Athenia Rodney is a product of the upward mobility New York City once promised Black Americans. She grew up in mostly Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, graduated from public schools and attended a liberal arts college on a full scholarship. She went on to start her own event-planning business in the city.
But as Ms. Rodney’s own family grew, she found herself living in a cramped one-bedroom rental, where her three children shared a bunk bed in the living room. It was hard to get them into programs that exposed them to green spaces or swim classes. As she scrolled through friends’ social media posts showing off trampolines in spacious backyards in Georgia, the solution became clearer: Leave.
Last summer, the family bought a five-bedroom home in Snellville, Ga.
“I felt like it became increasingly difficult to raise a family in New York,” Ms. Rodney said.
The Rodneys are part of an exodus of Black residents from New York City. From 2010 to 2020, a decade during which the city’s population showed a surprising increase led by a surge in Asian and Hispanic residents, the number of Black residents decreased. The decline mirrored a national trend of younger Black professionals, middle-class families and retirees leaving cities in the Northeast and Midwest for the South.
The city’s Black population has declined by nearly 200,000 people in the past two decades, or about 9 percent. Now, about one in five residents are non-Hispanic Black, compared with one in four in 2000, according to the latest census data.
The decline is starkest among the youngest New Yorkers: The number of Black children and teenagers living in the city fell more than 19 percent from 2010 to 2020. And the decline is continuing, school enrollment data suggests. Schools have lost children in all demographic groups, but the loss of Black children has been much steeper as families have left and as the birthrate among Black women has decreased.
The factors propelling families like the Rodneys out of the city are myriad, including concerns about school quality, a desire to be closer to relatives and tight urban living conditions. But many of those interviewed for this article pointed to one main cause: the ever-increasing cost of raising a family in New York.
Black families drawn to opportunities in places where jobs and housing are more plentiful are finding new chances to spread out and build wealth. But the exodus could transform the fabric of New York, even as Black political power surges. It has alarmed Black leaders, as well as economists who point to labor shortages in industries like nursing where Black workers have traditionally been overrepresented.
The filmmaker Spike Lee, a longtime New York booster, said he worries about the city becoming more expensive and less accessible to people of color in particular, who have contributed so much to the city’s culture, from the birth of hip hop in the South Bronx to artists like Alvin Ailey and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“It’s is really sad because the reality is New York City is not affordable anymore,” Mr. Lee said. And if Black people can’t afford to live in the city, “you could seriously say New York City isn’t the greatest city in the world,” he said.
Eric Adams, New York’s second Black mayor, has vowed to create a more affordable city to stem the “hemorrhaging of Black and brown families.” Mr. Adams’s own bid for mayor was partially built on a biography that reflects the Black community’s roots in the city: His parents traveled north from Alabama during the Great Migration, climbed their way from poverty in Brooklyn to middle-class homeownership in Queens and relied on public schools and colleges to lift their children to greater success.
Younger Black families say that trajectory has become more elusive. High inflation and a turbulent rental market as the pandemic has subsided have hurt New Yorkers across the board. But Black families lag far behind white families in homeownership and in building wealth. Black households have a median income of $53,000, compared with roughly $98,000 for white households, according to the most recent census data.
Ruth Horry, a Black mother who bounced through cockroach- and rodent-infested Brooklyn apartments for years, has repeatedly been priced out by rising rents. Eventually, Ms. Horry, 36, and her three daughters, landed in the shelter system. At a shelter in Queens, the sink was so small Ms. Horry washed her children’s hair in the bathroom at a nearby McDonald’s.
“The conditions for what you could afford were mind-blowing,” she said. “I was just so tired of that.”
In late 2019, Ms. Horry moved to Jersey City through a New York City voucher program, known as the Special One-Time Assistance program, which relocates vulnerable families into permanent housing with a full year’s rent upfront. The drop in living costs has been life-changing, Ms. Horry said, and she is considering moving to the South to save even more.
“I have no food stamps, no welfare, no rental assistance,” said Ms. Horry, who now lives in a two-bedroom apartment and pays the $1,650 monthly rent through her earnings at a nonprofit that helps families in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. “I don’t qualify for those programs, and that is an amazing feeling.”
New York City’s loss of Black residents has been a gain for the South especially. The region’s economy has boomed as newcomers from the city and other urban areas in the North flock there.
Still, Regine Jackson, a professor at Atlanta’s Morehouse College who studies migration patterns, said that as more Black Northerners make what is often a bittersweet decision to leave, it remains unclear whether the South will ultimately provide the greater opportunities they seek.
They may have become disillusioned with life in the North, said Ms. Jackson, but in the South, “there’s still problems.”
