300 Years in the Making: Racial Equity, Entrepreneurship and Capital Innovation in New Orleans

New Orleans–along with Albuquerque and San Francisco–are a part of a new Living Cities’ cohort intended to tackle entrepreneurial barriers for people of color. The initiative–named Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up [SU(3)]–is designed to connect high-growth business owners of color with the private equity and venture capital they need to scale.

New Orleans has a long tradition of entrepreneurship among people of color – the only city in the Confederacy of the American South that afforded slaves the opportunity to work for wages and to sell products and services in order to purchase their freedom. Adjacent to the first community of free people of color in America, Congo Square (originally the Place des Negres) was not only the marketplace for the slave trade, it was also the market where slaves gathered to sell their wares on Sundays and holidays when they were free to gather and conduct trade.

New Orleans today continues on the historic trajectory of entrepreneurship among people of color. And yet, in spite of a majority African American population and the fact that Black-owned businesses account for 40% of all businesses in the city, these businesses receive less than 2% of all business receipts – a margin that has remained constant since 1997.(1)

Race Is Not Risk

Our work with Living Cities and the Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up [SU(3)] initiative has revealed both gaps and opportunities for building an entrepreneurial ecosystem to support entrepreneurs of color and to close the racial wealth gap in New Orleans – a gap that has been growing for the past 50 years.

While rich in entrepreneurs, innovation and cultural connections to the legacy and agency of people of color, the ecosystem of training and technical assistance is geared toward new starts, offering little to support scalability and growth. Non-profit and university providers are clustered around development and support of lifestyle businesses in consumer markets, while the city’s economy is growing producer markets in healthcare, biosciences, and green infrastructure, as well as professional services and tech solutions for a broad spectrum of corporate clients. Among businesses owned by people of color providing high-growth producer services, these businesses are generally competing for public sector contracts. Black businesses are participating at 29% of all City of New Orleans contracts, but receive only 1% of private sector contract opportunities, suggesting that government alone cannot close the racial wealth gap.(2)

In addition to training and technical assistance gaps, SU(3) exposed the critical role of (and gaps in) the capital market as a key component of the ecosystem. Notably, entrepreneurs of color have limited access to capital products beyond traditional debt capital – and even here are less likely to access capital than their White counterparts. Non-profit and mission-driven lenders encounter the same systemic biases in underwriting criteria as mainstream lenders, while angel investors, venture and private equity capital encounter the preponderance of unscalable businesses in the market and struggle to identify a pipeline of entrepreneurs with high-growth capacity.

Focused on a market rate of return and with similar constraints of bias in underwriting, venture and private equity investors are more likely to encounter gaps in management and market penetration among entrepreneurs of color, given the limited access to deal flow these business encounter. Reliant on receivables in the absence of growth capital, these firms appear to be a higher risk as they have limited resources to dedicate to sales, marketing, and management activities, with most of the staffing tied to production and service delivery.

While the gaps in the ecosystem are significant and daunting, SU(3) gives us the opportunity to test market-based solutions as viable strategies for curing the inequities of New Orleans racialized past. Post-Katrina New Orleans is not ambivalent to the mobility of capital in today’s global economy as the city continues to experience growth in both producer and consumer markets. While absent the financial command and control centers and the capacity for capital absorption of global cities, as an international city, New Orleans has an emerging network of diverse high net-worth individuals and a new attractiveness (or at the very least intrigue) to venture and private equity networks resulting from the influx of young entrepreneurs in the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts.

Capital Connection: Closing Gaps to Create Wealth

Combined with the historical and cultural contexts of self-organization of New Orleans’ people of color as a pathway to opportunity, entrepreneurship as a self-organizing strategy can be a movement toward economic inclusion in the 21st Century. At the same time, impact investment funds are amassing billions of dollars, and the impact investment industry continues to develop a common language, shared standards and metrics for measuring impact – also a “movement” for the 21st Century economy. These changes in capital, combined with the activity of self-organization, can promote reformation and cooperation across sectors of the economy, creating innovative behaviors by investors and entrepreneurs alike. All that is missing is the organized ecosystem that combines the two – capital and entrepreneurial agency – in a manner is market-driven, sustainable, impact oriented and intentional around race.

Next steps in this process requires convening, collaboration, consensus and change as we work to close the gaps and change the narrative around entrepreneurship, capital, access and race.

Assembling the members of the ecosystem that currently support entrepreneurs of color and the members of the ecosystem that don’t but can, and building consensus around shared ownership is an important first step. Closing the ecosystem gaps and building the training, technical assistance, incubation, acceleration, and mentoring capacity to support high-growth start-ups and scalable businesses is at the heart of the SU(3) work plan. Innovating the capital marketplace and leveraging non-profit, for-profit, philanthropic and investment capital to support entrepreneurs of color is also at the heart of the work, and organizing the current network of high net-worth individuals, non-profit CDFIs, philanthropic investors and private equity investors to support entrepreneurs of color is an integral component of the plan.

