Shannon Nickinson: The tough nut of Pensacola’s renewal

Can we tell your future from your ZIP code?

To hear Rick Harper tell it, those five numbers may be the closest thing to a crystal ball that we are likely to get for the moment.

Harper, the University of West Florida’s assistant vice president for Economic Development and senior fellow of the Studer Community Institute, has spoken on several occasions about the effect of research that shows the limitations of social mobility in the Pensacola metro area.

The New York Times recently used an interactive map that ranked America’s counties in terms of economic prospects. Escambia did not fare well.

As part of the affordable-housing summit hosted by Habitat for Humanity this week, Harper did a deep-dive into the past two years of home sales. They show that homes $275,000 and up are clustered exactly where you think they would be: Cordova Park, East Hill and the neighborhoods around Bayou Texar.

The homes that sold for less than $50,000 also were clustered exactly where you think they would be: generally west of Interstate 110, predominantly in the older neighborhoods of Pensacola.

Those are the communities that were vital during the years after World War II, but faded as suburbanization and subdivisions became the way that communities grew and builders built.

Those communities saw decline as the working-class, defense-related and manufacturing jobs declined in Pensacola over the decades.

Now they’re communities we must find a way to rebuild if Pensacola is to prosper beyond the core of downtown.

“People of similar income levels are more clustered than even before,” Harper said. “People are becoming more segregated, especially by economic status.”

McKinsey and Co. note four things as key to making housing affordable:

  • The supply of land;
  • Reduced construction costs;
  • Improved operations and maintenance costs; and
  • Lowered financing costs for buyers.

Harper says there is land aplenty to build on in our metro area. Particularly if we consider allowing increased density, allowing apartments and homes that are zoned the way the Aragon neighborhood is.

Architect Carter Quina said that will mean in some cases importing expertise from cities where fashionable apartments and townhome-style developments are more common. It also will mean embracing “new urbanism,” a movement to stress city planning and construction designs that encourage people to live in walkable neighborhoods and eschew using cars for everything.

The real nut we must crack, though, lies in the 32505 ZIP code.

That ZIP code is a mix of pockets of wealth (Marcus Pointe) and intergenerational poverty (Mayfair). It is home to “widows and widowers … who have not moved to Pace as their younger counterparts have,” Harper said.

Harper believes the problem of affordable housing can be solved on the income side of the equation. And the key is educational attainment.

One of Harper’s key graphics shows that the higher the percentage of the population that has a bachelor’s degree or higher in an area, the higher the wage level.

In seven key Census tracts in the 32505 ZIP code, only about 10 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median income ranges from $19,682 to about $36,693.

“I would offer an almost heretical statement,” Harper said. “It’s not that the Santa Rosa teachers are any better than the hard-working teachers in Escambia County. “It’s that the people who can afford to leave these (areas) do. And the ones who can’t, don’t.”

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of, a news and commentary website in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter Column courtesy of Context Florida.       

Shannon Nickinson


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