It's a widely held belief that gay people are good for the neighborhood. The story goes that when gay people move into an area, they spruce up the place, attract some nice coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants, and eventually transform urban grit to trendy chic. Research by preeminent urban theorist Richard Florida and his colleague Charlotta Mellander supports this claim. They find that the presence of gay people in a neighborhood raises property values. But new, provocative research from David Christafore of Konkuk University in Seoul and Susane Leguizamon of Tulane University suggests that there's more to the story.
Their study of neighborhoods in relatively gay-friendly Columbus, Ohio (Census 2010 data show that Columbus ranks in the top 20 among large U.S. cities in the percentage of same-sex couples in the population) shows that the positive effect of same-sex couples in a neighborhood on housing prices doesn't actually show up in socially conservative areas. In neighborhoods that voted to support Ohio's ban on marriage equality, the presence of same-sex couples signaled lower home values. The authors' conclusion: bigotry depresses home prices.
They don't dispute Florida and Mellander's argument that social acceptance results in thriving and diverse communities that attract innovative and creative people along with their employers, a process that can raise home values. Rather, Chirstafore and Leguizamon show that there's another side to that coin. Environments where same-sex couples have neighbors who are not very welcoming and perhaps even display discomfort or animosity toward lesbian and gay people (at least they did this at the ballot box) tend not to thrive and have depressed home values.
One obvious question this research raises: why would same-sex couples live in seemingly hostile neighborhoods? I find ample evidence that the mobility options of LGBT people are often overestimated. Most survey data suggests that they behave pretty much like the general population in their migration behaviors.
From 2005 to 2009, U.S. Census Bureau data show that 83 percent of same-sex couples had not moved in the past year, exactly the same rate as the general population. Data from the 2008 and 2010 General Social Survey show that most LGB people (single and coupled) likely live very near where they were born. Almost 60 percent of LGB-identified people say they live in the state that they were in when they were 16 years old, and two thirds of that group still live in the same city. It's virtually the same for heterosexuals.
This doesn't mean that LGBT people don't try to move to more progressive neighborhoods within their communities, but I suspect that those who live in more conservative areas are there, like their neighbors, because it's the best option for them in terms of employment, affordability, and, for some, schools and child-oriented amenities.
Most LGBT people don't and aren't able to live in overtly LGBT-friendly places. They don't have the resources to make those kinds of choices. As a result, they likely endure some prejudice in return for being able to live in affordable areas near their families and longtime friends.
In 1990, same-sex couples were identified in only about half of U.S. counties. That increased to 90 percent of counties in 2000 and was at 93 percent in 2010. Some might be tempted to view this as evidence of a great gay diaspora moving far and wide into America's heartland. But states reporting the biggest increases in same-sex couples in the last decade (e.g., West Virginia at 245 percent, Montana at 239 percent, North Dakota at 217 percent, South Dakota at 207 percent, and Oklahoma at 167 percent) are among the most socially conservative states in the nation. It's hard to believe they are gay destination states. I suspect that the increases are more a sign that same-sex couples are more willing to identify themselves as such to the Census Bureau and perhaps to their neighbors.
Polling data shows that increasing LGBT visibility, even in conservative environs, can change the hearts and minds of Americans. Knowing your LGBT neighbors increases your support for their basic rights. But visibility can also open LGBT people to more overt discrimination and bigotry. For example, LGBT-related hate crimes are more prevalent in LGBT neighborhoods.
While increasing social acceptance toward LGBT people is a great thing, this new research reminds us that we should not underestimate the ongoing effects of homophobia. Many LGBT people, especially those unable to live in more accepting social climates, still experience routine discrimination and bigotry. If acceptance can beget positive social outcomes that at least in part show up in higher housing prices, is it really so hard to believe that discrimination and bigotry yield negative social outcomes that can reduce the value of intolerant neighborhoods?