Key to this work is the identification of bias where it exists in capital allocation and eliminating the perception of color as representing risk. As well, changing the entrepreneurial behavior of people of color to reach for high-growth business models instead of focusing on lifestyle business models is a part of the narrative change work; distinguishing notions of venture capital exit from ‘sell-out’; and moving the needle from small business development, to middle-market growth and wealth creation as the outcome.

Toward a Thriving 21st Century Economy

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 2018 Business Case for Racial Equity reveals that economic equity for businesses owned by people of color would result in the creation of nine million new jobs and over the long-term add trillions (with a T) to the American economy.

With so much at stake, new and disruptive strategies of capital deployment, entrepreneurial activity, innovation and behavior must be tested. SU(3) positions us to capitalize on this moment—applying market-based solutions in new ways and developing new tools not yet imagined—to establish a thriving, 21st century economy in New Orleans and nationally. This critical shift is essential to ensuring America’s future in the global marketplace.

Judith Dangerfield, owner of Metro-Source, provided additional writing support for this post.

1.The New Orleans Prosperity Index: Tricentennial Edition. The Data Center. April, 2018.
2.New Orleans Disparity Study Draft Report.

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Digital Inclusion Project in California Wins Award

The city of Santa Monica’s efforts to shrink the digital divide ranks as one of the Top 25 Programs in American Government of 2017. That’s according to Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, who names the top programs in governance based on innovation in government policy.… Read More

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MapLab: America’s Rivaling Regions

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Shades of the past

The voting blocs that propelled Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in the 2016 election are often described in regional terms: urban versus rural, north versus south, Rust Belts, Sun Belt, Corn Belt. But the geographic fissures spewing up the political present may go much deeper.

In an op-ed for the New York Times this week, and in his 2011 book American Nations, the journalist and author Colin Woodard identifies and maps 11 “rival” regions of the United States. These regions trace back to the European colonial projects that originally settled the land, Woodard argues, and their distinct, founding cultural values continue to inform our political reality today.

(Colin Woodard/Tufts University)

Take the Dutch-founded “New Netherland,” with its emphasis on tolerance and materialism—that’s where modern-day New York City lies. Or take the slave lords of English Barbados who settled the “Deep South” as a West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes in the Times, in which “democracy was for a privileged few.” Politicians there continue to push back on taxes for the wealthy and federal protections on the environment and labor.

In Woodard’s terms, Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016 was helped by flipping many rural counties in the “Yankeedom” and “Left Coast” regions. He may have done this in part by playing on centuries-old communitarian impulses in both regions, with his campaign promises of replacing the Affordable Care Act, reviving manufacturing, and passing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

“Those were the most communitarian promises of any Republican candidate since Nixon or Eisenhower,” Woodard told me in a phone interview this week. Whether the same counties will vote red again in 2018 is a toss-up; Trump has broken many of those community-minded pledges as he throttles through his term.

To create the map, Woodard adopted the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinksy’s conceit that whoever sets up a successful society will have an outsize cultural influence on its future. To outline the regions precisely at the county level, he looked back into town genealogies, church logs, slave ownership rates, endemic architectural and design styles, and numerous other archival resources to decide how communities knitted together in the past.

Clearly, geography is just one demographic factor that plays into a person’s politics—race, gender, and class are three more critical vectors. But there does appear to be a strong fidelity between old settlement patterns and contemporary regional politics. Looking at this map, Woodard said, “it continues to amaze me how long the hangover of cultural assumptions is.”

More political mapping by the New York Times: Results for the 2016 presidential election, mapped at the precinct level. And here’s an excellent Twitter thread by an L.A. Times mapmaker criticizing that project: “They lied by not factoring in density.”

Beautiful logic

Do the streets in your city run on a grid, loyal to the cardinal directions? Or do they spiral and curve in all directions? Geoff Boeing, a postdoc in urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a tool that visualizes in circular charts the percentage of streets that run along each section of a compass in any given city. That ratio is what Boeing considers to be a city’s underlying “logic.”

(Geoff Boeing)

“One of my main goals is to empower other people without a Ph.D in city planning or a strong background in computer science to explore their own cities and discover their own patterns and relationships,” Boeing told CityLab’s David Montgomery.

Crack your local code here.

Mappy links

The brighter the shade, the more recently the West Virginia mountaintop was removed. (Skytruth)

More on “New Amsterdam”: A spite-filled history of how Manhattan got its grid. ♦ Is the U.S. leaning left or right? Depends on which map you prefer. ♦ Gerrymandering risks suppressing U.S. voters, but you know what really does? Threats to the 2020 census. ♦ Thanks to climate change: maps of the wildfires burning California from end to end. ♦ Layer by layer: 30 years of mountaintop removal, mapped. ♦ Talk about fraught cultural geography: People are discussing renaming Austin, Texas. ♦  Match me with onion rings: A new Google Maps restaurant feature is a bit like Tinder.

What do you find fascinating about political geography? Let me know. Then forward MapLab to a friend. They can sign up here.

August, ahoy!


