Pearl River I approach so-called “opportunity indexes” with a heavy dose of skepticism, largely because I worry about an urban strategy that dilutes concern for the whole community by carving out islands for special treatment. This has been the bane of community development corporations, focusing on specific neighborhoods or areas, and, despite attracting resources, hardly moving the needle on overall conditions, except where they triggered gentrification.
Nonetheless, in the current housing environment, where escalating and uncapped rents are forcing more and more low-and-moderate income families out of the city, I read with interest a piece by NYU planners Nicholas Kelly and Ingrid Gould Ellen in a recent Poverty & Race newsletter from my old friends at the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). They had developed an interesting dataset with a laser focus on three items that they felt created the best opportunity prospects for families with children. Research from many sources has indicated that the quality of schools makes a huge difference, and Kelly and Ellen added the amount of crime in an area and on poverty, particularly the “positive impacts that low-poverty neighborhoods have on helping low-income children earn more as adults.”
Ok, so that’s how they built their dataset. They only focused on Greater Boston and New York City, partially because they were in the area and the crime statistics were easily available in those cities. Importantly, what caught my eye, was that they used their SVP index and matched their numbers with “data on rental prices, opportunity measures, neighborhood amenities and housing characteristics to locate those areas that scored highly on the SVP index but had rents lower than expected given their levels of opportunity. Controlling for housing characteristics…[they] were able to identify those areas that (a) score above average on the SVP index, (b) have rents below the median rent for the region and (c) have median rents 10% lower than expected, as high opportunity bargains.” Now that’s interesting to me. In New York City and Greater Boston, they found 15% of the neighborhoods were such bargains. Rents were “on average $1000 per month lower in New York City and $700 lower in Greater Boston.” That’s real money and worth packing your bags to giddy-up.
Look, there’s a lot of ways to slice and dice data and a number of folks have come up with different ways to measure all of these things. The SVP folks are clear that they are not using job access for example with the same weight others might use. Theirs is more about what might help lower-income children have more successful outcomes long term. Fair enough. Believe me, there’s no magic bullet.
At the same time, families need information even more than planners, and something like the SVP index and its opportunity measures would be valuable in lots of cities. Although the crime data is an obstacle, Ellen and Kelly were clear that it was surmountable. It would just take more work. Hey, none of this has to be perfect, but just in general, LMI families need to know where the rents are lower and their families and children might make out better even with a commute. Community organizers could make a difference if they had access to this kind of information as well, and that might trigger even larger changes.