Identifying High-Opportunity Neighborhoods for Affordable Housing
Alex Yamron, Frederico Levy, Aiden Wynia
It has been understood for some time that, when it comes to climbing the income ladder, where you grow up matters. Where a family lives has a massive impact on their intergenerational social mobility. Growing up in affluent neighborhoods, with strong education and transportation systems, puts people in those areas at a significant advantage when compared to those growing up in areas with poor schooling and transportation access. Recently there have been efforts to close the opportunity gap by providing affordable housing in neighborhoods where, traditionally, it would be impossible for low income families to live. One method used by city governments to close this gap is neighborhood rezoning.
While earlier neighborhood rezonings in New York City were in low-income, largely nonwhite neighborhoods, the most recent two, Gowanusand Soho, are in more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. The public rationale, among proponents of the rezonings, is to add more housing, some market-rate but especially affordable, in high-opportunity neighborhoods where low-income residents can access the resources to succeed without being forced out of their homes. The additional development would also fund improvements to public housing, parks, streets, and other infrastructure. Incoming mayor Eric Adams has said that he would push for rezoning wide swaths of Midtown, specifically calling out the need for more housing in wealthy, transit-accessible neighborhoods.
In this analysis we want to identify neighborhoods with high-performing schools, transit access, and high economic opportunity for children from low-income families. We think that adding new affordable housing could have the highest impact, especially if it allows children to move from a low-opportunity neighborhood to a high-opportunity one.
To examine the quality of education in a neighborhood we assessed the school district associated with that neighborhood for the ability to prepare kids for college, graduation rates, and performance on standardized tests. Students have some choice of middle and high schools within a district, and schools are administered at a district level. We based our assessment on the district’s percentile rank in SAT scores, graduation rate, rate of college readiness, and performance on Regents exams.
We used data provided by the NYC Department of Education and NYC Open Data. Graduation rate and college readiness (developed and used by NYC public schools) were both already aggregated to the district level. SAT scores and Regents test scores were both provided at the school level. For those, we used excel to map each school into its district. With that, we were able to use R to group data by district and get mean values for each district’s performance. To normalize the data we took graduation rate and college readiness rate and turned them into percentiles for each district within NYC. These four metrics were used to create a score for the performance of each district and made up the education component of our composite score. For a more detailed explanation of our education methodology, see here.
Although many of the measures of school performance are related more to the affluence of the families rather than the performance of the teachers, these measures are still valuable. Poor children benefit from going to school with affluent children at affluent schools, with parents who support the school and push it to be the best it can be.
The map below shows the performance of NYC school districts using our four criteria.
The highest-scoring districts are 26, 30, and 28. All three of these are in Queens (Northeast Queens, Astoria, and Kew Gardens/Jamaica respectively. Staten Island, Southern Brooklyn, and much of Manhattan had high-performing schools as well. There is a huge gap between rich and poor neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, with areas in the Bronx and East Brooklyn.
To assess transit access we examined neighborhoods by travel time to key areas for jobs, healthcare, parks, and groceries. It’s important to not just measure transit access to Midtown and Downtown (though we did include that), but also the ability to access neighborhood resources by transit. New affordable housing should be in a place where residents, especially low-income ones, don’t need to own a car and pay the costs that entails. Adding new residences near transit also will help reduce carbon emissions and local air pollutants from transportation.
We calculated travel times from each Census tract’s center of population to Times Square, Grand Central, and Fulton St using QGIS’s Travel Time plugin. People with a quick commute to these places likely have a short commute. If not, at least they can transfer quickly to anywhere on the subway network. The average of these three times measured access to the region’s center of jobs, culture, resources, and transit connections. We also used the Transit Equity Dashboard’s New York Map, from TransitCenter, to show access to resources. We used access to jobs (not just in Manhattan), parks, grocery stores, hospitals, and urgent care centers. For a more detailed explanation of our transit access measures, see here.
The map below shows the transit access score using our criteria.
The highest-scoring tracts are all in Manhattan, which makes sense since it is the closest to places in Manhattan! That borough also has the greatest density of subway lines to go in any direction, which allows access to neighborhood resources in any direction. The density of Manhattan also means that grocery stores, hospitals, and urgent care centers are closer by. If you zoom in, you can see the paths of several subway lines in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, where tracts along the subway have higher scores. Eastern Queens and Staten Island are clear transit deserts, with poor access for those without cars.
