Over the past decade, Forsyth County has made some unflattering national news. A 2015 Harvard University study revealed its status as having the third-worst economic mobility in the United States. And a 2014 Brookings Institution study showed Winston-Salem to have the nation's second-fastest-growing poverty rate. The Triad is also home to some of the highest eviction and mortgage foreclosure rates in the country. A new study, Displaced in America, reveals where it's happening, who's at most risk, and why.
The year-long project was a national effort with local collaborators. In Forsyth County, researchers teamed up with Winston-Salem State and Wake Forest Universities focusing on eviction, and mortgage foreclosures, ranking more than 2,200 U.S. counties by their severity in a National Housing Loss index. Forsyth ranked 89th.
Policy analyst Tim Robustelli says housing loss here is roughly three times the national average. To answer the more difficult questions — who, where, and why — they had to dig deeper, using census data to look at specific neighborhoods.
“The ability of them to capture some of these variables is unbelievable,” says Robustelli. “If a household uses a car to commute to work. If they use public transportation. If they have health insurance. If English is a second language at home and just everything. And it gives you a much richer story of what you're studying, who it's happening to, and where it's happening.”
Robustelli says one story told by the numbers is just how hard it is to simply find a place to live.
Wake Forest University anthropology professor Sherri Lawson Clark contributed to the study. She says, in reviewing their list of recommendations, one statistic stood out: addressing a shortage of some 16,000 units of affordable housing.
“And it was even more specific,” she says. “It was 16,244. So, I remember highlighting that in the report. And then later I read that there are 6,000 vacant properties in East Winston.”
Lawson Clark says she plans on looking into the fate of those vacant properties in a future research project, but the current report is raising a broader awareness of the city's shortcomings: Winston-Salem is a highly racially segregated, and residentially segregated city she says, even when it comes to the poor and the non-poor.
“And so, what happens is you have sort of this barrier — many people will argue that it's Highway 52 that creates that divide — and when we look at who lives east and who lives west and what's happening there, this New America data also supports those findings,” says Lawson Clark.
Craig Richardson directs Winston-Salem State University's Center for the Study of Economic Mobility. He says the new report revealing the city's dismal housing loss index comes at a critical time and pulls back the curtain on the fragility of the east side versus the west side of town at a critical time.
“We were like that before COVID,” says Richardson. “And what this report's doing is really shining a light on where are we going to be most hit by that. So, I think that's something that when COVID goes away, we can't just take the flashlight away from this area. We need to continue to study it because there's some long-term solutions that we need to do to strengthen when the next pandemic hits.”
Among the study's recommendations are adopting forward-thinking development policies and creating healthy and connected neighborhoods. Thankfully, Richardson says, a model already exists here: Winston-Salem's downtown. In the early 90s, he says, it was rundown, a higher crime area — not an ideal location for investment.
"And what it took was the imagination of some city leaders, some business people, and others to really reimagine that as an area that could be a place where people could live and shop and work without a car ideally," says Richardson. "And so, what we have now is we have a thriving downtown because the city planted trees, they invested in sidewalks, they put in more police presence, and that area has grown tremendously as we know downtown."
Richardson says a similar approach in the city's east side could go a long way. New shopping centers and housing areas would encourage anchor institutions to cross Highway 52, fueling the local economy.
“Right now, it's like a garden that has no irrigation,” he says. “And by that I mean a lack of investment dollars coming. And I'm saying this is not about charity. This is about making an investment as we did on the west side, having that imagination for what could be possible, and seeing that area flourish.”
But before it can flourish, East Winston must first brace itself for a severe housing crisis on top of an already existing one. The numbers don't lie. And one thing the data makes crystal clear: exactly which neighborhoods will be hardest hit when the eviction moratorium ends.