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Census Note 02:02

(November 2002)

Security versus Status:

The Two Worlds of Gated Communities

Thomas W. Sanchez
Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech

Robert E. Lang
Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech


The term “gated communities” for most people conjures up images of exclusive developments
with fancy homes and equally fancy lifestyles. At the gates stand guards who screen all non-
residents or the uninvited. Much of the popular and academic literature on gated communities
promotes this view (Garreau 1991, Blakely and Snyder 1997, Lang and Danielsen 1997, Stark
1998). These authors also focus on how some gated communities closely control the lives of
residents, including such extreme examples as limiting the number of guests allowed to parties,
or the types of vehicles that one can park in a driveway.

Gated communities also make an easy target for social critics who can point to their walls as the
physical manifestation of a longstanding exclusionary impulse among rich people to shut out the
less fortunate (including a big chunk of the middle class) (Guterson 1992, 1993). Such criticism
extends to popular culture, including an X-Files episode several years ago where a monster eats
those who fail to follow the homeowners’ association rules, or a recent Twilight Zone episode
where unruly teenagers are turned into fertilizer.

Yet the common perception of gated communities as privileged enclaves turns out to be only
partly correct based on our analysis of the first ever census survey of these places. We instead
find two very different worlds of gated communities. There are gated communities comprised of
mostly white homeowners with high incomes that have a secure main entry —the kind of classic
gated community in the public mind. But there are also gated communities that are inhabited by
minority renters with moderate incomes. We believe that these two worlds reflect a divide
between gated communities one based on status versus one versus one motivated by concern for

The census classifies two types of gated communities: those that are simply walled, and places
that are walled with access controlled. The census thus provides data on gated communities that
have defensible space (those with walls) and defended space (walls with access controlled entry).
The difference is critical in terms of the demographic composition and regional distribution of
gated communities.

Using data from the American Housing Survey (AHS), this census note looks at who lives in
gated communities and where these places are located. We find that:

• The major divide in the types of gated communities is based on housing tenure: owners
live in upscale and mostly white gated communities, while renters occupy more diverse
and less affluent places.

• Gated communities are more common in the new metropolitan areas of the Sunbelt, such
as Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles.

• Affluent African American homeowners are less likely to live in gated communities than
their white and Hispanic peers. This finding is true even in metropolitan areas with large
middle class African American populations such as Washington and Atlanta.


The 2001 American Housing Survey added 40 new questions ranging from types of home
financing, country of origin for household members, and community attributes of the residential
location. For the first time, the national sample included questions that help to distinguish gated
communities and their residents, two of which are:

“Is your community surrounded by walls or fences preventing access by persons other than

“Does access to your community require a special entry system such as entry codes, key cards, or
security guard approval?”

Using responses from these two questions, we examined the characteristics of households that
live in “walled” or “access controlled” communities. The following summarizes the results of
the 2001 AHS national sample, focusing on regional and metropolitan differences, tenure status,
race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and household composition relative to walled and access
controlled communities. All of the variables analyzed were from the 2001 AHS.

We realize that the two concerns are not mutually exclusive. Upscale gated communities typically sell security,
but the walls are often more a marketing tool to signify high status (Blakely and Snyder 1997, Lang and Danielsen
1997). Downscale gated communities offer security as a more pragmatic response to high crime in comparable non-
gated neighborhoods (Blakely and Snyder 1997).


Regional and Metropolitan Distribution

Of the 119,116,517 housing units represented by the AHS, 106,406,951 were occupied year
round with 7,058,427 (5.9 percent) households reporting that they lived in communities
surrounded by walls or fences, and 4,013,665 (3.4 percent) households reporting that access to
their communities was controlled by some means. Only respondents who said they lived in a
walled or fenced community answered the survey question about controlled access – which
means that nearly 60 percent of the walled or gated communities also had controlled entries. The
percentages of walled or controlled access communities vary by region of the country with
households in the West having a higher likelihood of living in walled communities (11.1
percent), followed by the South (6.8 percent), the Northeast (3.1 percent), and the Midwest (2.1
percent). The regional concentration of walled and gated households is also reflected at the
metropolitan scale with Houston (south), Los Angeles (west), and Dallas (south) having over 1
million walled residential units (see Table 1).

Table 1
% Access
Top 10 Metropolitan Regions* % Walled Controlled
Atlanta 7.4% 5.5%
Boston 3.5% 0.6%
Chicago 5.3% 1.3%
Dallas 17.8% 13.4%
Detroit 2.3% 1.2%
Houston 26.7% 21.9%
Los Angeles 18.2% 11.7%
New York 5.2% 1.7%
Philadelphia 2.0% 0.8%
Washington, DC 4.3% 2.6%
* alphabetic listing based on 2000 population

Owner vs. Renter Household Characteristics

Contrary to the notion that primarily affluent homeowners live in gated communities, the results
of the AHS survey show that renters are nearly 2.5 times more likely to live in walled or fenced
communities and over 3 times as likely to have controlled entries. These renters include
households in public housing projects which often have walled and gated design elements. The
survey data also shows that owners and renters have significantly different demographic profiles
with owners more likely on average of being white compared to renters (86.4 percent compared
to 67.1 percent), with higher incomes ($73,548 compared to $35,831), older heads of households
(52 years old compared to 42 years old), and having slightly larger households (2.7 persons
compared to 2.3 persons).

Tables 2, 3, and 4 provide a comparison of household characteristics relative to tenure status.

