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Posts By Margery Turner
Margery Austin Turner is Vice President for Research at the Urban Institute, where she leads efforts to frame and conduct a forward-looking agenda of policy research. A nationally recognized expert on urban policy and neighborhood issues, Ms. Turner has analyzed issues of residential location, racial and ethnic discrimination and its contribution to neighborhood segregation and inequality, and the role of housing policies in promoting residential mobility and location choice. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 through 1996, and is co-author of Public Housing and the Legacy of Segregation.Links: http://www.urban.org/books/publichousing/http://www.urban.org/MargeryAustinTurner
| Posted: November 3rd, 2011
Where we live – and where our children grow up – matters. Plenty of research confirms this common-sense conclusion. Young children, teens, and adults who live in severely distressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods suffer in terms of health, safety, schooling, and employment.
The Moving to Opportunity demonstration (MTO) was launched in the early 1990s to find out what would happen if low-income families with kids could escape from distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods and move into healthy, low-poverty communities. MTO was inspired by an earlier experiment (the Gautreaux program) in which poor black families in Chicago moved to predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods. Findings from the Gautreaux experiment suggested that moving to an opportunity-rich neighborhood might lead to better educations for kids and better jobs for their parents.
New evaluation results show that – ten to fifteen years after their initial moves – MTO families do enjoy better health (compared to a control group), but not higher earnings or better test scores. Why not? One likely explanation is that MTO’s special mobility assistance didn’t enable families to gain and sustain access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Although many moved to better housing in safer neighborhoods, few moved to neighborhoods served by high-performing public schools. And few spent more than a year or two in low-poverty neighborhoods. Rising rents, problems with landlords, and difficulty finding the next apartment all pushed families back to less desirable neighborhoods.
In other words, they didn’t really move to opportunity. It turns out that helping low-income families find, afford, and hang on to housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods requires more help than anticipated. Building on the lessons of MTO, mobility assistance programs in Dallas, Chicago, and Baltimore are now offering more hands-on help (with both the first move and subsequent moves) so families they serve can move to and stay in safe neighborhoods with good schools and abundant opportunities for both kids and adults.
It would be a mistake to conclude from the latest MTO findings that neighborhoods aren’t a factor in employment or school success. But researchers need to dig deeper to figure out whether the MTO families who spent more time in better neighborhoods enjoyed better outcomes so policymakers have the facts they need to design the next generation of housing assistance programs.
Filed under: Built Environment, Economy, Health Care, People Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 24th, 2011
Obesity and diabetes threaten more and more Americans, especially those who can’t afford good medical care. And as Sue Popkin has noted, residents of distressed public housing projects suffer at unusually high rates. The anxiety and stress of living amid crime and violence, lack of nearby grocery stores selling healthy, affordable foods, and the absence of safe places to exercise all undermine people’s health.
Now comes compelling new evidence that moving away from severely distressed neighborhoods can boost health. Last week, a New England Journal of Medicine study reported on the decade-long Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment, which offered poor families the chance to leave distressed public housing projects and move into low-poverty neighborhoods. Families who volunteered were randomly assigned to “treatment” and “control” groups and their well-being was monitored over many years. So the case that living in a distressed neighborhood is bad for your health is particularly strong.
Unfortunately, just telling poor people that – along with eating right and getting more exercise – moving to better neighborhoods would make them healthier isn’t enough. Most low-income families are already struggling to afford today’s high rents, and moderately-priced housing is scarce in healthy neighborhoods.
How can public policies respond? Here are three recommendations:
- The federal housing voucher program should help participants find neighborhoods where crime and violence are low and where healthy foods and exercise opportunities are abundant. It should discourage them from using precious housing subsidies in dangerous, unhealthy neighborhoods.
- Cities should give priority to community development investments that make low-income neighborhoods healthier. That means targeting violent crime, providing affordable sources of healthy food, and operating fun, safe parks and recreation programs.
- The scarce public subsidies available for rental housing construction should go toward expanding affordable housing options in healthy neighborhoods, not further concentrating poor families in neighborhoods that are making them sick.
Obesity and diabetes don’t just degrade people’s quality of life. They make it harder to get and keep a job. And they cost a lot to treat. Investing in prevention, research shows, can yield big savings over time. Now that we know how much where you live matters, we should craft our housing and community development policies to help rather than hurt.
Filed under: Built Environment, Health Care, Urban Culture Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 13th, 2011
New Census data reveal that almost half of America’s children today are black, Latino, or Asian – very different from the predominantly white population 50 and older.
