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Posts By Margery Turner

Bio: Margery Austin Turner is is Senior Vice President for Program Planning and Management 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. Among her recent publications is Public Housing and the Legacy of Segregation (2009). Ms. Turner served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 through 1996, focusing HUD's research agenda on the problems of racial discrimination, concentrated poverty, and economic opportunity in America's metropolitan areas. During her tenure, HUD's research office launched three major social science demonstration projects to test different strategies for helping families from distressed inner-city neighborhoods gain access to opportunities through employment and education.

In the conversation about poverty: don't forget about deep and persistent poverty

Author: Laudan Aron and Margery Turner

| Posted: June 6th, 2013




About 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty and many more experience one or more spells of poverty over the course of a year. Thanks to Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone’s new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, people are talking about this bleak reality and what to do about it.

Over the past few months, the two of us have been focusing on an even more distressing reality: the 6.6 percent of Americans—more than 20 million adults and children—who live in deep poverty.

Deep poverty is commonly defined as having cash income below half the poverty line—in 2012, that’s less than $1,000 a month for a family of four. Other measures change this picture slightly, but even the Census Bureau’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure puts deep poverty at about 5 percent after factoring in cash transfers, tax credits, and tax liabilities, as well as major expenses like the cost of commuting to work, out-of-pocket medical costs, and child support payments.

People suffering from deep poverty are diverse and their circumstances defy simple characterizations. Their needs reflect multiple and often interacting disadvantages. They include single mothers and their children, people who are homeless or formerly incarcerated, disabled veterans, and people with serious mental illnesses. They include many immigrants. While people of color have among the highest levels of poverty, the poor and deeply poor are predominantly white. About half of those living in deep poverty are under age 25. Most deeply poor adults aren’t working.

Many people in deep poverty face significant personal challenges: disabilities and other major health problems, very low levels of education and work skills, criminal background histories, and limited social networks that can buffer them in hard times. Any of these challenges makes working difficult and research shows that combinations of multiple challenges make it especially hard for people to escape deep poverty. They also make it hard to provide a stable and nurturing environment for children.

Over the course of months and years, many people cycle in and out of poverty. A job loss, a divorce, a natural disaster, or time away from work to care for a newborn or tend to an ill family member can all push a family into poverty—even deep poverty—temporarily. Many of these families climb back out of poverty fairly quickly. Indeed, about half the people who fall into poverty are poor for less than a year, and about three-quarters are poor for less than four years.

But about a third of people who become poor in a given year will remain poor for half or more of the next 10 years. Persistent poverty year after year is very debilitating. Children raised in persistently poor families have far worse outcomes later in life than those who were poor for just a year or two.

Poverty is, by definition, a lack of income. But deep and persistent poverty reflects deficits that are much more profound. Addressing them requires intensive and sustained supports that span conventional policy and programmatic silos. The work requirements and other conditions imposed by many of today’s federal safety-net programs may make sense for people experiencing short spells of poverty, but they are clearly failing to meet the needs of people in deep and persistent poverty.

As the nation tackles poverty in the aftermath of the Great Recession—and develops strategies that reflect new economic and geographic realities—let’s remember people living in deep and persistent poverty. The portfolio of anti-poverty tools deployed in any community should include the intensive, multi-faceted, and long-lasting supports needed by individuals and families trapped in deep and persistent poverty.

Photograph by JOAKIM ESKILDSEN from "Below the Line: Portraits of American Poverty," photo-essay commissioned by Time magazine, November 2011, and forthcoming in Joakim Eskildsen and Natsha Del Toro, American Realities (Steidl). Used with permission.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Children, Children's health and development, Economic well-being, Economic well-being, Poverty, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) |Tags: , , , , ,

Suburban poverty: let's keep talking about it

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 30th, 2013

Kudos to Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone for igniting a new national conversation about poverty and place. Their book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, highlights the fact that more poor people now live in America’s suburbs than in central cities. This comes as a surprise to many and shatters old assumptions about who should care about poverty and where solutions may lie.

Suburban poverty isn’t new, but the latest evidence about its prevalence should dispel outdated stereotypes of distressed (mostly minority) cities surrounded by affluent (mostly white) bedroom suburbs. American metros have been evolving away from this stereotype for decades but our thinking about poverty—and especially about poor communities—hasn’t kept up. Many of the public policies designed to combat poverty deliver help regardless of where people live. But those that target poor places mostly focus on the inner city.