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Making a ‘Safe’ City Safer for Women: Lessons from Madrid

In Plan International’s map of Madrid, the sad face icon that signals a bad experience for a woman is not consigned to locations with dark corners: Popular places like Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s main squares, are full of stories of verbal and physical harassment. A user writes about how a failed Tinder date ended with a strange stalking episode. Another user explains that a man grabbed her in the nearby station. And some users also tell anecdotes of being helped by other women.

The topic of safety in Madrid is a tricky one. The capital of Spain has a very low homicide rate: In 2017, only 16 people were murdered in this municipality of more than 3 million people, according to Spain’s Ministry of the Interior. But at a discussion on “Making Cities Safe and Inclusive with and for Adolescent Girls” at the Instituto Cervantes in New York last month, an 18-year-old Madrileña explained that if she walks by a dark corner, “I worry that someone is going to grab me or say something to me.” Her male peers don’t understand, she says: “They don’t believe that there’s a different reality for us.”

An organization is working to make women’s reality an undeniable truth, using maps and crowdsourcing. Partnering with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Plan International created Free to Be, an online project where women can pinpoint safe or unsafe areas, including the details of incidents. The initiative was presented at the Instituto Cervantes discussion last month, with the participation of mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, representatives from Plan International, and others.

Plan International’s interactive map of Madrid: Each sad face represents a reported bad encounter for a woman. (Plan International)

The project started in Melbourne, Australia, a city that Concha López, director of Plan International in Spain, said “is thought of as a safe city, but where we could really see a perception of insecurity from girls and where there is street harassment.” Following the launch in Melbourne, Plan International has replicated the project in a number of cities including Lima, Delhi, Sydney, and Madrid.

Plan International just closed the data-gathering process and is now working on a report that will be published in October. Around 2,400 people interacted with the site and preliminary information provided by the program reports that 93 percent of the participants say they feel gender discrimination in Madrid, while 74 percent said they’ve been harassed in some area of the city.

“This initiative has two components,” López explained. “The first one is to gather data to improve the situation, following the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN” [Number 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable] “And the other objective is to change perception and stereotypes, and make social change, using the direct and proactive participation of young women.”

Many cities have struggled to create public policies that improve women’s safety. The former mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Ángel Mancera, was ridiculed after he launched a program distributing whistles to women in an attempt to “help” them avoid harassment. But the city of Madrid has worked to make more lasting change, spurred in part by an incident during the famous celebrations of San Fermín, in Pamplona, Spain, two years ago. Five men, who infamously referred to themselves as La Manada—the Wolf Pack—abused an 18-year-old woman and videoed it. After they were found guilty of sexual abuse and not the more serious crime of sexual aggression—which includes rape—thousands of women headed to the streets to protest.

In the aftermath of this case, Madrid reacted by creating puntos violeta, violetcolored stands placed at neighborhood parties and celebrations as well as during music festivals like the Mad Cool  festival, which was held for the third year this July, in Madrid.

“We have generated a model that we repeat in all parties which we call, ‘No means no’,” Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, said in New York. They’ve seen how massive events are the perfect spot for these acts to happen, but they are also a place to provide solutions and create awareness of this ‘No means no’. “I think this idea is already part of Madrid’s leisure culture, but we have reinforced it in all the parties with these puntos violeta.” At the stands, any person that is feeling unease or unsafe or has suffered a problem, can come for refuge or advice. These stands will be supported with other measures, the mayor says.

“We are reinforcing this with other structures of mediation: people need to get used to resolving conflicts by listening to each other and to walk in other person’s shoes,” Carmena said.

Although the schools are not under city jurisdiction, but that of the Government of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, the city does organize extracurricular activities and Carmena is using these moments to promote these ideas. The city has instituted projects to promote gender equality and mediation as a way to solve problems. They also have created eight “Equality Spaces”—buildings where people can find resources and information on how to promote better relationships and stop gender violence. Furthermore, the City created a campaign called “Neighborhoods for Good Treatment”  to encourage better, more respectful treatment of women and they have distributed signs and door hangers that businesses and homes can use to signal that these are safe spaces.

In addition, the city is making it easier for victims of gender violence to get housing: now they can apply with just a report of a social worker, and they don’t need to file a report with the police. Madrid also has a hotline and a specialized network to respond to gender violence, as many other cities have, and the Madrid police has a unit that focuses on these kind of crimes. However, Carmena is careful to point out that this is not enough.

“We know that it is really good that there is safety for women, that the streets have enough light, that there is an attitude in the neighborhood that supports girls and women, but we can’t only link violence to these safety initiatives,” Carmena said. “We will never have enough police officers for this. We need to eradicate violent behavior and we think that this is possible.”

Madrid is trying to become a global point of reference in this area. Last year they hosted an international “Forum on Urban Violence and Education for Coexistence and Peace,” and will host it again this November.

That Madrid is a city helmed by a woman—Mayor Carmena, has made a difference. “It is quite obvious that there is a sensitivity of women that is different,” says Plan International’s López. “There’s an effect of this example. And after ‘Me Too’ and what happened with La Manada, in Spain we are in a perfect moment for the population to react.”