To characterize the neighborhoods which we’d selected, we gathered Opportunity Insights data on the demographics of Census tracts. Opportunity Insights came out of a project by Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty, who measured how the outcomes of children vary greatly based on where they grew up, even controlling for their own family income and other socioeconomic factors. One of our motivations for doing this project was looking for high-opportunity neighborhoods where moving children there from poor areas would have the greatest impact on the fortunes of the children.
Opportunity Insights has many variables representing the outcomes of the people who grew up within Census tracts. For this analysis, we wanted an overall measure of economic success, and so the data we used was the aggregated household income at age 35 for people who had grown up in low-income families within each tract. This means that the people being measured lived there during childhood upwards of 20 years ago — that level of time separation is necessary to measure what happens in people’s lives. For a more detailed explanation of Opportunity Insights and its reasoning, see here.
The map below shows the economic opportunity score using our criteria.
The areas with the highest economic opportunity for low-income children included Northeast Queens, Forest Hills, parts of Southern Brooklyn and Staten Island. We expected to see very high values in Manhattan, though that doesn’t appear to be the case. The neighborhoods that scored the worst under this measure matched with other conceptions of poor, disadvantaged, largely Black and Latino neighborhoods: the Bronx, Harlem, Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Southeast Queens.
Creating a composite score:
Putting it all together, these are the metrics we used for education, transit access, and economic opportunity. To create the composite score, we converted all of them to percentile scores for a direct comparison to other neighborhoods. In total, education made up 25% of our score, transit access made up 40%, and economic opportunity made up 30%. We also gave low density a 5% weight, because areas with relatively lower density are, all else equal, easier to add housing in.
We calculated the composite score using all of these metrics at both the Census tract level and the neighborhood level (measured by Neighborhood Tabulation Areas). We made sure to weigh the grouping by the population of each tract, in order to compare the data between different neighborhoods. Both maps are shown below.
On these two maps, the tracts and neighborhoods with the highest scores are mostly in Manhattan. That makes sense, as Midtown, the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan scored well on all 3 main criteria: education (District 2 performed well), transit access (all of the subway lines except the G run through Manhattan, as well as all of the commuter rail lines), and opportunity (where Manhattan was slightly above average but not at the top). The only area where its score is subpar is density.
There are also high-scoring areas in Woodside, Astoria, Kew Gardens, Northeast Queens, and Southern Brooklyn. Ultimately, we believe that neighborhoods that score highly on our composite measure should be targets for affordable housing. Mayor Adams proposed upzoning the affluent residential areas of Midtown, and this analysis would agree with that.
Illustrative Example: Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, Queens:
Several of the individual tracts with the highest scores are in the Kew Gardens and Forest Hills neighborhoods in Queens. In fact, these two tracts are the only two which scored above the city average in every single metric we used. The full neighborhoods scored well, but not as high as some places in Manhattan. The screenshots below show these two neighborhoods, and the amenities located nearby.
These high-scoring tracts in the center of Queens have direct access to excellent public transportation in the form of the E and F express trains (and the M and R locals at Forest Hills) taking them directly to midtown or downtown, as well as the Long Island Railroad. They also have ample park access at Forest Park and quick access to both healthcare and grocery stores, all while sitting in school district 28, one of the highest-rated in the city. Furthermore, these areas are much less densely populated than some other high-scoring tracts and have high opportunity atlas scores. There are single-family homes within a short walk of the subway! Lower urban density means there is more opportunity for affordable housing to come from rezoning.
Allowing more New Yorkers to live in this amenity-rich area with quiet, tree-lined streets would give them access to the resources here, and would lead to greater opportunities for low-income folks able to move there. Future rezoning efforts in these areas could prove to be fruitful investments for the city in terms of increasing social mobility.
When looking at affordable housing, it’s important to not ignore the suburbs. There has been a long history of trying to integrate the suburbs racially and economically, which has mostly failed over the five decades since the passage of the Fair Housing Act. It is important to not gloss over how affluent white suburbs rejected and continue to reject new housing on racist, classist grounds, and hoard opportunity in the name of protecting property values or school districts. They enjoy the benefits of proximity to New York’s economy without contributing to the city tax rolls to house its people and educate its children. That said, we chose to focus within the 5 boroughs so that this piece can add to the conversation surrounding neighborhood rezoning. It is incoming Mayor Adams and the city council who will have the power to act on these recommendations.
These are not the only potential measures of high-opportunity neighborhoods, nor is opportunity the only thing that should be considered when adding affordable housing or going through the rezoning process. We did not measure displacement or potential displacement, nor did we focus on specific levels of housing affordability, which serve different needs. It is important for planners and activists to make sure that any rezoning actually does provide the benefits that we describe and avoids displacement as much as possible.
New York Mapping: