After seeing a promotional video for his luxury apartment building featuring predominantly white, young, attractive actors lounging outdoors and doing yoga, an appalled tenant wrote: “We aren’t ‘Banana Republic’ models and we don’t lounge by the pool all day. We span a lot of nationalities, body types, and sexual orientations. Thanks for only showing attractive heterosexual people.”
It’s possible the building is, in fact, much more diverse than the promo suggested. However, the sad reality is that most buildings across the country are not. 65 percent of Americans say they would like to live in a more racially diverse neighborhood, yet most people in the United States live next door to someone who looks and lives just like them. According to a 2012 Pew report, 90 percent of white Americans live in majority white neighborhoods, 41 percent of the black population lives in majority black neighborhoods, and almost half of Hispanics live near other Hispanics. It’s not just racial segregation either; a 2012 Pew study on residential segregation by income showed that twice as many upper-income households are now located in majority upper-income neighborhoods than they were in 1980. It’s not diversity you’ll find in the luxury condos of New York, San Francisco, and D.C., but “poor doors,” or separate entrances to the same building for wealthy residents and the less affluent, approved in July by the New York City government.
Curious about the upper limits of demographic comingling, we set out to find the most racially diverse apartment building in America. We asked TargetSmart, a D.C.-based political data firm to screen their national voter files for racial diversity, using voter and consumer registration data. They then applied factors such as average income, age, political affiliation, and education level to break any ties. The result: 31 Leonard Street, in the southeastern corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
At first that may seem unsurprising given New York’s famous diversity and millennial gentrifiers’ supposed affinity for diversity. But the most diverse building in America is not a hipster hive on Bedford Avenue. Instead, it’s 0.7 miles away, at a government-subsidized affordable housing cooperative designed for low- and middle-income families.
The 22-story building has 586 residents who are almost evenly divided by race into thirds: 33.1 percent white, 31.1 percent East Asian, 30.3 percent Hispanic, and 4.3 percent African American. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of Williamsburg, which is 86 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black*, according to the Center for Urban Research. The average resident at 31 Leonard Street makes $25,600 per year, 60 percent of them have finished high school, and 40 percent graduated from college. An overwhelming majority, 83 percent, is unmarried.
The building is one of seven that make up Lindsay Park, one piece of a post-war government housing project aimed at revitalizing vast swathes of New York City suffering from urban blight. To live in one of the 418 units at 31 Leonard Street, residents must fulfill income restrictions: a maximum income of $75,156 a year for a one-person household and $107,343 for a four-person household. Co-op units are purchased for a single upfront sum (no mortgages), after which residents pay a monthly maintenance fee. The costs, though, are low. A studio costs between $5,600 and $6,900 to buy, with a $660 monthly fee, while a three-bedroom apartment (the largest available) costs between $12,100 and $15,100 to purchase and around $1,400 a month in maintenance fees. (For contrast, the average rent for a Williamsburg studio is $2,837 a month.)
Residents are not required to move out if their incomes increase so long as they pay a modest surcharge. This means there is very little turnover, and the waiting lists to get in are long—over 3,000 applicants alone for one-bedroom vacancies.
The blocks surrounding 31 Leonard have not been immune to the breakneck gentrification seizing much of Brooklyn, and the hallmarks of that process have arrived in the last few years: an art gallery, the upscale Brooklyn Harvest Market, and several luxury condos. As a result, Lindsay Park residents have seen their monthly maintenance fees go up by 25 percent over three years, and some fear that their affordable housing could soon be not-so-affordable after all.
“In the past year it’s changed so much that within our block you see people who look like models,” said Ronny Wasserstrom, a middle-aged Jewish man who has lived in Lindsay Park since he was an infant. “It’s good, but it’s scary as well because the people who run things here see money around us. You wonder how that’s going to affect us.”
Leonard Street’s diversity is an anomaly. And there’s a scientific explanation for why buildings on the free market don’t look like this. Last month, two Harvard sociologists found that in Chicago, most neighborhoods that gentrified in the last 20 years were already at least 35 percent white, like the Near North Side, while those over 40 percent black, such as Douglas, did not change despite the same early signs of gentrification as the whiter neighborhoods. While the numbers were specific to Chicago, one of the study’s authors, Jackelyn Hwang, believes that the principle holds true more generally.
“Race and perceptions of disorder are important factors in the rate of change in neighborhoods. People are somewhat attracted by diversity, but only to a degree,” she said. “Whites favor having more same-race neighbors than other groups, but all people still generally favor whites the most, blacks neighbors the least, and Asians and Hispanics in the middle. … The problem is that when all individuals want a certain degree of whites or non-black neighbors, the predominantly black neighborhoods don't fulfill anyone's preferences, contributing to segregation.”
The racial separation in housing, unsurprisingly, becomes more extreme as income levels rise. For instance, at 85 N 3rd Street, the apartment building with the highest average income in Williamsburg—a mere 1.6 miles northwest of Lindsay Park—95 percent of residents are white or Jewish, and a mere two percent Hispanic.
Yet, despite all the statistics, even at Lindsay Park diversity does not ensure integration. Residents have said that language barriers and cultural differences mean that different ethnic groups still keep to themselves, despite living in close proximity of others. This is particularly true of some immigrants who have recently moved into the building—who are typically new to the country, speak very little English, and keep to themselves. This can lead to misunderstandings and clashes with other residents who want a more inclusive community.
“We don’t know who our neighbors are,” said 67-year-old Antonia Ortiz, who has lived at Lindsay Park for 41 years and is an active member of the community. “People are in their own groups. We don’t have any group activities, meetings—nothing. Diversity works two ways. You can have diversity, but one group keeps to its own, and the rest of you are on the other side.”
Elaine Teng is the managing editor of The New Republic.