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Where do middle-class New Yorkers live?

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Charting the change in income distribution throughout the five boroughs between 1990 and 2015

Staten Island
Max Touhey

Over the past 25 years, New York City has witnessed a stratification of wealth as developers cater to high earners by building pricey apartments in the city’s most desirable enclaves. But that trend in development has not been limited to the city’s traditionally high-earning areas—it’s spread into neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Long Island City, and the Lower East Side, creating shifts in the neighborhoods’ population as lower-income earners are forced to seek refuge elsewhere amid rising housing costs.

While there is no one answer to where these priced-out folks are going, a look at the change of income distribution throughout the five boroughs over the last 20 years provides some insight into what areas in the city remain strongholds for middle-income New Yorkers.

As he did for San Francisco before, data guy Nick Conway has trained his eye on the redistribution of income throughout New York City between 1990 and 2015.

Conway used census block group data, with the household median income of each block-group compared to the household median income of the New York City metropolitan area, to determine whether an area was low-, middle-, or higher-income. He then determined the percentage of people throughout the city living in those neighborhoods (compared to the number of households that are themselves lower-, middle-, or higher-income.)

The data highlights the city’s decline of middle-class neighborhoods, and the growth of its upper-income neighborhoods. No surprise here: Manhattan saw major growth of its higher-income neighborhoods between 1990 and 2015. Nearly half of Manhattanites live in upper-income neighborhoods as of 2015. Conway found that 29 percent of Manhattan residents lived in middle-income areas in 1990, but by 2015 the number had dropped to 18 percent. The number of Manhattanites living in low-income neighborhoods also dropped precipitously from 47 percent to 35 percent.

Brooklyn, Conway says, is most representative of New York as a whole. Fifty-six percent of Brooklynites live in lower-income neighborhoods, with just 11 percent living in higher-income neighborhoods. This number may be small, but its more than double the percentage of Brooklynites living in higher-income neighborhoods in 1990. That number, Conway says, rose sharply after 2000. Thirty-three percent of Brooklynites live in middle-income neighborhoods, which is most reflective of the city as a whole, where 35 percent of New Yorkers live in middle-income neighborhoods.

Queens is the city’s most middle-class borough, the stats found, with 54 percent of the borough’s population living in middle-income areas. Thirty-three percent of the borough still lives in lower-income areas, but Conway says the median incomes in those areas are on the edge of middle-class status, and upper-income areas in the borough are not “super rich.” Income inequality in Queens is the lowest of any borough.

The Bronx has the largest population of people living in low-income areas at 77 percent. Only 18 percent of the borough’s population live in middle-income areas. Since 1990, the borough’s population living in low-income areas has increased while those living in its middle-income ares has decreased. Conway suggests that this means The Bronx’s number of middle-class neighborhoods are in danger of shrinking further.

As always, Staten Island is an anomaly. It’s the borough with the second strongest middle-class presence, with 51 percent of residents living in middle-class neighborhoods, and the only borough where the presence of middle-class neighborhoods has grown between 1990 and 2015. Conway writes:

The broadest trend across the rest of the city has been a decline in the number of people living in middle-income areas, and an increase in the number living in high-income areas. In Staten Island, this trend has been reversed: The number living in middle-income areas grew by 12%, while the number living in high-income areas declined by 14%.

It seems that incomes on Staten Island didn’t grow as quickly over those 25 years as they did throughout the rest of the city.