07/10/11 — Special series -- City flight: Why are they leaving?

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Special series -- City flight: Why are they leaving?

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 10, 2011 1:50 AM

The 2010 U.S. Census numbers pose an interesting question for area residents, business owners and government officials: Why is Goldsboro's population shrinking while the county has seen an increase in the past decade?

Wayne County's population grew about 8 percent since 2000, from 113,329 to 122,623 by the latest Census data, while Goldsboro's number of residents decreased from 39,147 to 36,437, a difference of about 7 percent.

One possible explanation? The Census numbers aren't accurate, said Realtor Judith McMillen of Prudential The McMillen Realty Group. Ms. McMillen theorized that there was simply a lack of accurate responses from inner-city residents.

"I believe that, especially in the city, many people do not answer government questions," she said. "There are people in public housing that think it's none of the government's business who lives there. There are people that are struggling to make ends meet that never got around to filling out the form."

Beyond refusing or not having time to answer the Census, she said there are residents renting out single-family homes that aren't zoned for rentals, leading landlords to fudge numbers.

"In my neighborhood, there aren't supposed to be rooming houses, yet I know there are houses that have eight to 10 cars in front of them," she said. "I would assume that the people do not have eight to 10 children that they have bought cars for, but that they are, in fact, renting out rooms."

The extensive time required for landlords to adequately answer Census questions might also have paid a part in the final numbers, Ms. McMillen said, adding that rude Census workers might have further complicated the process.

"I got dozens of calls from the census workers because of the number of vacant houses my company has listed," she said. "Some of them were very polite and would ask me if I would please go out and look up if the house was occupied on a certain date and how many people lived in the house, and because I care about Wayne County -- because I understand that a lot of things hinge on our population -- I took the time to do that, each and every time."

But the census workers weren't always so easy to get along with, she said.

"Some of the census workers were less than polite and some of them were downright rude. I would expect some of the landlords may not have taken the time to look it up," she said.

Regardless of how the numbers were reached, however, the Census showed an exodus of city dwellers to the county's more rural areas, which Connie Price, the county planning director, said was largely due to supply and demand of real estate.

He said home-buyers look for family homes in the $100,000-plus range, which aren't as common in the city limits. He said, in most cases, homebuyers were parents looking for houses to raise their families in, dragging most children and a good chunk of the population outside of Goldsboro.

District 4 Councilman the Rev. Charles Williams knows firsthand what the ruralization of Goldsboro's population looks like. His district, which includes the southern portion of the city and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, saw its population drop by almost 2,000. Wilson said some of the decrease was due to a decline of on-base housing in the past decade. There was also increased development in Jackie Warrick's District 6 to the northeast, but Williams said the reason for the decline is elementary. Or secondary.

"Some of it has been the plight of the inner city educational system," he said. "Our schools have become predominately black again and that may have had some impact on relocating. By and large, the Wayne County public education system is of such that businesses are leaving the inner city and going to the county out in the suburban and rural areas.

"The performance level of the African-Americans in the inner city is below average and that may have to do a lot with, I would say, the plight of blacks in general as far as education."

And, beyond race, financial limitations often pile up for those who reside in the city.

"It's people below poverty level who are buying those houses (in the city). Parents are not able to give them support because they themselves are insecure," he said. "They're unable to help (their children) to excel."

Williams said trends in the real estate business are also to blame, as low-income housing developments and public housing dominate the municipal areas.

"It seems like instead of changing the makeup of the inner city, they're contributing to it," he said. "Even those who are builders or in real estate are bringing all this stuff into the inner city."

But Ms. McMillen said the cause-effect relationship between property prices and student performance is cyclical.

"The school district affects property prices," she said. "People in the city are in a different position than people in the county. They don't have the kind of turnover in the county like they do in the city. It is my opinion that the taxes have nothing to do with the fact that most people tell me they want to buy houses in the county rather than in the city. It is the school district."

Ms. McMillen, who lives in the historic district but has also lived in Walnut Creek and Fallingbrook, said that, with extra gasoline for commuting factored in, living in the city and paying city taxes actually saved her money versus living along the outskirts of town.

"Because of the price of gasoline, any savings on taxes (were) eaten up with driving back and forth," she said, noting she once made six round trips to and from the city in a day. "I was paying way more for gas than what I was saving in taxes. I just wanted my child to go to Eastern Wayne High School."

Now she says her 15-year-old-daughter goes to private school and that although inner-city schools are working to improve their image, none of her friends who live in the city send their children to public school that she knows of.

"They're making progress at (Goldsboro High School) and I applaud that, but until they get it fixed, they're going to continue to have people choosing the county over the city," she said.

Ms. McMillen said the cost of living and education in Wayne County have now formed a culture whereby parents concerned about their children's education are left with no choice but to move to the county.

"It has deteriorated to the point that people with children cannot afford to buy a house in the city and pay private school tuition," she said. "The average person cannot afford to send three or four children to private schools. You couldn't afford to buy a house if you were sending children to private schools, so it's an economic consideration based on the fact that the schools are the way they are."

Ms. McMillen said a single mom recently bought a house in the historic district to remodel, but that had the Wayne School of Engineering not opened up, she would not have been able to do it.

She said that the answer to revitalizing Goldsboro, increasing its population and growing its tax base is to fix the schools, either through redistricting, magnet programs or by holding each Board of Education member accountable for every district, not just his or her own.

"Then prices would come up to match the prices in the county," she said, suggesting that quality schools would lead property taxes to rise in the city.

She said this growth in the tax base would benefit all citizens.

"People would start buying houses, and we wouldn't need to raise taxes," she said.

Williams had a similar plan, aiming to invest more in job training and other inner city programs to "change the mindset" of those impoverished and without means to improve their lot.

"We need to get the education up to a higher standard so they can contribute to the tax base," he said, adding that outside of that, there's no other way to bring more people to the city, since involuntary annexation will be fought so long as the condition of the city remains static.

"Everybody should be in favor of making the county seat, the city of Goldsboro, ideal for people to live work and play in," he said, noting that county residents use city facilities without paying taxes. "They don't want to be annexed and don't want to be identified with the plight of the inner city. The only way they'll want to be annexed is if the educational system changes."