America’s Children Much More Diverse than Older Generations
Source: 2010 Census data, adapted from William H. Frey
These kids are our future. We need them to grow up healthy, smart, and civically engaged so they can fuel our economy, support us in our old age, buy our homes, and govern our country. But we’re not paying enough attention to the challenges facing minority kids – challenges that undermine their life-chances and our collective future.
Poverty rates are climbing for all kids, but they’re especially high for minority children. As the latest numbers show, almost two of every five black children and more than a third of Latino kids are poor, compared to 12 percent of white kids. The evidence is undeniable that persistent poverty during childhood reduces employment and earnings in adulthood. And my colleague, Harry Holzer, estimates that a 1-percentage point increase in child poverty might cost the economy $28 billion a year in the future.
Black and Latino kids are also much more likely than whites to live in poor neighborhoods, where crime rates are high. A growing body of research shows that children exposed to violence and other severe stresses suffer long-lasting physiological damage that impairs healthy emotional and intellectual development.
Minority children suffer poorer health than their white peers and are less likely to get good medical care. And many public schools aren’t serving minority children well. In school districts across the country, the gaps between white and minority test scores, graduation rates, and college access remain stubbornly high.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated forecasting model to know that today’s kids will be tomorrow’s workers, business owners, and civic leaders. Why aren’t policymakers and political leaders talking about the risks confronting minority children today and the investments in employment, education, health, and neighborhoods that could improve their long-term prospects and our country’s future prosperity?
Filed under: Government, People 1 Comment »
| Posted: September 29th, 2011
As recently as the early 1990s, America’s big cities were widely perceived as trapped in a downward spiral of fiscal, economic, and social distress. I remember attending a conference in 1993 or 1994 during which then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros enthusiastically declared that “the cities are coming back!” He received polite, but very skeptical, applause. But by the early 2000s, many cities—including the long-suffering District of Columbia—had indeed experienced a remarkable comeback.
Last week, I was lucky to listen in on a conversation between Cisneros and Tony Williams, former mayor of the District of Columbia, about the state of U.S. cities. Both are optimistic about the future and see the current economic downturn as a temporary bump in the road.
The recent reversal in big-city fortunes reflects long-term changes in the economy. Cities suffered mightily from deindustrialization—the painful transition from a mostly manufacturing economy to one dominated by information and services. Now they’re finding new roles in their region’s economy, as hubs for education, finance, medicine, innovation, arts, and culture. And they’re attracting the kinds of people whose numbers are expanding rapidly: young singles and couples who value diversity, dynamism, and nightlife; empty nesters looking for shorter commutes and smaller yards; and immigrant families seeking economic opportunities.
Better governance helps, too. Cities don’t thrive unless citizens and businesses have confidence in the government’s ability to deliver basic services, like license renewals, inspections, and garbage collection. And effective mayors listen to their constituents, explaining both their long-term vision and their near-term decisions, responding to legitimate fears and criticism, and monitoring progress.
Looking to the future, both Cisneros and Williams see public education as a major cause for concern. Despite some recent progress, many big city school systems still fail to deliver a decent education. Families with choices about where to live won’t stay in communities with lousy public schools. But more important, today’s children will become tomorrow’s workforce, and the economic vitality of the nation depends on their productivity and inventiveness.
Filed under: Urban Culture, Washington DC Add a Comment »
| Posted: September 2nd, 2011
I spent last weekend enjoying the food and music of New Orleans. Ironically, while my hometown metro of DC battened down for Hurricane Irene, New Orleans marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Immediately after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the levees, many argued that the region's rebuilding should address the poverty, inequality, and distress that the storm and chaotic evacuation so vividly exposed. Consolidating our own research and experience, Urban Institute analysts offered a package of suggestions for rebuilding New Orleans’ social infrastructure. We concluded:
Hurricane Katrina vividly exposed the exclusion, isolation, and distress of low-income African Americans, many of whom have called New Orleans home for generations. Unfortunately, it would be all too easy for these residents to be excluded and isolated again as the city rebuilds. But New Orleans' future could be more just and equitable.... Billions of dollars are pouring into the city's reconstruction. If these resources are used strategically -- rebuilding the social infrastructure along with the physical infrastructure —New Orleans can be reborn as a city of openness and opportunity for all its residents.
Many New Orleans residents (old and new) shared this aspiration and have worked hard over the last six years to realize it. Although my NOLA visit was for pleasure, not work, I couldn't help but ask how it’s going.
The latest data, assembled by the Greater New Orleans Data Center, show encouraging gains in economic opportunity, civic activism, and the quality of public services, especially schools. And casual visitors can easily spend a weekend in New Orleans without seeing a trace of Katrina's devastation.
