While the country’s been making ever so incremental progress towards becoming less racially segregated over the last half century, the recent foreclosure crisis slid back the dial on that progress and further entrenched residential racial segregation. And it did so by putting at least 10 million households on the move, thus triggering a large-scale movement of families which reconfigured U.S. neighborhoods. 

So concluded a team of researchers led by Matthew Hall, a professor of demography at Cornell University. Hall and his co-authors’ study, titled “Neighborhood Foreclosures, Racial/Ethnic Transitions, and Residential Segregation,” will be published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review. Hall, University of Washington sociology professor Kyle Crowder and Georgia State University sociology professor Amy Spring examined foreclosure data as well as Census neighborhood composition data to test their theory that the foreclosure crisis was more than a housing crisis. It was also a “major migration event,” Hall told Colorlines.

What they found is that while racial segregation has been on the decline in the last 50 years, the foreclosure crisis slowed down the nation’s long-term declines in black-white segregation by 19 percent in the last decade. And it did so in two major ways: by forcing families who’d been foreclosed on–a disproportionate number of whom were black and Latino–to move, and by spooking whites into moving out of distressed neighborhoods. 

Hall, Crowder and Spring reconfirmed what’s been long known about the foreclosure crisis: that the man-made disaster was precipitated by black and Latino families’ pre-existing socioeconomic fragility, as well as an explicit targeting of blacks and Latinos in particular for shady mortgage products. Among those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis were neighborhoods with high concentrations of blacks–which had a typical foreclosure rate of 8.1 percent; neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos–with a foreclosure rate of 6.2 percent; and those that were racially mixed–the highest of all, at 8.55 percent of households getting foreclosed. All-white neighborhoods, meanwhile, had a 2.3 percent foreclosure rate. 

Researchers found links between neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates and those that also experienced a subsequent re-shuffling of families along racially selective lines. What happened after foreclosures, Hall explained, is that families who’d lost their homes ended up making “downward moves” to more affordable neighborhoods. And when, say, a Latino family who lost their home had to move, they tended to move to more affordable neighborhoods where they could rent, and which also happened to be more racially segregated. 

Whites, on the other hand, were already less likely to be foreclosed on. But those who lived in racially integrated neighborhoods responded to their neighbors’ foreclosures by moving out. “White households are very sensitive to changes in neighborhoods,” Hall said, “And were often the first families to leave.”

“When people lose their homes, they almost always have to move,” Hall noted. And because some 10 million homes were foreclosed on during the housing crisis, that mass movement of people has the possibility to have long-lasting impacts on racial residential segregation in the country. The Great Migration involved the movement of some 6 million people, the authors noted in their study. ”One way to think about it,” Hall said, “is that all the migration taking place because of the foreclosure crisis is migration that wouldn’t have happened.”

Hall and his co-authors found that integrated neighborhoods, which were hit especially hard by the foreclosure crisis, were also subsequently deeply impacted by flows of in and out migration. Their findings underscore just how precarious racial integration in the country is, Hall says, and just how sensitive it is to national economic conditions.