The effects of the Great Migration on urban renewal

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The Great Migration significantly increased the number of African American people moving to northern and western cities beginning in the first half of the twentieth century.

We show that their arrival shaped “slum clearance” and urban redevelopment efforts in receiving cities. To estimate the effect of migrants, we instrument for Black population changes using a shift-share instrument that interacts historical migration patterns with local economic shocks that predict Black out-migration from the South. We find that local governments responded by undertaking more urban renewal projects that aimed to redevelop and rehabilitate “blighted” areas. More Black migrants also led to an increase in family displacement. This underscores the contribution of spatial policies such as urban renewal towards understanding the long-term consequences of the Great Migration on central cities, and Black neighborhoods and individuals.


The Great Migration instigated a drastic shift in the racial composition of American cities. Between 1940 and 1970, over four million African Americans left the South and settled in the North and the West. Previous studies suggest that there were substantial economic gains experienced by Black Americans who migrated during this period (Collins and Wanamaker, 2014, Boustan, 2017). On the other hand, research documents negative consequences on the well-being of Black migrants ranging from health (Black et al., 2015) to an increased probability of incarceration (Eriksson, 2019).

New work exploring the long-term consequences of the Great Migration suggests that negative effects extend to Black descendants of the original migrants. Derenoncourt (2022) finds significant detrimental effects on the upward mobility prospects of Black children born around 1980 who grew up in cities that were more affected by the Migration. Her study suggests that this was due to responses of local municipalities that received large in-flows of Black migrants rather than any compositional effects stemming from selective migration. For instance, cities more affected by the Great Migration increased spending on police and incarceration. This emphasis on the role played by cities echoes Boustan (2010)’s finding that mid-century Black geographic mobility affected the responses of local governments in ways that induced White flight.

One aspect of the response of cities that has received less attention in the literature is the role of housing, land redevelopment, and related spatial policies. We show that cities receiving high inflows of Black migrants due to plausibly exogenous factors exhibited a marked increase in the likelihood of ever initiating an urban renewal project as well as an increase in the total number of such projects undertaken. Urban renewal programs were federally subsidized local efforts aimed at the clearance of “blighted” urban neighborhoods for redevelopment and rehabilitation. The program began in 1949 with the creation of the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency that offered cities significant financial support for redevelopment projects. The use of eminent domain as delegated by state governments enabled local municipalities to clear residential areas, often accompanied by the planned displacement and relocation of families.

To estimate the causal effect of the Great Migration on cities’ urban renewal policies, we adopt an empirical approach based on the Bartik or shift-share instrument commonly used in the trade and migration literatures (Altonji and Card, 1991, Card, 2001). The fundamental identification challenge is that migrants select into destinations outside of the South based on factors such as local demand conditions. A valid instrument for Black migration inflows into northern cities must not affect local demand conditions and other city-level shocks except via predicted inflows. To construct such an instrument, we rely on an interaction between historical settlement patterns of Black migrants and so-called “push factors,” or local economic conditions in southern sending cities. Boustan (2010) was the first to apply this instrument to the Great Migration context and our implementation closely follows that of Derenoncourt (2022) and utilizes the code she has generously made publicly available (Derenoncourt (2021)).

The analysis relies on a sample of the largest 713 cities by population in the northern and western United States, with corresponding actual and predicted inflows of Black migrants based on the instrumental variables strategy described above. Data on urban renewal efforts come from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond and are based on federal directories of urban renewal project timing, funding, and attributes. As far as we are aware, this dataset provides the most comprehensive record of urban renewal activity to date. Overall, we are able to link data on inflows of Black migrants across our sample of cities to rich information on urban renewal projects.

Our empirical strategy examines the effect of Black migration during 1940–1950, instrumented using the interaction of 1935–1940 settlement patterns and Southern “push factors”, on receiving cities’ urban renewal activity beginning in 1955. We find that cities that experienced an increase in Black migration were significantly more likely to undertake at least one urban renewal project. A 10-percentile point increase in the actual migration of Black individuals led to an 11 percentage point increase in ever having had an urban renewal project between 1955 and 1974. This represents a 16% increase relative to the average participation rate in urban renewal activities. We also document significant effects on family displacement. Shifting from a city at the 25th percentile in terms of migration of Black individuals to the 75th percentile resulted in a 1.7 percentage point increase in the share of households estimated to be displaced by urban redevelopment efforts. Furthermore, we find that an increase in Black migrants led to the clearance of more dwelling units and greater land acreage for projects.

Our study contributes to several strands of literature. Despite the historical prominence of urban renewal, there are very few studies in economics on these policies. While we examine urban renewal efforts in response to the arrival of Black migrants, existing work focuses on the effect of urban renewal on neighborhoods and cities. Collins and Shester (2013) find positive effects of urban renewal in aggregate city-level data on income, property values, and population.1 LaVoice, 2019 uses a sample of the largest 28 cities to document the association of urban renewal with increasing neighborhood rents and incomes that are accompanied by a reduction in affordable housing, suggesting that disadvantaged families are made worse off by urban renewal policies. LaVoice, 2019 also finds that Black neighborhoods were disproportionately more likely to be targeted for “slum” clearance and redevelopment even after accounting for the extent of blight. These findings echo the concerns about urban renewal programs raised in the broader literature, including the relocation of families and lack of good quality replacement housing, the disproportionate impact on low-income Black families, and loss of cohesive neighborhoods and social capital (Johnstone, 1958, Wilson, 1966, Anderson, 1967, von Hoffman, 2000, Fullilove, 2001). We contribute to the literature by asking whether these programs were undertaken in response to increasing numbers of Black residents as part of the Great Migration.