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CityLab Daily: ‘We Can’t Get Out of This Area That Is Killing Us’

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter

Summer Lee (Jonno Rattman/Topic)

The problems are best summarized by Lee: “We literally have this steel mill that has been killing us. Our air quality is the worst in the country, and because of the funding schemes for housing and education, we’re stuck in this cycle. We can’t get out of this area that is killing us.”

Today on CityLab:

Brentin Mock

More on CityLab

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Laura Bliss

Why the Next Silicon Valley Will Probably Be Outside the U.S.

The biggest challenges to the Bay Area’s dominance in tech will likely come from overseas.

Richard Florida

What the Hell: Why Not Rename Austin?

A report about city-owned streets named after the Confederacy has sparked a broader (and misleading) conversation about Austin’s history.

Kriston Capps

The Cost of Flood Insurance Is a Price Worth Paying

Hours before it was set to expire, Congress reauthorized the National Flood Insurance Program. That’s a good thing: Despite its many problems, America needs it now more than ever.

Samantha Montano and Amanda Savitt

The Teen Who Wanted to Fix Atlanta’s Noise Pollution Problem

In the 1970s, one local high-school girl went to some of the loudest parts of the city to see just how bad the problem was.

Karim Doumar

What We’re Reading

Why juvenile curfews don’t work (The Marshall Project)

Kris Kobach defended towns’ anti-immigration ordinances and lost big. It’s still been lucrative for him (ProPublica)

Can Waymo’s self-driving cars help Phoenix’s public transit? (Wired)

Forty years after the bombing in Philadelphia, what happened to the Move 9? (The Guardian)

New York City takes aim at racism and maternal mortality (Next City)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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The Cost of Flood Insurance Is a Price Worth Paying

Almost 75 percent of declared disasters in the United States are flood-related, and flood risk continues to rise due to development in floodplains and a changing climate. The beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which was due to expire on July 31 but just got a four-month extension from Congress, can help lessen some of that risk and serve as a lifeline for survivors.

However, in reauthorizing the program, Congress did not fix its many problems. The need to make the NFIP more effective is urgent. And as America’s flood risk grows, we will be even more reliant on it.

Elliot Wu salvages what he can from his Houston home, which was flooded for 12 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, September 11, 2017. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

The NFIP was created 50 years ago, after losses mounted from disasters such as 1965’s Hurricane Betsy. In creating the program, Congress recognized three things: first, that the federal government would have to provide flood insurance because private insurers would not. Private insurers had, by and large, refused to cover floods since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in U.S. history to that point. Insurers must weigh the level of risk to individual properties, how much payouts will cost and how profitable policies are, and homeowners’ willingness to pay premiums—all of which are problematic for assessing flood risk.

Second, Congress knew that national flood risk was too high. The government had been working to address this through the Flood Control Act of 1938 and other laws. But by 1968, these policies had been relatively unsuccessful at lowering the risk; flood insurance was seen as a different strategy. Third, and finally, Congress realized that homeowners needed financial assistance to recover from floods.

In its first four decades, the program was generally solvent—that is, revenue from premiums was approximately equal to payouts. Between 1968 and 2005, when the program did incur debt, FEMA, which oversees the NFIP, borrowed money from the U.S. Treasury and quickly repaid it.

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the resulting levee failure instigated an outpouring of anger and frustration with the NFIP. Katrina’s impacts were more severe than anything the U.S. had experienced since the program began. Post-Katrina, FEMA borrowed $18 billion from the Treasury without a repayment plan, instead of adding it to the supplemental appropriations passed by Congress. The agency borrowed billions more after Hurricane Sandy, and the debt eventually rose to $24.6 billion.

This debt has become the pressure point for the NFIP, with critics citing it as evidence of the program’s failure. But when we consider why the program was created, the debt shows just how vital the NFIP is. Private insurers could not provide affordable flood insurance to the people who needed it, but through subsidies, the federal government—and by extension, the American taxpayer—could. So complaints about insolvency seem misplaced, given that the program’s debt is an obvious outcome of its design.


Financial solvency is of clear interest to taxpayers and politicians. But it’s worth considering the other problems, besides the scarcity of private insurance, that Congress hoped to address by creating the NFIP: flood mitigation and recovery.

A key objective of emergency management is to prevent or limit risk from disasters. Homeowners tend not to voluntarily implement such measures, but the designers of the NFIP thought the program could be used to incentivize safer building and better land-use practices. To this end, the NFIP was intended to work in tandem with the community rating system (CRS), which scores communities for undertaking flood mitigation (by, for example, building levees or changing land-use policies) and offers commensurate reductions in premiums.

There is evidence that the NFIP has succeeded in improving mitigation. Even so, it could do more. The program could be reformed so that more communities are incentivized to join and participate fully in CRS, and it could refuse to cover repetitive-loss properties, or require that they be rebuilt to higher standards.

Repetitive-loss properties are a real problem: Less than 1 percent of homes insured under the program have been responsible for nearly 10 percent of paid claims. Allowing homes to be rebuilt or repaired multiple times without requiring sufficient modifications to prevent future damage is not an efficient use of taxpayer money, and this loophole needs to be closed.