Table 2
% % Access % % % Mean Mean Mean
All Households Walled Controlled White Black Hispanic Age* HH Income HH Size
All 5.9% 3.4% 80.3% 12.5% 8.2% 48.76 61,481 2.55
Walled/fenced 100.0% 56.7% 70.6% 14.6% 15.7% 47.00 60,562 2.29
Not walled/fenced 0.0% 0.0% 81.0% 12.3% 8.8% 48.89 61,566 2.57
Access controlled 99.7% 100.0% 70.8% 14.8% 13.8% 45.70 66,343 2.12
Access not controlled 98.6% 0.0% 70.3% 14.4% 18.0% 48.60 52,749 2.52

Table 3
% % Access % % % Mean Mean Mean
Owners Walled Controlled White Black Hispanic Age* HH Income HH Size
All 4.3% 2.1% 86.4% 8.7% 6.5% 52.14 73,548 2.66
Walled/fenced 100.0% 49.2% 84.4% 6.3% 10.6% 54.52 86,731 2.41
Not walled/fenced 0.0% 0.0% 86.6% 8.8% 6.4% 52.04 72,998 2.67
Access controlled 100.0% 100.0% 87.2% 4.0% 7.1% 54.95 105,467 2.22
Access not controlled 98.9% 0.0% 82.0% 8.4% 13.9% 54.13 68,773 2.59

Table 4
% % Access % % % Mean Mean Mean
Renters Walled Controlled White Black Hispanic Age* HH Income HH Size
All 11.6% 7.3% 67.1% 20.5% 14.9% 41.58 35,831 2.33
Walled/fenced 100.0% 62.6% 59.7% 21.3% 19.7% 41.01 39,758 2.20
Not walled/fenced 0.0% 0.0% 68.1% 20.4% 14.3% 41.65 35,333 2.35
Access controlled 99.6% 100.0% 60.6% 21.6% 17.9% 39.94 42,003 2.05
Access not controlled 98.4% 0.0% 57.8% 20.8% 22.4% 42.66 35,527 2.44
* mean age of household head

Table 5 shows these household characteristics across the income groups (quartiles), which
indicates that higher income households are actually less likely to live in walled or gated
communities compared to lower income households. Higher income households are also
predominantly white, younger, and have more persons than the lower income groups.

Table 5
% % Access % % % % Mean Mean
Income Quartile Walled Controlled Owner White Black Hispanic Age* HH Size
1. < $20,000 7.5% 4.1% 51.0% 73.0% 19.4% 10.7% 55.05 1.93
2. $20,000 - $40,000 7.1% 4.1% 60.0% 78.4% 14.1% 11.2% 47.93 2.39
3. $40,001 - $71,768 5.8% 3.1% 73.6% 83.4% 9.5% 9.1% 45.18 2.81
4. > $71,768 6.1% 3.8% 88.3% 86.6% 6.7% 5.8% 46.50 3.12
* mean age of household head

Community Types

Examining community types across the dimensions of race, ethnicity, and tenure status shows
that Hispanics, whether homeowners or renters, are more likely to live in walled or controlled
entry communities than Whites or Blacks. In contrast, Black homeowners are the least likely
group to live in either type of community with the rates for Black renters falling between those
of White and Hispanic households (see Table 6).

Table 6
% Fenced or walled communities % Controlled entry communities
White Black Hispanic* White Black Hispanic*
Owner 4.2% 3.1% 7.0% Owner 2.1% 1.0% 2.3%
Renter 10.3% 12.0% 15.2% Renter 6.6% 7.6% 8.7%
* includes heads of households reporting race/ethnicity as White-Hispanic and Black-Hispanic

The question arises about why there are smaller proportions of Blacks living in walled or
controlled access communities. Is it a function of the housing market not providing adequate
choice for this segment of the population (affluent Blacks) or simply an aversion to walled or
gated communities? To test this, a subsample that included only responses from the Atlanta,
Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit, Memphis, and Washington, DC metropolitan areas was
analyzed. While Blacks comprise 12.5 percent of the nation’s households, in these metropolitan
areas they represent nearly 30 percent. It would seem that affluent Blacks would have a greater
opportunity to choose walled or gated communities in those metros where they make up a
significant proportion of their respective populations. The survey results indicate, however, that
Black homeowners in the six selected metros are actually less likely to live in walled or gated
communities compared to national averages. Only 1.6 percent of Black homeowners lived in
walled or fenced communities, with only 0.3 percent living in communities with controlled
entries. On the other hand, 11.8 percent of Black renters lived in walled or fenced communities
and 8.4 percent lived in communities with controlled entries in these metros – virtually the same
rates as for all renters across the U.S.

Because this is the first year that these questions have been included on the AHS, there is no way
to determine whether the increasing popularity of walled and gated communities is trending
toward a more racially integrated mix of residents. The 2001 AHS provides the first national
glimpse at these patterns and subsequent national and metropolitan surveys will be useful for
detecting these trends.

Analysis and Conclusion

With so many low-income, renters living in gated communities, it appears that the desire for
security may be more of a residential priority for them compared to affluent homeowners. This
can be broken down by race and ethnicity as well. If this is true, what does it say about the
quality of neighborhoods and the condition of social environments for these households? While
the affluent may be using physical barriers around their communities as status symbols,

households on the other end of the economic spectrum are using them out of fear and the need
for protection.

But do walls and gates actually provide low-income households with protection or just a form of
status; in other words, do they merely provide an image or perception of a desired condition?
Further research could explore whether walls or gates are associated with higher levels of
neighborhood satisfaction. Similarly, levels of neighborhood satisfaction and quality of life
could be reflected in higher property values (or rents) – which can also be seen as a tax for safety
and security.


Thomas W. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech
and a Fellow of the Metropolitan institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Virginia. Robert E.
Lang is the Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and an Associate Professor in
Urban Affairs in Planning.

The authors thank Jennifer LeFurgy, Arthur C. Nelson, Pat Simmons, and Diane Zahm for their
useful comments.


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