Place still matters. Where we live largely determines where our kids go to school; the length and cost of our commute to work; how safe we can feel on our streets and in our parks; whether there’s a grocery store nearby that sells healthy food at affordable prices; and where we turn for public assistance, employment services, or social supports during tough times. To be effective, strategies for helping poor families stabilize their lives and climb out of poverty must meet them where they live and strengthen the opportunities there.

But that doesn’t mean everything poor people need should be delivered within the boundaries of their neighborhoods. Instead, the places they live and the helping hands nearby should connect to opportunities in the metropolitan economy as a whole. In other words, anti-poverty strategies should be “place conscious” rather than “place based.”

Race still matters too. Berube and Kneebone show that poor suburbanites are remarkably similar to poor people who live in cities. But they differ quite dramatically with respect to race and ethnicity. More than three-quarters of the city poor are people of color, compared with 56 percent of poor suburbanites. And people of color are far more likely than whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, most of which are still in cities.

The map below shows how the geography of poverty and race has played out in the Washington, DC region over the past two decades. Even though three-quarters of the region's poor live in the suburbs, poor blacks are much more likely to live in DC than either poor whites or poor Latinos.

Slide the bar to compare 1990, 2000, and the most current data (2005-09). You'll see the growth in suburban poverty, but you’ll also see that the spatial concentration of black poverty remains largely unchanged, while poor whites and Latinos are increasingly scattered across the region's neighborhoods.

In metros across the country, today’s poverty map reflects the legacy of discrimination, legally sanctioned segregation, and racial inequality. So as we develop the next generation of place-conscious antipoverty policies—policies that tackle today’s realities and engage suburbs as well as cities—we must acknowledge that legacy and address the persistent connections between poverty, place, and race.

Berube and Kneebone have gotten people talking about poverty and what to do about it. Let’s keep the conversation going, even though it’s sure to be complex and controversial.

Filed under: Economic development, Economic Growth and Productivity, Federal urban policies, Mobility and transportation, Neighborhood indicators, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Poverty, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net |Tags: , , ,

Lessons Learned from the Making Connections Initiative

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 14th, 2013




The Annie E. Casey Foundation has just released a very frank and thoughtful summary of lessons learned from its Making Connections Initiative, which focused funding and technical assistance on poor neighborhoods in 10 cities with the goal of improving outcomes for both people and places. One of the things I like best about this piece is that it doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties the initiative encountered or hide the more disappointing results. It acknowledges that Making Connections failed to achieve population-level improvements in family and child well-being, even though sites did succeed in implementing important new programs that improved the lives of individual families and kids.

I played a small part in the Making Connections Initiative, working on the NORC-Urban Institute team that designed, conducted, and analyzed an ambitious longitudinal survey of families living in the target neighborhoods. Casey's decision to invest in this expensive survey effort paid tremendous dividends, not only by providing information to the sites to help shape the work underway, but also by producing new field-building insights about the dynamic interactions between people and places. There's still a lot to learn from this unique data resource.

One of the important insights generated by the Making Connections survey is the critical importance of family mobility. Neighborhoods clearly matter to people's lives and life-chances, but that doesn't mean that "fixing" conditions within a neighborhood—school quality, healthcare for kids, job opportunities, or safety—automatically benefits the people living there. Families move back and forth across neighborhood boundaries; break apart and re-form; send their kids to out-of-boundary schools; and engage with religious, cultural, or family networks that transcend place. Increasingly, we're realizing that anti-poverty and family-strengthening initiatives have to be "place conscious" but not myopically "place based."

The design and implementation of Making Connections varied across sites and morphed considerably over time, introducing a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity into the task of defining its scope and assessing its effectiveness. But this reflected lessons learned from previous rounds of experimentation in the field of comprehensive community change efforts. Now the experience of Making Connections contributes to the body of knowledge from which the next generation of experimentation can draw.

We have to acknowledge that achieving meaningful improvements in the well-being of poor people and poor communities requires intense multi-faceted interventions, tailored to local circumstances and residents' priorities, responsive to change, and sustained over many years. There's no way such efforts can be formally evaluated using conventional methods. But they can hold themselves accountable by setting ambitious population-level outcome goals, being clear about how specific investments or activities are expected to advance these goals, and using data to find out what's working—and not working—to make progress toward them.