A newer home (left) constructed on much higher stilts is seen next to an older, lower house on Galveston Island, Texas, in 2014. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The NFIP was designed to provide insurance to people who could not afford to pay its actuarial price. Critics claim that simply by offering affordable flood premiums, it incentivizes development in hazardous areas. In fact, researchers have found that other factors, such as the high desirability of beachfront property, road and bridge access, and the availability of public services, are equal if not bigger contributors to the increase of development in high-risk areas.

To the extent that the NFIP does help encourage such development, of course, it must be reformed to prevent that. For example, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate argued that future development in 100-year floodplains should be ineligible for NFIP coverage.

The NFIP was also designed as a resource for American homeowners during recovery from floods. Disaster survivors often describe recovery as “the second disaster,” a long, expensive process of cobbling together aid from savings accounts, second jobs, loans, friends, family, nonprofits, and the government.

Homeowners with flood insurance can receive substantially more money than those who are helped through FEMA’s individual-assistance program. The maximum NFIP payout is $350,000, whereas the largest possible individual-assistance payment is about $34,000. After Sandy, the average payout from FEMA’s individual-assistance program was only $8,000, compared with over $66,000 from the NFIP. Nevertheless, some survivors have struggled to access the NFIP funds they needed or were entitled to. An investigation following Sandy found evidence of poor management by both FEMA and the private insurance companies tasked with NFIP’s administration.

The extremely small number of people who carry policies also inhibits the program’s assistance in recovery. Currently, only about 5 million American households (or about 4 percent) hold flood-insurance policies, even though about 10 percent of households are located in the 100- or 500-year floodplain and face substantial risk. And the real number is likely higher, given the inaccuracy of flood maps.

These, too, are fixable problems. To improve NFIP’s effectiveness in recovery, FEMA must strengthen its oversight. The agency must provide clarity to policyholders about payout requirements and increase the number of people who buy flood insurance by updating flood maps and extending the requirement to purchase a policy to homeowners at lower risk of flooding.


Congress has, on numerous occasions, attempted to reform the NFIP so that it would avoid future debt. These efforts have consistently failed, because the financial burden they place on homeowners is so large and so politically unpalatable. As a result, the program has been caught in a cycle of short-term reauthorizations, with debt from Katrina and Sandy keeping it on the proverbial chopping block.

As attempts at reform have demonstrated, big, expensive changes to the program will be unpopular. Still, the NFIP has the potential to create safer communities and help people recover faster and more smoothly. Another way of looking at it: The federal government spent more than $100 billion on the response to and recovery from Katrina, and over $48 billion for Sandy. The NFIP’s debt of $24.6 billion is just what’s left of those bills.

That the NFIP costs American taxpayers money is the result of policy choices made over decades. We decided we weren’t going to pay upfront to avoid climate change, and we decided to build along the coasts and in floodplains. The debt the NFIP has incurred is expensive, and it will continue to grow. But it is only a small fraction of the interest on the loan that we’ve taken out on our future.

The debt also tends to overshadow the real good that the program does for Americans. Nearly 1.8 million losses have been paid out since the program’s inception. Without it, where would these survivors be in their recovery process?

Although the country has been debating whether and how to limit long-term climate change, we have done relatively little to protect ourselves from its consequences that are already here, including more flooding. The NFIP can help us manage the effects of climate change. But for it to be successful, we have to make it more effective and just—which means accepting its financial cost.  

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How to Fight Police Violence, Pollution, and Poverty, at the Same Time

This article is published in collaboration with Topic and its new documentary series Braddock, PA, about residents fighting to bring their polluted steel town back from the brink. Watch the complete series here.

Summer Lee had just finished canvassing her first house in the first days of her campaign to serve as a Pennsylvania state legislator for District 34, when she was met on the sidewalk by a police officer who stopped and questioned her about what she was doing in the neighborhood. This would not be Lee’s last encounter with law enforcement on the campaign trail. Another day, she was driving some of her campaign staff on a tour through the neighboring municipalities of Braddock and North Braddock, where she grew up, when they noticed a police car following them. When the cop pulled them over, he asked if they were lost. And another time, she was stopped by police in Wilkins Township—where her opponent Paul Costa once served as president of the board of commissioners—who questioned her about whether her canvassing activities were legal.

It sounds just like the kind of dirty political move a well-connected politician would pull off to intimidate his rival, especially when the rival is a five-foot-two black woman knocking on doors in predominantly white communities. But Lee simply chalked it up to neighbors looking suspiciously at “black girls wandering through their neighborhood,” something many residents of the whiter parts of the 34th District aren’t used to. Lee was brought up in North Braddock and Rankin, two of just four cities—including Braddock, where her campaign headquarters is located, and the borough of Homestead, site of the famous Homestead Strike of 1892—in a district in which black residents make up at least 40 percent or more of the population. She’s not supposed to be running through the streets of Wilkins Township, where the population is more than 80 percent white. She’s not supposed to be running for this office in a district that’s over 70 percent white.

Lee ran, though, because she knew that the police in many of the small municipalities of this district are a problem—both in the neighborhoods and in the schools. Prior to running, she advocated to abolish police from the Woodland Hills School District, which covers Braddock, after several reports of officers physically and verbally abusing students, some of which made national headlines. She and others in her community feel it is dangerous to have police in schools during the era of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Dajerria Becton. Lee also believes policing schools is a dangerous idea in an environment where poverty rates are among the highest in the state.

The schools are located in an environment where air pollution from nearby steel and coke processing plants have compromised the health of residents, causing crisis-level asthma rates among the students of the Woodland Hills School District. Though health issues may seem separate from those around policing, when it comes to saving the lives of the black children in this district, Lee sees no difference.

“How do we make changes in this district?” Lee lets the question hang in air. “You gotta talk about [economic] opportunity, and increasing wages, and pollution. You gotta talk about all this stuff as one thing.” Her challenge now is to persuade establishment politicians to also see these issues as “one thing,” when they’ve been barely responsive to them even as stand-alone issues.

Summer Lee (Jonno Rattman/Topic)

Lee won her primary election on May 15, 2018, racking up more than twice the votes of the incumbent Costa, who has held the seat since 1998, making her the first black woman ever elected to a House seat in western Pennsylvania—and, at 30 years old, one of the youngest to do so. And she did it as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in a region where traditional Democratic Party politics have strong roots. (Nobody is expected to oppose her in the November general election. The deadline is today.)

But just over a month after her victory, on June 19, 17-year-old Antwon Rose II was shot and killed by police officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh, a suburban municipality that neighbors Braddock. The cop shot the unarmed African American teen as he fled from the car he and two other men were pulled over in, after they were suspected of being involved in a shooting in North Braddock. The killing triggered massive protests immediately after the shooting that captured the nation’s attention—protests that were still happening throughout the Pittsburgh region at the end of July.  Lee’s hope is that young African Americans like Rose will grow up with the opportunity to run for public office, to have more people who think and look like her making decisions about the future of the place she grew up. But in the face of poverty, pollution, and reckless policing, she’ll first have to come up with policies to help keep them alive.

Protestors rally in Pittsburgh against the police killing of Antwon Rose II. (Getty)

The link between police violence and pollution  

“My district is hot,” says Lee as she sips iced tea in front of the 61B Cafe in Regent Square, her unofficial office until she’s sworn in, about a mile up the road from Braddock. It was a humid July day, with the kind of heat that can make breathing especially difficult for the asthmatic––high temperatures cause ozone levels to rise, leaving excessive amounts of pollution in the air––much of it from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works complex that regularly coats the area with smog. Which may explain why you won’t find many people casually sipping tea down the road in Braddock. But the heat Lee is referring to is the tense relationship between police and communities in her district. Protests continued through July, despite District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. having filed murder charges against police officer Rosfeld the week prior. And the protests wouldn’t cease for days to come.

Even as Lee marched with the protesters, she’s maintained that while police have been a threat, they are only part of a “cyclical nature of racism and structural inequality” that endangers black youth—“no different than education [inequity], which is no different than poverty, which is no different than the environmental injustice that we have in our communities,” she tells me.

Summer Lee/Facebook

The link between police violence and air pollution may not seem like an obvious one, but Summer Lee is far from the first to make the connection. In 2016, University of California, Davis, professors Julie Sze and Lindsey Dillon published a paper showing that many incidents of police violence toward African Americans happen in places where pollution is thickest. Among them are the cases of Alton Sterling, who was killed in 2016 by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is near “Cancer Alley,” and Freddie Gray, who suffered from lead poisoning from his neighborhood’s houses, and was killed by Baltimore police in 2015.

“For many people, the lived experience of police violence and toxic exposure—these different forms of physical vulnerability both live together,” Dillon told CityLab in 2016. “We have to think of them together instead of thinking of them separately.”

Before Lee jumped into politics, she was hitting the streets of the Pittsburgh region organizing around economic-justice issues, including a short stint working with Fight for $15, a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help pull people who work in low-wage jobs, like fast-food workers, out of poverty. That campaign fizzled out in less than a month, however, as Lee and her fellow organizers were met with tremendous resistance, not only from fast-food restaurant managers and franchise owners, but from the workers themselves (which is not uncommon).

“I talked to workers who were actually homeless and were trying to convince them that they deserved not to be homeless,” says Lee. “But this is what capitalism is: Somebody has to be poor. Somebody has to be on the bottom of the food chain, and they believed that it was them who deserved to be poor. Which is a really sad thing because all of these people are worthy. Every single one of them are worthy of so much more.”

When not organizing on the front lines for wage justice, Lee was working on her inside game as a legal advocate, obtaining a degree from Howard University School of Law, where she specialized in civil rights. She was part of the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic team that, in 2014, drafted an amicus brief for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was about disparate impact: specifically, the federal government’s long-running practice of concentrating low-income housing subsidies in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. From the section of the brief that Lee worked on:

Residential segregation contributes to health disparities, particularly for blacks, who are most likely to live in isolated neighborhoods. Low-income black communities are often used as dumping grounds for all manner of municipal pollution that no affluent neighborhood would want or tolerate. Air quality in many of these neighborhoods has become dangerously poor, affecting the health of their impoverished residents who lack the opportunity to relocate. …While black communities suffer greater rates of asthma and obesity, they also have far less access to health care facilities than white communities. There is also a rising trend of hospital closures in urban, minority communities, leaving urgent care out of reach for many.

