• Description

The coronavirus pandemic continues to both illuminate and deepen the challenges of structural racism and housing inequity in the United States. While rent relief programs are sunsetting and rents are skyrocketing, millions of renters negatively impacted by the pandemic's economic fallout face crushing rent debt, eviction, and homelessness. And the renters who have been hit the hardest are disproportionately people of color and people living on low incomes. This extreme precarity stems from a housing crisis that has plagued communities for decades. At the onset of the pandemic, there was not a single state, region, or county in the US where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom rental home, and nearly half of Black and Latinx renters (and more than a third of all renters) were paying unaffordable rent.

Not only is there an overall shortage of affordable rental homes, but they are rarely located in "high-opportunity" neighborhoods that have high-quality schools, safe streets, clean air, parks, reliable transit, and proximity to jobs, retail, and services. Instead, they are concentrated in disinvested neighborhoods that lack these "opportunity structures" and are often replete with harms ranging from polluted air to decrepit infrastructure to excessive surveillance and police violence. The overcrowding of affordable homes in lower opportunity neighborhoods and lack of affordable homes in higher opportunity neighborhoods have significant negative consequences for people living on low incomes. Decades of research underscore that living in a neighborhood lacking critical opportunity structures negatively affects health, access to educational and economic opportunities, and life outcomes — especially for children. 

This uneven "geography of opportunity," or access to neighborhood conditions that influence positive life opportunities and outcomes, is a defining hallmark of American metropolitan regions — and it is one that is deeply rooted in systemic racism. In the past, racially discriminatory policies, including redlining, urban renewal, and government-backed home loans (almost exclusively for white homebuyers), created geographic concentrations of opportunity and disadvantage throughout regions. Today, policies that are not explicitly discriminatory yet have racially inequitable impacts (e.g., exclusionary zoning), maintain these patterns of spatial inequality — effectively locking many people of color out of educational and economic opportunity.

This analysis is the first in a series exploring the changing geography of opportunity in American metropolitan regions, building from our earlier analysis of the San Francisco Bay Area. In that study, we found that only 5 percent of census tracts in the region had median market rents that were affordable to a renter household of two full-time workers each earning $15 per hour. Those affordable neighborhoods were located on the outskirts of the region, and 92 percent of them were "low opportunity," according to the Child Opportunity Index produced by researchers at Brandeis University. Our findings underscored the pattern of regional resegregation in the Bay Area described by Urban Habitat, in which tech-driven growth has been pushing low-wage service-sector workers out of core cities to the outer parts of the region.

Expanding our lens to the largest 100 metros, in this analysis we ask three questions: First, how does neighborhood affordability for low-income households differ across metros? Second, how does neighborhood affordability vary for Black, Latinx, and white households across metros? And third, is the geography of opportunity for low-income households and households of color shrinking over time, restricting housing choices to an even smaller number of neighborhoods far away from the locus of economic activity? 

We answer these questions using data on median market rents by zip code from Zillow and metro-level census data on household income overall and for Black, Latinx, and white households for the years 2013 and 2019 to capture the period of economic recovery between the Great Recession and the pandemic. Forthcoming analyses in this series will examine the changing geography of opportunity for Asian and Pacific Islander communities and Native American communities across the country.

Using median market rent as a measure of neighborhood affordability means two important things: First, we are focusing on the costs faced by households searching for available rental housing in a metro, not the cost of all rental housing units in a metro. (In other words, we are excluding the housing units of incumbent renters, which tend to have lower rents.) Second, given that a median means that half of the rents are below it and half are above it, this is a summary measure of neighborhood affordability, not a precise measure. So, affordable rentals might exist in a specific neighborhood, but they are not plentiful.

To examine affordability by race/ethnicity, we define an affordable zip code as one with a median market rent that is affordable to households at the median household income for that racial/ethnic group within that metro. For example, in 2019, 13 of 350 zip codes were affordable to Black households at the median income for all Black households in Chicago ($76,394) and 48 zip codes were affordable to Latinx households at the median income for all Latinx households in Chicago ($101,643). In the proceeding analysis, the terminology "median-income Black households" and "Black households at the median income" refer to Black households at the median household income for Black households within that metro. This is true for Latinx and white households as well.

The Shrinking Geography of Opportunity in Metro America