Opportunity gap: How your city neighborhood defines your life

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New data concludes that children growing up in Westhaven have the least chance of escaping poverty when they become adults, while equally poor children who grow up in northern communities such as Locust Grove, Wildwood, Willow Heights, and Village Square have the most. Courtesy the New York Times New data concludes that children growing up in Westhaven have the least chance of escaping poverty when they become adults, while equally poor children who grow up in northern communities such as Locust Grove, Wildwood, Willow Heights, and Village Square have the most. Courtesy the New York Times

The neighborhoods where poor children grow up can have a huge impact on their future earnings, a new analysis of census data shows. Here in Charlottesville, children growing up in Westhaven, the public housing complex in the 10th and Page neighborhood, have the least chance of escaping poverty, while equally poor children who grow up in northern communities such as Locust Grove, Wildwood, Willow Heights, and Village Square have the greatest chance.

The data, which planning commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates calls “disappointing,” but “not surprising,” comes from a new interactive map called The Opportunity Atlas, which “traces the roots of outcomes such as poverty and incarceration back to the neighborhoods in which children grew up.” Released October 1, the national mapping tool is the result of years of work by researchers at Harvard and Brown, in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, using anonymized data on 20 million Americans who are in their mid-30s today.   

In Charlottesville, the data shows that kids from poor families in Westhaven are projected to earn only $19,000 per year as adults. South of Westhaven, in the areas surrounding Lee, Grove, Ridge and Avon streets, that number is between $20,000 and $22,000. By contrast, in the northern neighborhoods that offer the most potential, (Locust Grove, Wildwood, Willow Heights, and Village Square) kids who grow up poor can expect to make approximately $36,000 each year.

What’s the difference? Solla-Yates says there’s more access to opportunity—”people who can give them jobs, training, experiences”—in the northern neighborhoods.

“For about a century, there’s been an effort to slice up the city to make sure there’s more mansions, or wealth, in the north part of the city, and less in the lower parts,” says Solla-Yates, who also serves on Charlottesville’s housing advisory committee. But, he notes, affordable housing is essentially “banned” in the northern areas of the city, where neighborhoods are mostly zoned as single-family residential with very little industrial zoning. In fact, more than half of Charlottesville is zoned that way.

“If you want to do affordable development, you basically need industrial zoning because there are the least amount of barriers,” he says.

In single-family zoned areas, the  main barrier is simply cost of construction, says neighborhood planner Brian Haluska. He adds that the average cost of building a single-family home in America is about $250,000 before land costs, which are usually about $100,000 in Charlottesville.

“If all you can build is one unit on that lot, it’ll be listed at $350,000 minimum and I’m probably undercutting the price,” says Haluska. “If the zoning only allows single-family housing, that’s all you can get.”

If the zoning permits multiple units per lot, he says, developers are able to spread the construction and land costs over several units.

The two most recently built affordable housing communities—The Crossings at Fourth and Preston and Carlton Views in Belmont—were in industrially zoned areas, where Solla-Yates says there’s also the least amount of neighborhood opposition because, “Well, it could have been a factory.”

In his analysis of the Opportunity Atlas data, Solla-Yates also pointed out a few gaps. In a recent tweet he said some areas, such as a chunk of real estate south of the U.S. 250 Bypass in the Carlton Avenue area, are “so perfectly segregated by income and race that there is no data to judge from. Yes, affordable housing is mainly banned there, too.”

The Atlas’ creators hope that their data will help policymakers recognize and be able to replicate the kinds of community features that help children succeed. “Using the Atlas,” they write, “you can see exactly where and for whom opportunity is lacking in your community and develop customized solutions to improve children’s outcomes.”

In Charlottesville, affordable housing is already high on the planning commission’s list of priorities, and they’re gearing up to start discussing the land use chapter of the comprehensive plan, Solla-Yates says. It’s also the core of the conversation that the housing advisory committee has been having for the past few years, he adds.

Fellow committee member Lisa Larson-Torres says that while everyone in the group understands and hears the need for more affordable housing, “unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Part of the challenge, she says, is that there’s so little land left to be developed in Charlottesville—and she suggests that all new construction should focus on increasing affordable units in all neighborhoods.

“Is that feasible? Probably not,” she says, but it should be on all city residents’ radars, and she hopes more engagement and education will lead to changes in zoning and affordable housing voucher programs.

Larson-Torres says the Opportunity Atlas data supports an ongoing national and local conversation on systemic racism. And addressing it starts with awareness.

“There are a lot of neighborhoods in Charlottesville who are struggling,” she says. “And so many people seem to be immune or unaware of the significant challenges and inequities of our neighbors, possibly on the same street or just a couple of streets down from where we live.”

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