Uncovering JAPA

A New Way to Identify Bargain Areas for Child Economic Mobility

Is it possible to identify opportunity zones that can help improve the economic mobility of children that are affordable to live in? In "Planning for Opportunity: How Planners Can Expand Access to Affordable Opportunity Bargain Areas" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 3), Nicholas Kelly and Ingrid Gould Ellen propose a school-violence-poverty (SVP) index to do just that.

Identifying Affordable High-opportunity Neighborhoods Method

Examining New York City and the greater Boston metro areas, the authors identify high-opportunity bargain neighborhoods and explain how their method can be used in other communities throughout the U.S.

Currently, one of the best ways to improve a child's long-term educational and economic outcomes is to help them move to neighborhoods that provide opportunities for obtaining a good education and low rates of violent crime and poverty. However, building affordable housing, or providing rental subsidies, can be extremely expensive in these neighborhoods.

Kelly and Ellen provide an alternative way of identifying opportunity neighborhoods based on school quality, violent crime, and poverty rates—the SVP index. They show that this simple method based on readily available data can identify places where opportunities are high and housing prices are not.

Figure 1: Opportunity bargains have lower than expected rents given their levels of opportunity.

Figure 1: Opportunity bargains have lower than expected rents given their levels of opportunity.

Assessing High-opportunity Areas Economically

To test out their index, they calculated the SVP index results for census tracts in New York City and zip codes in Boston to identify areas that are high-opportunity bargain areas (Figure 1). They found that high-opportunity bargain areas in NYC were farther away from the CBD and "were concentrated in south Brooklyn and Staten Island, as well as in parts of Queens." That is, bargains are available but the downside is that residents have a long commute to the city center, fewer restaurants and that they "were less likely to have units in a historic district compared with expensive opportunity areas."

Boston followed a similar trend in that neighborhoods farther away from the CBD were less expensive. In Boston, these neighborhoods had fewer restaurants and lacked subway stops, but 41 percent had commuter rail stops. The neighborhoods had the same racial composition as expensive opportunity areas but "were substantially more white than lower opportunity neighborhoods."

The SVP index is a new way for planners to assess areas of investment and where municipalities and households can get a better deal for opportunity-rich neighborhoods. It can be used to:

  1. Design housing choice voucher programs
  2. Determine where to build affordable housing and upzone
  3. Inform low-income families about which neighborhoods they may want to live.

The cheaper cost of living in affordable opportunity bargain areas can be a better investment than paying large subsidies to help families move to extremely high-rent, exclusive neighborhoods. This approach to finding affordable areas where children can thrive seems like a great addition to planner's toolkits.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Paulo Sousa

About the author
Holly Hodge is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

September 21, 2023

By Holly Hodge