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Posts By Margery Turner


Bio: 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

Investor Buyers in Prince George's County: The Next Challenge for County Government

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 2nd, 2013

 

 

foreclosureImage

Prince George’s County—a majority-black, middle-income suburb of Washington, DC—was hit hard by the housing market crash and recession. My neighborhood and many others just like it saw high rates of foreclosures and distress sales, with “for sale” signs popping up on every block. Neighbors have been taking turns mowing the lawns of vacant homes. And property values sank precipitously; Zillow’s home value index for the county dropped from $299,000 in June 2008 to $203,000 in March 2012.

Recent months have brought welcome signs of recovery. In March of this year, Zillow’s home value index stood at $213,000. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post attributed this trend to investor buyers, who account for a third of all home sales in the county. Construction crews are fixing up long-vacant homes. And these days, “for rent” signs far outnumber “for sale” signs as I drive around my neighborhood.

Higher values, property improvements, and occupied homes are all good for the neighborhood and for homeowners, half of whom reportedly owe more than their properties are worth. But conventional wisdom has long seen absentee owners and rising rentals as signals of distress and decline—especially in neighborhoods with mostly single-family homes. If investors make only cosmetic property improvements before trying to flip their recent purchases to new buyers or if those holding homes as landlords don’t invest enough in maintenance, the recent recovery could be short-lived.

What do we know about investor buyers and their likely behavior? Alan Mallach’s research teaches us that their motivations and behavior differ from homebuyers, with consequences for neighborhood vitality in the long term. Mallach describes five distinct types of investor buyers: flippers, rehabbers, milkers, short-term holders, and medium-to-long-term holders. The mix of these types varies from one market to another and changes as market conditions change.

In a community like Prince George’s, with weak price appreciation and little evidence of surging demand, the medium-to-long-term holder is likely a dominant investor type. That’s probably good news, as long as these new owners act as responsible landlords, maintaining the properties they’re renting out and monitoring the behavior of their tenants. To make sure that happens, local government must establish and enforce clear standards that encourage and reward responsible landlords, while promptly identifying and penalizing bad behavior. That means:

  • Building an information system to identify and keep track of landlords and their properties.
  • Establishing and enforcing clear standards for property condition.
  • Imposing penalties when landlords fail to comply.

Mallach provides details on how other jurisdictions are tackling these tasks. Now’s the time for homeowners and community-based nonprofits in to make sure Prince George’s County is taking the right steps for the long-term health of our neighborhoods.

Photo by Margery Turner, Urban Institute

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Responsible Redevelopment: Protecting Renters in Changing Neighborhoods

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: April 16th, 2013

 

 

apartments

The Washington Post’s in-depth story about an Alexandria redevelopment project did a great job of highlighting the challenges facing working families in our region’s high-cost housing market. Efforts to protect residents of the Beauregard community from displacement and hardship build on five important lessons about responsible redevelopment—lessons learned through experimentation and research.

  1. Most low- and moderate-income renters live in privately owned apartments, not publicly subsidized projects. And for a growing share, market rents are unaffordable. Often, the properties with the most affordable rents are older, outdated, and run-down. But when they’re demolished and replaced with new, higher-quality properties, affordable options for families with modest paychecks disappear.
  2. So it makes sense to preserve as many of these moderately priced apartments as possible, by helping landlords get affordable financing for upgrades or by including low-cost apartments in the mix when obsolete properties are replaced or renovated.
  3. At a time when public funds are scarce, cities can exercise their regulatory powers to help make this kind of deal happen, as Alexandria is doing. The Beauregard redevelopment will be denser—with more income-producing units allowed on the site—in exchange for including some moderately priced apartments in the mix.
  4. That deal might not have happened without effective community organizing. It sounds as if Tenants and Workers United has been putting pressure on both public officials and private investors to make sure the interests of the low- and moderate-income working families who live in the Beauregard area aren’t forgotten.
  5. Finally, a new affordable apartment in the same community might not be possible for all of today’s residents, but hands-on help with relocation can make a big difference. Done right, housing counseling and search assistance can enable families to find new homes in good neighborhoods.

I’m not suggesting that Alexandria has achieved the best possible deal for its residents; there’s probably still a lot of deal-making to be done. But the work to preserve affordable housing as part of an ambitious, private-sector redevelopment project exemplifies smart public policy in tough circumstances.

