Cheap Rent Or A Good Neighborhood: Sorry, You Probably Can't Have Both

If you're poor, you just can't win.

Finding an apartment with reasonable rent is pretty close to hopeless, but it’s an even more daunting task if you want to live in a neighborhood with good schools, good jobs and other fundamentals.

A new report maps the concentration of affordable units in high-poverty areas in several major cities and examines how the phenomenon, compounded by a legacy of policies that fostered segregation in urban areas, holds residents back. The Center for American Progress released “Opportunity Agenda for Renters" Wednesday, highlighting the stumbling blocks in affordable housing and urging policy changes at the local, state and federal level to address it. 

To illustrate its point, the liberal think tank looked at how neighborhoods ranked on an “opportunity index” and overlaid the results on maps of vacant affordable housing units by zip code. They define affordable rent as 30 percent or less of the median income for low- and moderate-income households. The opportunity index factors in poverty, unemployment and high school dropout rates and evaluates access to high-wage jobs, grocery stores and banks.

Their findings -- affordable housing is mostly located in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods -- fell in line with their expectations, but the visualizations make the disparity more obvious, said Sarah Edelman, the center’s director of housing policy.

The report authors analyzed three cities with varying populations and housing markets: Los Angeles, Cleveland and Houston. 

Here’s what the disconnect between neighborhoods with opportunity and affordable housing looks like in Los Angeles:

Houston has more affordable rental units in areas with opportunity. But more than half are located in zip codes that are ranked as low opportunity, and only 7 percent are in high-opportunity areas.

The lack of affordable housing in good neighborhoods is particularly striking in the map of Cleveland, a city with a high level of segregation. 

There's a whole range of reasons it’s troubling that affordable housing is concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. A crucial one, supported by recent research, is that where children grow up affects their ability to escape poverty; moving to better neighborhoods when they’re young contributes to upward mobility when they grow up, regardless of their families’ incomes. Moving to those neighborhoods also impacts other outcomes, like college attendance and teen pregnancy, according to the findings from Harvard University’s Equality of Opportunity Project.

The researchers found that in the country as a whole, paying higher rent wasn’t a strong factor in upward mobility -- i.e., a neighborhood doesn’t have to be expensive to have the positive benefits researchers found. However, in more populated areas, particularly cities with high rates of segregation and sprawl, there was a correlation between higher rent and better outcomes for children.

In recent years, the number of renters has grown, and more households with a wide range of incomes are feeling the burden of rents they can’t afford.

“Over the past few years we’ve had pretty significant cuts to affordable housing programs,” Edelman said, “just at the time when we most need it.”

The Center for American Progress recommends increasing funding to create more affordable housing in general, but it also suggests a number of policy changes to merge affordability and good places to live. Federal programs could give larger tax credits to developers who build affordable housing in more stable communities; states could push that agenda with their control over which projects receive funds; and compensation for public housing authorities could be tied to their success helping families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.

The report also calls for policies that reduce discrimination and proposes making it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to people with subsidized housing vouchers. On the local level, it says, cities should examine their zoning codes that limit development to see if policies are contributing to segregation.

But while there should be more housing available in neighborhoods with high levels of opportunity, CAP stresses that it’s just as important to strengthen the high-poverty neighborhoods where affordable housing is already concentrated. 

Julián Castro, secretary of the federal housing agency, reiterated the importance of a “two-pronged approach” in creating more opportunities for low-income renters.

“Housing is a powerful platform for sparking opportunity in people’s lives,” Castro said at a panel Wednesday in Washington to mark the release of the report. “When you ensure that an individual or a family has a good, decent, safe place to live, that is the fundamental building block for sparking other opportunity.”

Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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