In America, we generally suppress discussions about inequity. We don't want to believe it exists, but it's always bubbling beneath the surface. Then a volcano erupts, seemingly out of nowhere to those who aren't paying attention, and we wonder why. In the wake of the latest eruption in Ferguson, racism and upward mobility have been more closely analyzed as factors in recent media coverage. Those factors should lead to a more holistic analysis of housing; that is, housing as a place, not just a product.
Five years ago, the Great Recession and the bailouts precipitated the 99% vs. 1% demonstrations. Due to these demonstrations and the widely felt economic pain, people started paying more attention to the huge income disparities in this country, not only in terms of current wealth, but more importantly in terms of unequal wealth growth over the last 30 years. Here's a powerful illustration.
To date, our national political leaders have proposed narrow, high-impact policies, such as tax credits for low-income households and an increase in the minimum wage. These are targeted measures that put money in people's pockets and make a significant economic impact. These policies address income inequality in the short-term, but they do not adequately address how we got here- the lack of income mobility. For example, do wage-based tax breaks or wage minimums help you climb to the next rung of economic success?
With Ferguson, questions about race and disparity between neighborhoods have invited a more expansive and constructive discussion. What does where you live have to do with income mobility? As it turns out, it has a lot to do with it. Neighborhoods provide residents with varying levels of access- to quality schools, jobs, recreation, clean air, healthy foods, and to the rest of the city with affordable transportation. Maybe most importantly, neighborhoods have social networks. If those networks include connections to people actively involved in politics, education or business, the residents will generally be much better off. The quality of these neighborhood social networks have an even greater impact on access for residents of low-income neighborhoods with poor public transportation.
We need to look at housing as an access point to opportunity, not just as a commodity. For example, we should be looking at more than housing affordability to gauge the affordability of living in a particular location. A study by the New York Citizens Budget Commission has been making the rounds lately, showing that New York City is actually one of the more affordable cities to live in even though it has one of the most expensive housing markets (summary from The Huffington Post). That's because transportation costs were figured into the equation, and NYC has the best public transportation system in the nation.
Within this framework of neighborhood access and assets, our nation's housing policies can make a big difference, and HUD has actually been leading the way in changing the approach from a federal level. The Obama Administration has been pushing an approach that focuses on place rather than solely focusing on programs. The Administration is really big on what is known as "place-based community and economic development", and it is advocated by think tanks such as Policy Link.
The idea is that sustainable, positive community change is only possible when we invest in local institutions in a strategic and coordinated way- schools, community colleges, libraries, community development corporations, etc. These institutions are usually run by community members, and therefore they know what the community needs and can draw on their social networks to meet those needs. This opens mentoring opportunities and career paths to residents. The White House Office of Urban Affairs found that "sustained exposure to disadvantaged neighborhoods is associated with a 60-80% decrease in the odds of high school graduation (see White House link below)." In addition, place-based investments have a better chance for sustained success than programs instituted from outside entities. This is because investments are placed in people and institutions that stay in the community and grow in capacity.
HUD and other federal agencies have made some important first steps to implement place-based strategies. Agencies such as DOT and HUD are actually coordinating research and planning to offer their resources to communities, which really hasn't happened in the past. Still, we have a long way to go, as Ferguson demonstrates. Since place-based strategies apply the philosophy of bringing more control and decision-making to the local level, I would hope that there is enough common ground to be found between the Left and the Right to advance it after Obama leaves office, but that will be challenging given today's polarized political environment. Success will only come with a sustained commitment at the federal, state, regional and local levels.
Here are some links where you can find out more about HUD and other federal efforts to implement place-based development.
White House's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative
Summary of HUD's Choice Neighborhoods Initiative
HUD Promise Zones
Summary of the HUD/DOT Location Affordability Portal
HUD Location Affordability Portal