This may mean that one of the most important tasks for a place-conscious initiative is to build and support an enduring local capacity for inclusive, evidence-based collaboration around a shared set of goals. Building this kind of human infrastructure takes time (and money) and may not pay off immediately with tangible accomplishments. But if a community's residents, service providers, civic leaders, and public servants were able to work together respectfully over the long term, using data to assess progress and refine cross-sector strategies, we might begin to see the big improvements in peoples' lives that we seek.

Neighborhood photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Economic development, Economic Growth and Productivity, Infrastructure, Metro, Neighborhood indicators, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros |Tags: , , , , ,
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Are housing vouchers good for my neighborhood?

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 9th, 2013




Last week, my blog post explored the role investor-buyers play—for good or ill—in recovering housing markets like my Prince George’s County neighborhood. What about housing vouchers, aka Section 8 housing? I’ve studied the performance of the federal Housing Choice Voucher program for years but was still a little surprised to see a sign saying “We welcome Section 8” around the corner from my house.

Housing vouchers help low-income families pay the rent for housing available in the private market. Recipients choose the house or apartment where they want to live and contribute about 30 percent of their income toward rent, while the program pays the difference up to a locally defined “payment standard.” Today, the housing voucher program supplements rent payments for about 2.2 million low-income families and individuals nationwide.

One of the voucher program’s greatest virtues is that it gives recipients choices about where to live, rather than requiring them to live in a publicly subsidized housing project.  And the program works best when it gives poor families the opportunity to live in good neighborhoods, where they can benefit from safe surroundings, well-performing schools, well-stocked grocery stores, and a healthy environment. My own research (along with others’) shows that when families who’ve used vouchers to escape from distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods can live (for several years) in low-poverty communities, their physical and mental health improves, parents work and earn more, and kids do better in school.

Often, people who live in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods object to the idea that properties in their neighborhood might accept vouchers. They fear that the arrival of subsidized renters will increase crime and undermine property values. But careful research has found these fears to be unfounded as long as the voucher program is properly administered. In fact, because vouchers provide landlords with reliable rent payments each month, they can support good property maintenance, contributing to the well-being of the surrounding neighborhood.

However, if the local public housing agency fails to effectively monitor and manage housing vouchers, they can sometimes play a role in neighborhood distress and decline. Specifically, local housing agencies should:

  • Reach out to encourage rental property owners in every neighborhood to accept vouchers, so recipients aren’t forced into just a few locations.
  • Make sure inspections, lease approvals, and rent payments all occur on time and with minimal red tape, so responsible landlords want to participate.
  • Monitor the locations of voucher holders to make sure they’re getting access to as many different neighborhoods as possible, rather than clustering in just a few.
  • Promptly investigate any community complaints about voucher holders or landlords and require participating landlords to maintain their properties and enforce lease terms.
  • Identify both poor-performing landlords and tenants who violate lease terms and exclude them from participating further in the program.

Prince George’s housing agency scores “high” on HUD’s management assessment scale. So I’m optimistic that housing vouchers will help recovering neighborhoods like mine, at the same time they benefit low-income families struggling to find affordable housing in healthy communities.

Filed under: Affordability, Affordable housing, Credit availability, Federal programs and policies, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing markets and choice, Section 8 vouchers and mobility
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Investor Buyers in Prince George's County: The Next Challenge for County Government

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: May 2nd, 2013




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

Filed under: Credit availability, Economic Growth and Productivity, Homeownership, Housing and Housing Finance, Housing and the economy, Housing markets and choice, Tracking the economy |Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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Responsible Redevelopment: Protecting Renters in Changing Neighborhoods

Author: Margery Turner

| Posted: April 16th, 2013




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)

Filed under: Affordable housing, Federal urban policies, Housing and Housing Finance, Metro, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Section 8 vouchers and mobility, Washington, D.C |Tags: , , , , , , ,
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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.

Filed under: Demographics and trends, Metro, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Older workers, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender
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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.

Filed under: Detroit, Economic development, Economic Growth and Productivity, Geographies, Infrastructure, Job opportunities, Metro, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Policy Centers, Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net
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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.”

Filed under: Cross-Center Initiatives, Economic development, Geographies, Income and Wealth, Infrastructure, Job opportunities, Mobility, National (US), Neighborhoods and community-building, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Opportunity and Ownership