But severe inequality, poverty, and distress persist. Although incomes among whites in the New Orleans metro area now exceed the average for whites nationally, the opposite is true for the region's blacks and Hispanics. Rising rents have intensified hardship among low—and moderate—income families. And in neighborhoods only a short drive from the French Quarter, boarded windows, collapsing structures, and vacant lots still outnumber homes restored and reoccupied.
The same frustration with the stubborn persistence of poverty and racial inequality echoes through recent essays —by Cornel West and Eugene Robinson, for example—on Martin Luther King’s legacy. (Hurricane Irene postponed the dedication of the new MLK memorial on the national mall). Despite huge gains in civil rights, the fundamental injustices of joblessness, poverty, and segregation that King fought still blight our communities and dim the possibilities for our future.
Filed under: Economy Add a Comment »
| Posted: August 26th, 2011
Earlier this month, new research on racial and ethnic segregation (by John Logan of Brown University) received a brief flurry of press coverage. Using the latest Census data, Logan shows that blacks and Hispanics live in much poorer neighborhoods than whites with comparable incomes. In fact, middle- and upper-income black and Hispanic families (with incomes over $75,000) typically live in poorer neighborhoods than do low-income white families. So even if their parents earn middle-class incomes, black and Hispanic kids grow up in communities with weaker schools, fewer parks and recreation facilities, higher crime, and more limited after-school enrichment opportunities than their white peers enjoy. Because neighborhoods matter in the lives of kids and families, these disparities pass on inequality in education, employment, income, and wealth to the next generation.
At a time when the federal deficit, a wildly fluctuating stock market, and the threat of a double-dip recession dominate the national policy debate, some might argue that we can’t afford to tackle neighborhood segregation or the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities. I disagree.
The US is fast becoming a majority-minority nation in a competitive global economy. Today’s black and brown children will grow up to be the workers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and homebuyers upon whom our nation’s prosperity depends. Barriers that limit these kids’ opportunities and sustain gaps in education, earnings, and wealth accumulation will ultimately hurt us all. So in my view, the persistence of racial and ethnic segregation – and the accompanying disparities in neighborhood quality – pose just as serious a threat to our country’s future as the federal deficit.
What can we do about it? The solutions aren’t especially complex or even costly, but they do require some courage. Over the next decade, we could make real headway with this four-part strategy:
- Vigorously enforce laws that prohibit housing discrimination so nobody is blocked from neighborhoods of their choice.
- Help both white and minority home-seekers find homes in mixed neighborhoods – neighborhoods that may be unfamiliar to them.
- Expand affordable housing options in opportunity-rich neighborhoods where the schools, parks, and services are all top-notch.
- Improve the schools, safety, and neighborhood services in mixed and minority neighborhoods so they offer opportunities comparable to white neighborhoods.
Many Americans of all races, ethnicities, and incomes want more diverse neighborhoods. And we all need the economic vitality that can spring from more equal opportunity. Separate and unequal neighborhoods hurt all of us and dim our shared future.
Filed under: Built Environment, Economy 1 Comment »
| Posted: July 22nd, 2011
The federal tax code allows homeowners to write off mortgage interest payments from their income before calculating their tax bill. Although it’s old news for tax- and housing-policy wonks that homeowners are getting federal subsidy payments, it may surprise others who assume that the federal government’s housing assistance goes mostly to low-income renters.
The mortgage interest deduction adds up to a lot of money – an estimated $131 billion in 2012. That dwarfs total spending by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (under $50 billion). The biggest tax benefits go to high-income homeowners who’ve taken out big mortgages for expensive homes. Recent results from the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Model show that means affluent white families living in the suburbs, not the low- or moderate-income people who are struggling to buy homes or make ends meet or the central city neighborhoods that need reinvestment.
Distribution of Benefits from the Mortgage Interest Deduction
For decades, low-income housing experts and advocates have argued that the mortgage deduction should be scaled back or restructured and that the extra tax revenues should go to housing programs that help poor people. There’s ample evidence of enormous need. But the mortgage interest deduction has been too popular among affluent homeowners and the real estate industry to touch.
Now, however, the federal debt crisis may intensify pressures for increased revenue so much that even the mortgage interest deduction gets serious consideration. Next week, tax policy experts, housing advocates, and real estate industry reps meet at the Urban Institute to debate the deduction’s future.
What should that future look like? Should we just eliminate the mortgage interest deduction to raise more revenue and simplify the tax code? Some may argue that the tax code should be purged of social policy incentives, but I think that’s unrealistic. Instead, if we’ve finally got a real reform opportunity, let’s redirect at least some of the tax savings from the mortgage interest deduction to help families and neighborhoods with serious housing needs, rather than the richest homeowners in the affluent suburbs.