Though the passage was describing conditions in Washington, D.C., Lee immediately recognized that it also perfectly described her hometown of Braddock. The city’s population, which is just over 2,100 people, is two-thirds African American, and the poverty rate is nearly three times that of the state’s. Braddock is also located in one of the most polluted counties in the country; asthma rates in schools near the mills are astronomical, especially for black students. On top of that, the one hospital that Braddock had closed in 2010. Perhaps most directly, Braddock is a landmark in housing-desegregation case law. In 1988, Cheryl Sanders, a tenant of the Talbot Towers housing projects in Braddock, sued local housing authorities over plans to replace the towers with more public-housing units crowded into that same location, an impoverished area right by the steel mills. Sanders’s lawsuit argued that these plans would only reinforce concentrated poverty and segregation in Braddock. In 1994, the county housing authority signed a consent decree, known as the “Sanders Consent Decree,” agreeing not to build public housing at the former Talbot Towers site, and also to redistribute low-income housing throughout the county so that it wasn’t bundled in the poorest neighborhoods.

For the Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project case, the Supreme Court continued the Sanders legacy by ruling that focusing low-income-housing funding in segregated neighborhoods leads to negative economic and health impacts for African Americans—the disparate impact finding—and that this violates the Fair Housing Act. It should be noted that disparate impact findings also apply in federal environmental policy. When government agencies permit pollution-heavy facilities in predominantly poor or black and Latino neighborhoods, it constitutes a Title VI Civil Rights Act violation from the Environmental Protection Agency (or it’s supposed to anyway).

“We literally have this steel mill that has been killing us,” says Lee about Braddock. “Our air quality is the worst in the country, and because of the funding schemes for housing and education, we’re stuck in this cycle. We can’t get out of this area that is killing us. So that’s how I stumbled into environmental justice.”

The Edgar Thomson Steel Works Complex in Braddock. (Getty)

Like others in the Braddock area, Lee became an environmentalist out of necessity, with a focus on how these myriad factors bear down hardest on the black children of the place she grew up: segregation, smog, poverty, educational inequities, and problems with the police.

“We know that when you are young you are more vulnerable and lead poisoning is irreversible,” says Lee. “So those kids are funneling through the public school systems that are underfunded, and they have special needs now that they possibly have lead poisoning and asthma—all these different things that are impacting their health that are going unnoticed and undiagnosed. How do you now create upward mobility for these communities from that?”

“These are our seats. We just aren’t in them right now.”

Lee learned how to tackle this question as an activist and an advocate. Now she must learn how to answer it as a politician—not only as a black female politician in a sea of white male peers, but also as one whose policy proposals swing further left than most of the local Democratic delegation. Lee is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an ultraprogressive party that is pushing for new laws that would, among other things, provide free health care and college tuition for everyone. Another DSA member, Sara Innamorato, also won her campaign for state House representative, for Pennsylvania’s 21st District, on the same day as Lee, defeating the five-term incumbent Dom Costa, the cousin of Lee’s opponent. Last year, the DSA also helped Mikhail Pappas win his campaign for magisterial district judge, by knocking off yet another member of the Costa family, Ron Costa Sr., who had held that seat for 24 years. There are still two other Costas working in politics in the Pittsburgh region. When it comes to Greater Pittsburgh politics, it’s not just an ol’ boys’ club—it’s literally a family.

But DSA is chipping away at that by helping candidates like Lee, who aren’t afraid to buck the system. As a freshman minority member in the assembly, there won’t be much “radical” policy that Lee can move forward. But she can at least get the conversations started, with Innamorato by her side, while the DSA works to get more Lees and Innamoratos at the table. For now, Lee’s prescriptions for how to cure the pollution, the poverty, and the policing in her district are nothing extremist. For instance, she’d like to have a statewide moratorium on fracking, but is willing instead to try to pass laws that would demand a severance tax from companies for drilling and fracking.

Left to right: Pennsylvania State Rep.-elects Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (AP Images)

As for policing, Lee has already been active in working with other local elected officials, such as state Reps. Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley, to create a statewide police officer database that would track officers’ misconduct complaints and whether they’ve been fired from another force. They’re also working on legislation for uniform training standards for every municipality’s police department, a countywide civilian oversight committee, and residency requirements that require police to live in the municipalities they serve. However, doing any of this—including the environmental regulations—would require buy-in from the mayors and council members of all those small municipalities that make up Lee’s district, which has about 60,000 people, many of whom live in cities of less than 5,000 people. This is no small task given that many of those small municipality leaders, and their constituents, enjoy having their own police forces, and have legacy family ties to the mills.