“There’s been a lot of progress since the civil rights movement, yet there’s still a lot left to do,” Ms. Jackson said.
As New York’s housing shortage persists and rents stay high, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently pledged to build more than 800,000 new units of housing statewide over the next decade, double what went up in the past 10 years. In his own housing agenda, Mr. Adams has stressed expanding several programs to make homeownership more affordable for families of color.
While the Black homeownership rate — roughly 27 percent in New York — rose slightly during the pandemic, it has far to climb to catch up with other demographic groups. That is partly because of historical disparities, including racial biases that have held back Black homeownership. The national foreclosure crisis hit many middle-class Black families especially hard, and Black households still often face discrimination and the devaluation of their properties.
The departures have transformed neighborhoods across New York. In Southeast Queens enclaves like Jamaica and St. Albans, more Latino and South Asian residents are moving in. Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, two iconic Black neighborhoods, have grown in population even as they experienced steep declines in the number of Black residents.
Harlem, for example, lost more than 5,000 Black people over a decade, while nearly 9,000 white people moved in, according to census data analyzed by The New York Times. Bedford-Stuyvesant lost more than 22,000 Black residents while gaining 30,000 white residents.
Christie Peale, the executive director of the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that promotes affordable homeownership, said more aggressive efforts are needed.
“Our fear is that the city will become whiter and wealthier, and the only opportunities for realizing the upside of a strong market will be for investors, people with high-income jobs,” Ms. Peale said. “It really will be that tale of two cities.”
Citywide, white residents now make up about 31 percent of the population, according to census data, Hispanic residents 28 percent and Asian residents nearly 16 percent. While the white population has stayed about the same, the Asian population grew by 34 percent and Hispanic population grew by 7 percent, according to the data.
The loss of Black families has already had major implications for the education system. Some schools have shrunk, and teachers have had to be moved around to account for drops in enrollment. Overall, the public schools have lost more than 100,000 students in the past five years, a crisis facing other urban districts like Boston and Chicago. In 2005, Black children comprised 35 percent of K-12 students in New York City; they now make up closer to 20 percent.
Just since 2017, about 50,000 Black students have left K-12 district schools, a decline of nearly 22 percent. The drop among white children in the same period was 14 percent, while the overall Latino and Asian student populations declined at lower rates. Some Black students enrolled at charter schools, but many more left the city altogether. About one in four Black children at district schools who left last year moved to the South, Education Department data shows.
School enrollment has also been affected by a steady drop in birthrates, another national trend. Black women accounted for more than 30 percent of citywide births in 2000; their share was below 20 percent in 2019, state data shows.
Some of the Black families that left the city were seeking better educational opportunities for their children.
Michelle Okeke moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Mansfield, Texas, in 2021 to be closer to relatives who could help raise her two children. But she also worried about obtaining a good education for them in what she called New York City’s “insane” and complex system. Selective academic programs and top middle and high schools accept few Black children each year. Stuyvesant High School, the city’s crown jewel, made offers to just 11 Black students for its freshman class of more than 750 this academic year.
“There was always a part of me that was like, ‘How are we going to deal with schools?’” Ms. Okeke, whose children are 2 and 4, said. “It was a looming consideration: Should we move to Jersey? Do we go to another area where there’s more opportunities?”
The administration has sought to increase access to selective pathways like the city’s gifted and talented program. But parents worry that schools serving primarily Black children in a deeply segregated system could face larger losses in future rounds of school budget cuts, and that shrinking resources and cuts to programs may prompt further departures.
The continuing loss of Black New Yorkers may also disrupt the city’s job market. Melva Miller, the president of the nonprofit Association for a Better New York, pointed to labor shortages in industries that have long relied on a disproportionate share of Black employees, like the building trades and civil service.
Some families who have left say there are things they miss about the city, but that the opportunities they have found elsewhere have made the move worth it.
Alisha Brooks, 36, a Bronx native, had always envisioned raising her children in the city, clinging to her identity as a New Yorker. But as a young Black mother, she sometimes felt out of place in her Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, which is predominantly white and higher income.
Her oldest son’s Brooklyn Heights school was largely white. In his final year there, fewer than 5 percent of the students and only a small number of teachers were Black. She noticed him growing increasingly insecure about his natural hair; classmates would sometimes try to touch it.
“He was starting to feel different,” Ms. Brooks said. “He needed to be around more diversity and see more kids who looked like him.”
After a trip to North Carolina in the spring of 2020revealed how much cheaper life could be elsewhere, the Brooks family chose to move to Charlotte, where a growing Black population makes up more than a third of residents. Most of her sons’ new teachers, and more of their classmates, are Black.
Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research. Robert Gebeloff contributed data analysis.