Filed under: Built Environment 4 Comments »
| Posted: July 6th, 2011
People interested in patterns of neighborhood segregation in a multi-ethnic nation like ours typically look at the composition of the average white person's neighborhood and at changes in its make-up over time. In a recent blog and a longer commentary, I’ve explored the latest data on these questions for metro areas nationwide.
But what about the composition of the average Black person's neighborhood? Across all US metro areas, the average African American lives in a neighborhood where almost half his neighbors (48 percent) are Black, even though the US population is only 12 percent Black. Over the past three decades, the neighborhoods where Blacks live have become more diverse. That’s mostly because the share of Hispanic neighbors has increased. In only 30 of the top 100 metros nationwide has the share of non-Hispanic whites living in the average black person’s neighborhood grown significantly.
Historically, African Americans have been excluded from neighborhoods with high quality housing, schools, and amenities and predominantly Black neighborhoods have been deprived of essential public services and private investments. Today, even middle-class Black neighborhoods have lower house price appreciation, fewer neighborhood amenities, lower performing schools, and higher crime than white neighborhoods with comparable income levels.
Bottom line: Although metropolitan America’s neighborhoods are increasingly diverse, most of the change stems from growth in Hispanic population, not meaningful reductions in Black-White segregation. Is that progress?
Filed under: Built Environment, Urban Culture Add a Comment »
| Posted: June 13th, 2011
Back in the early 1990s, most people who said they were interested in “urban policy” were talking about a pretty narrow cluster of problems – big city fiscal woes, concentrated poverty, crime-ravaged neighborhoods, distressed public housing. That thinking led them to an equally narrow array of public policy responses – Community Development Block Grants, subsidized housing development, community policing. Today, “urban policy” covers far more territory – both geographically and topically.
Urban policy isn’t just about central cities anymore. The city and suburban jurisdictions that make up metro areas are so interconnected that it doesn’t make sense to focus attention exclusively on core cities. Here in the Washington region, for example, parts of suburban Montgomery and Fairfax Counties are just as densely developed – and just as diverse – as DC neighborhoods. There are many more jobs outside the District of Columbia than inside, and people stream from city to suburbs and back again for work, commerce, culture, and recreation. Over the past couple of decades, DC has gone from a declining community that was losing its population, jobs, and tax base to the vibrant heart of a prosperous region. And the neighborhood poverty and disinvestment that once seemed synonymous with the inner city now plague some suburbs too.
Once you start thinking broadly about what urban means today, what kinds of urban policy matter? In my view, the range is broad. We still need the bricks-and-mortar policies that build or rehab affordable housing and community facilities, as well as programs that target services to troubled neighborhoods. But without good schools, safe streets, decent jobs, accessible health care, nutritious food, fair credit, and a reliable safety-net, metropolitan communities can’t offer the opportunities their residents need to thrive. So our definition of urban policy needs to stretch.
That’s why the MetroTrends blog – which I hope you’ve found useful – covers such wide-ranging subjects, from child care to racial segregation, homelessness to public pension reforms, foreclosures to municipal budgets, food deserts to income tax refunds.
What challenges face the urban communities where you live, work, and play? And what policies would you like MetroTrends bloggers to tackle?
Filed under: Urban Culture, Washington DC 3 Comments »
| Posted: June 3rd, 2011
Earlier this week, we got the bad news that house prices are still falling. The Case-Schiller index shows prices down to their lowest levels since the start of the recession. Often, national stories like this mask big differences between metro areas.
That’s why MetroTrends gives you newly released values (and charts) for the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s quarterly House Price Index in each of the 100 biggest metro areas. In every one of these metros, prices were lower in the first quarter of this year than they were a year earlier. But some metros are on a much steeper slide than others.
Metros With Biggest and Smallest Drops in House Prices Since First Quarter of 2010
The five metros suffering the biggest declines over the last year were all hit hard by the Great Recession and clearly aren’t recovering yet. Take Tampa. Between 2000 and 2006, house prices there almost doubled. Then, from a peak in the fourth quarter of 2006, they fell steadily through the first quarter of this year—down 45 percent. Prices in the Tampa region today are only 8 percent higher than they were at the start of 2000.
Of the five metros with the smallest declines, all but Honolulu weathered the crash relatively well by national standards. But even in these metros, housing markets aren’t on the upswing. El Paso is a good case in point. Compared to Tampa, the El Paso market saw only modest appreciation between 2000 and 2006 (prices up 34 percent) and then held steady through early 2008 before prices began sliding downward. Today, home prices in El Paso are 10 percent below their peak. But they’re still falling—down almost 2 percent just since the last quarter of 2010.
What does the picture look like in your metro area?
Filed under: Built Environment 4 Comments »