Image by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Diversity is Changing More Than Our Politics

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: November 26th, 2012

The presidential election got everybody talking about our country’s growing diversity. But the changing makeup of America’s population has implications that go far beyond politics. Immigration, the aging of the baby-boom generation, growing tolerance of gays and lesbians, and evolving norms about marriage and childbearing are transforming American society. These changes fuel new sources of economic dynamism and opportunity, and they pose new challenges for equity and social mobility.

Urban areas—both cities and suburbs—are leading this demographic transformation, although some metros are much farther along the path of change than others.

In metropolitan America today, the average white American lives in a neighborhood where more than three-quarters of his neighbors (77 percent) are also white. Seven percent are black, 10 percent are Latino, and 4 percent are Asian. That's considerably more diverse than three decades ago, when the average white (metropolitan) American lived in a neighborhood that was 88 percent white, 5 percent black, 5 percent Latino, and 1 percent Asian.

City populations have rebounded in the past two decades as the number of people who value the density and diversity that cities offer has grown. They are mostly Millennials, who have delayed childbearing, marriage, and even household formation because of a combination of changing culture and economic necessity. But when they finally decide to settle down and form families, will cities offer the safety, good schools, and quality services necessary to keep them?

During the 2000s, growth in the number of children with immigrant parents offset a national decline in children with native-born parents. Were it not for the children of immigrants, the child population in the top 100 metros overall and in many metros would have declined in the last decade.

Many baby boomers are postponing retirement, in part because they need the income, but also because today’s older Americans are healthier than a generation ago. But working into one’s 70s is much more feasible for people like me whose work is intellectually engaging than for those working in physically demanding occupations.

In the months and years ahead, policymakers (not just politicians) should give their full attention to the new America we are becoming and respond to the opportunities and challenges of our demographic future.

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Lessons from a Drive through Detroit

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: September 28th, 2012

When we hear about Detroit in the news these days, it epitomizes the failure of a once prosperous American city—homes and businesses vacated, neighborhoods emptied out, public schools failing, and elected officials under criminal investigation.

Between 1960 and 1990, many big cities across the United States suffered from declining population, disinvestment, and distress. Detroit didn’t seem all that unusual. But beginning in the 1990s, a lot of cities enjoyed remarkable turnarounds—assuming new roles in their regions’ economies, attracting new residents and investment, applying new models of civic engagement and effective governance.

Detroit wasn’t one of them. It continued to lose population, jobs, and investment. And today, on too many indicators of economic security and equity, the metropolitan region as a whole receives failing grades.

To explain what went wrong, George Galster, a child of Detroit who cares deeply about this city, has given us Driving Detroit, drawing upon history, sociology, and economics, as well as music, poetry, and the visual arts to tell a compelling story. He argues—persuasively I think—that bitter, unresolved conflicts between whites and blacks, labor and capital, city and suburbs have trapped the region in a zero-sum game, undermining the prospects of its residents and their communities.

If you’re interested in urban America today, this is a book worth reading because the conflicts bedeviling Detroit are by no means unique.

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What Does "Community Development" Mean to You?

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: September 25th, 2012

When you hear the term “community development,” what do you see? I expect lots of people imagine efforts to fix up poor, run-down neighborhoods: renovating substandard homes, building a new community center or a subsidized apartment building, maybe even opening up a grocery store or pharmacy that employs neighborhood residents. A couple of decades ago, this would have been a pretty accurate summary of the community development field.

But these days, “community development” means a lot more and offers the potential for much greater impact. A new book, Investing in What Works for America's Communities, produced jointly by the Low Income Investment Fund and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, assembles the most current and creative thinking about community development. It includes essays from innovative on-the-ground practitioners (like Angela Blanchard of Neighborhood Centers, Inc.), federal policymakers (Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, and Kathleen Sebelius), and engaged scholars (like MIT’s Xav Briggs).

At its best, community development today isn’t just about the built environment or about investments within the borders of a distressed neighborhood, although both are important. It’s also about citywide (or metro-wide) policies that help poor people build skills, work experience, savings, and security for their families. It’s about breaking down the barriers of prejudice that exclude low-income families from neighborhoods with great schools, safe streets, affordable grocery stores, and healthy places to play. And it’s about connecting poor neighborhoods to larger networks of services and opportunities so that poor families can move up and out if they want to.

Urban policy wonks used to waste a lot of time arguing about the relative merits of place-based versus people-based strategies. In her foreword to this new book, Elizabeth Duke of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, rightly declares that this “debate is over and both sides won.”

