted, despite being largely overlooked in research, programmatic decision-making, and policy discussions. Middle neighborhoods have long served as the foundational heart of many Mountain West cities. However, a lack of community development investment and public policies targeted toward them led to their slow erosion in the decades leading up to the pandemic, not only in the Mountain West, but in urban and suburban areas across the country.

For community development practitioners in the region, middle neighborhoods scholars, and myself—an urban planning student and affordable housing practitioner who grew up in the Mountain West—the pandemic raised new questions about how often-forgotten middle neighborhoods in Mountain West cities were changing, and the policies that might effectively support, sustain, and stabilize them into the future.

In "Mountain Town Migration: Understanding the Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Middle Neighborhoods in the Mountain West," a new paper co-published by the Center and NeighborWorks America, I report on research I conducted as a 2022 Gramlich Fellow in Community and Economic Development. My research draws on Census data, scholarly work on middle neighborhoods and Mountain West housing markets, and insights from interviews with community development practitioners in three cities: Great Falls, Montana; Pocatello, Idaho; and Salt Lake City, Utah.

First, I employ a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to identify middle neighborhoods in each city. Using neighborhood-level Census data on household income levels, I find that these cities display residential patterns similar other middle-income, mid-sized cities in the US, where lower-income neighborhoods concentrate toward the city-center, higher-income neighborhoods sprawl around the suburbs, and middle-income neighborhoods form a growing buffer zone in between, teetering on the edge of these two extremes.

Second, I work to understand the challenges faced by middle neighborhoods and examine how they have changed over time. I find that the number of middle neighborhoods in Great Falls, Pocatello, and Salt Lake City decreased over the two decades preceding the pandemic, as many middle-income neighborhoods had flipped to either higher-income or lower-income by 2020. These patterns demonstrate the instability of middle neighborhoods in the Mountain West and motivate the remainder of my research, which asks if community development practitioners in the region are conducting work that might stabilize middle neighborhoods and, if so, how their efforts might be better supported going forward.

Third, and most importantly, I worked with practitioners at NeighborWorks Great Falls, NeighborWorks Pocatello, and NeighborWorks Salt Lake, as well as other community development organizations in the region, to understand how each organization is responding neighborhood change, focusing particularly on the immense challenges brought about by the pandemic. I learned that community development organizations in the Mountain West are leading the charge on innovative and impactful work to support and stabilize middle neighborhoods. For example, NeighborWorks Boise’s Pocket Neighborhoods program is building higher density, income-restricted housing in less dense parts of neighborhoods at risk of gentrifying. Similarly, NeighborWorks Great Falls has been redeveloping undermaintained and aging properties in potentially gentrifying areas and selling them to lower-income households.

However, my research also highlights the gaps in policy design, delivery, and financing tools that tend to push community development organizations toward work that favors retroactive repair over prevention. A key challenge is that many existing housing and community development initiatives tend to exclusively target lower-income neighborhoods (or occasionally higher-income ones), rather than providing tools to neighborhoods at risk of shifting from middle- to lower-income. They also prioritize the creation of affordable rental housing over affordable homeownership opportunities. Thus, successfully addressing the challenges of middle neighborhoods might require new financing sources at the federal, state, and private-sector levels to explicitly focus efforts on middle neighborhoods, and include initiatives that create homeownership opportunities within these neighborhoods as an instrument for stabilization.

Ultimately, this research aims to support housing and community development practitioners across the region who are grappling with post-pandemic neighborhood change, helping to illuminate the needs of middle neighborhoods and identify the ongoing community development programs that serve (or fail to serve) them. It also situates the robust work being done by NeighborWorks organizations in the Mountain West in the context of more structural challenges faced by middle neighborhoods. More broadly, it seeks to return research and policy attention to middle neighborhoods, inviting new place-based approaches to improving housing access for the American middle class as the nation works to recover, rebuild, and reimagine following the pandemic.