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Did Somebody Say Neighborhoods Don't Matter?

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: September 11th, 2012

In the mid-1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a demonstration to find out whether poor families would be better off if they could move away from distressed, high-poverty housing projects to live in low-poverty neighborhoods. The demonstration was called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) and the families that volunteered to participate have been surveyed and studied for more than a decade. The hope was that both parents and kids would benefit from the safety, good schools, positive peers, and job access in low-poverty neighborhoods.

Last year, HUD released findings from its MTO evaluation, answering the question: are families that received the demonstration’s experimental treatment (housing counseling and vouchers for rentals in low-poverty neighborhoods) better off than their counterparts in the comparison and control groups? It turns out that, as a group, the MTO experimental families do enjoy significantly better health and mental health than the control group but not higher employment, incomes, or educational attainment.

Some scholars and policymakers have taken these findings to mean that where we live—and where our kids grow up—doesn’t really matter. In fact, the evidence from MTO doesn’t support this pessimistic conclusion.

First, the health gains enjoyed by MTO’s experimental families are hugely important. High rates of obesity, anxiety, and depression severely degrade a person’s quality of life, employability, and parenting abilities. Nobody should understate the value of a policy intervention that helps tackle these chronic health risks.

Second, one possible reason that MTO gains were limited to health outcomes is that the special mobility assistance provided by the demonstration didn’t enable the experimental families to gain and sustain access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Experimental families moved to better-quality housing and safer neighborhoods but few spent more than a year or two in low-poverty neighborhoods.

New analysis finds that the MTO families that lived for longer periods in neighborhoods with lower poverty did achieve better outcomes in work and school, as well as in health.

Here are the specifics. Adults living in lower-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to have jobs and earn more, other things being equal. Youth (both boys and girls) living in lower-poverty neighborhoods have higher English and math test scores. These benefits are not only statistically significant but also meaningful in size. For example, an adult who lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 16 percent over a decade has a predicted monthly income $233 higher at the end of the period than an adult who lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 41 percent. The corresponding differences in boys' predicted English and math test scores equate to nearly a year of instruction.

It’s possible that these results reflect a complex set of feedback loops between neighborhood environment and family success (rather than simple, one-way causality). For example, families may move to or stay in better neighborhoods because they got a good job or increased their income; or parents who see the value of education for their children’s future might relocate to a neighborhood with great schools and push their kids to succeed academically.

Despite these complexities, the latest evidence from MTO argues for ongoing investments in programs that help low-income families find and afford housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods, including housing vouchers, mobility assistance and incentives, and targeted housing acquisition and construction programs. Federal housing policies shouldn’t be subsidizing poor families to live in distressed neighborhoods that undermine their health, their employment prospects, and their kids’ school success.

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Poverty Matters

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: September 4th, 2012

Every couple of years, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation tries to convince us that the problem of poverty in America has been exaggerated. Most recently (with coauthor Rachel Sheffield), he asserts that we shouldn’t be worrying so much about policies to reduce poverty because poor people in America today usually have enough to eat, mostly live in decent housing, and generally can afford amenities like air conditioning or an Xbox. In their view, the public should only be concerned about people suffering from severe material deprivation like hunger and homelessness.

Although the focus on Xboxes is new, Rector and his associates have been making the same argument since 1990. And every time, they’ve ignored two critically important facts about poverty in America—facts that are a lot more important than who owns a TV or an Xbox.

Fact #1: The main reason more Americans don’t suffer from severe material deprivation is our country’s commitment to a compassionate safety net. Our collective contributions to food stamps, income supplements, housing codes, and health clinics have done a lot of good. But many of these supports have been stretched thin by the Great Recession and could be eroded by looming fiscal pressures. Assuming that most Americans want to prevent material hardship, we should care about protecting—and bolstering—our antipoverty policies.

Fact #2: Growing up in poverty stunts a child’s future, belying our ideals of equal opportunity. Some families experience poverty only briefly—when a parent loses a job or can’t work as many hours as she’d like. But for kids who experience several years of poverty, the cumulative effects of housing instability, poor health, family stresses, neighborhood crime and violence, and crummy schools take a tremendous toll. The evidence is compelling that persistent poverty significantly reduces children’s prospects for succeeding in school, getting a decent job, and earning a living wage as adults.

So I’m a lot less interested in whether poor kids have Xboxes than in helping their parents give them the security, stability, and support they need to grow up smart, healthy, and successful.

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HUD’s Secretary and a Housing Policy that Offers Choice

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: June 12th, 2012

 

In a speech at the Urban Institute today, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan made a compelling case that federal housing policies should expand affordable housing choices for poor families in thriving neighborhoods with good schools, safe streets, parks and playgrounds, and well-stocked grocery stores. He argued that the principle of housing choice infuses all of HUD’s programs—whether they offer portable housing subsidies, revitalize distressed neighborhoods, or promote sustainable regional development.

Donovan spoke to a room-full of housing practitioners, advocates, and researchers gathered for the 5th national conference on assisted housing mobility (cohosted by the Urban Institute and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council). Assisted housing mobility programs constitute one of HUD’s most effective tools for promoting choice—offering counseling and search assistance along with housing vouchers to families that want to escape from dangerous and distressed neighborhoods and move to better, safer, more opportunity-rich locations.

These programs typically include outreach to landlords who own rental properties in desirable neighborhoods; individual or group counseling to help families plan and prepare for their search; information about unfamiliar neighborhoods, schools, shopping, and transportation access; hands-on help with housing search; and follow-up counseling and supports.

From the outset, policymakers, advocates, and on-the-ground practitioners working on assisted housing mobility have taken research seriously. Their work is motivated by compelling evidence that living in severely distressed neighborhoods—with high crime, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and no place to shop for healthy food—inflicts lasting damage on kids and families. They’ve been open to learning from research about what tools work—or don’t work—to help families find and lease housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods. And they continually refine and strengthen their strategies to reflect emerging insights from research.

Partnering with researchers can be uncomfortable for advocates and program administrators. Honest research doesn’t always confirm initial expectations about what families need or how programs perform. It may conclude that programs need redesign, retargeting, or even replacement. But even if the partnership is sometimes rocky, I believe it’s been hugely valuable.

As a researcher, I’m always inspired by the commitment of advocates and practitioners to empower families to move to communities that offer health, safety, and access to opportunity. And I hope that—over the long haul—rigorous, independent research is helping make that work stronger and more effective, because in my view, the evidence is undeniable that past policies reinforcing residential segregation and poverty concentration produced terrible consequences—for kids, families, communities, and our society as a whole.

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Robbing the Future?

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 24th, 2012

 

By nature, I usually see the silver lining in the darkest rain clouds, but the Treasury Department’s chief economist gave a speech on Monday that left me deeply discouraged. The current frenzy to rein in public-sector spending, balance budgets, and shrink the national debt may be cutting off our collective nose to spite our face—neglecting investments essential to future prosperity.

Here are the facts. In today’s economy, college graduates are more likely to find jobs and earn higher wages than those without college degrees. That’s not going to change in the years ahead, as decent-paying jobs require higher skill levels and adaptability. But the cost of college is rising, especially at state universities, which educate the vast majority of students. And states are contributing smaller and smaller shares of the total costs required to run their public universities, requiring students to pay larger and larger shares.

Advocates for shrinking state contributions to higher education argue that students (or their families) should pay most of the cost because they will benefit financially from their college degrees. But that argument suffers from two fundamental flaws. First, a highly educated workforce ultimately pays off for everyone in our society, not just for those who get the college degrees. If our system relies too heavily on individuals to self-finance their college educations, we won’t get as much investment—or as many college graduates—as we really need and our future prosperity will be reduced.

Second, requiring individual students to pay, rather than sharing the costs more broadly, perpetuates existing income and wealth inequalities because lower-income families will have the toughest time paying tuition. And even if you don’t care much about inequality per se, there’s mounting evidence that too much of it further inhibits economic growth and future prosperity.

What worries me even more is that those most likely to be priced out of a college education—young people of color—account for a growing share of our total population. The Census just reported that a majority of babies born in the United States last year were non-white and, as I’ve noted before, our country’s younger cohorts are already dramatically more diverse than the baby-boom generation (of which I’m a part).

On average, minority families have lower incomes and substantially lower wealth than white families. These disparities stem in part from past patterns of discrimination and exclusion—some originally enforced through public policy. If today’s policies require families to self-finance their kids’ college educations, we run the risk of crystallizing long-standing disparities at the very moment when our country’s future depends on the skills, intelligence, and inventiveness of its African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian children.

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