“I’ve talked to officials [in neighboring districts], and all these places have never had black police officers and don’t have black candidates,” says Lee. “That first time I got pulled over by a police officer—that police officer lived in a completely different area, faraway. He had no actual ties to the community outside of working in it. So he doesn’t have to know these kids.”

As Lee discusses her policy proposals outside of the 61B Cafe, an African-American man, maybe in his mid-20s, walks up to her, seemingly unbothered by the heat. He’s elated to run into Lee again after meeting her briefly at a fundraiser a few months back. He congratulates her for winning her election and tells her he’s been following her videos on Facebook, the ones where she’s giving speeches to crowds during the Antwon Rose protests.

“Everything you say is on point, keep it up,” he tells her. “Keep spearheading it. Keep getting the youth involved.”

He’s going to run for office very soon, he says, as soon as he “gets some of his personal stuff together,” but she inspired him to go for it.

“Let’s do it!” she tells him. “If I can do it, we can take our communities back. These are our seats. We just aren’t in them right now.”

Lee gives him her card and tells him to contact her when he’s ready to make that leap. This was the main goal of her campaign, she says, to inspire more people like her to run, to help people realize that they don’t have to be a white male with a politically famous last name to make decisions about the future of places like Braddock. She says she doesn’t otherwise enjoy being the “integration experiment”—something she says she’s endured since being the only black woman in her classes and organizations as an undergrad student at Penn State, where she majored in journalism. But for Braddock, she’s willing to make the sacrifice.

“The alternative is to say black people can’t be in these spaces, and black women in particular,” says Lee. “I’ll go into a toxic space that despises my very existence, my audacity to be black and be a woman and also to live in a district that is not predominantly black—‘How dare you come into our space where we have historically been and where you have not historically been, interrupting what we have?’ It catapults me into a hostile environment, right? The plan is to get more of us. If I can win this district, what district can’t we win? Why can’t black folk run? Why can’t women run?”

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Environmentalists by Necessity

This article is published in collaboration with Topic and its new documentary series Braddock, PA, about residents fighting to bring their polluted steel town back from the brink. Watch the complete series here.

Where Braddock Avenue ends, after a patchwork of withering edifices, fading murals, and a few restaurants, there is a small, boxy green building with the name HOLLANDER’S plastered above its storefront windows. This was the name of a drugstore when, many decades ago, Braddock Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor running through what was then one of the most prominent cities in America. Brandy Rawls is one of the building’s eight tenants, and she uses her space to run Oli’s Angels, an organization she launched last year to help expecting mothers with doula and midwife resources, and to provide bereavement counseling for mothers whose babies have died. Rawls herself lost her son, who was delivered stillborn in 2010, on Christmas Day.

Infant mortality is a devastating problem in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where Braddock is located—between 2008 and 2012, white infants had average infant mortality rate of 4.75 deaths for every 1,000 live births, while the rate for black infants was 13.73. It’s an issue that perplexes public health researchers and reproductive rights advocates like Rawls. One suspected cause is the mill that sits directly behind her office, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, which has been active since Andrew Carnegie opened it in 1872, and is now owned by U.S. Steel. It’s a major reason why Braddock sits below some of the most polluted air in America, and possibly explains the area’s high rates of sickness. Over the past year, Rawls, who is black, has confronted a reality she can no longer ignore: If she wants to advocate for health in her region, she must learn to become an environmental activist.

(Brentin Mock/CityLab)

Pennsylvania’s definition of an environmental-justice area is one that is upward of 30 percent minority and more than 20 percent low-income. Braddock qualifies as both. There are dozens of fossil-fuel power plants that are disproportionately located in census tracts where people of color are more than 30 percent of the population—and this is true for minorities at every income level, according to a recent report from the environmental watchdog group Food & Water Watch.

The reach and scope of Braddock’s toxicity is emblematic of what it means to suffer environmental injustice in the U.S., where people of color, and with limited resources, bear the brunt of pollution. The public health threats that come with carrying that environmental burden intersect with other urgent policy issues challenging the life and growth of Braddock, including the economy, schooling, and even reproductive justice.

In Braddock, the average median household income is $24,551, with 30 percent of Braddock’s population living below the federal poverty line—more than twice the rate for Pennsylvania. This is the economic condition that Brandy Rawls was in at the time of her own child’s death. She was born in Braddock and grew up there with asthma, eczema, and other allergies—all conditions that she says run through her family. Much of her Oli’s Angels work includes connecting mothers to agencies that offer things like free lead mitigation and air-filtration services for homes, all to keep the mothers healthy and better ensure that their babies survive. She is providing the kind of services she wishes had been available and accessible to her when she was pregnant.

Poverty concentration in and around Braddock

While she has been engaged in this reproductive-justice mission for the past five years, it was this past December when she learned about the environmental connection to her work. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution contributes to the leading cause of infant mortality, as well as to low birth weight and premature births. In Allegheny County, there is a huge disparity between black babies that have died due to below-normal weights and short gestation periods and white babies that have died under similar circumstances, according to the county’s health department report. Learning this, Rawls realized that her work would have to become even more intersectional than she originally planned.

“I really think that in order to improve birth outcomes in Allegheny County, we have to become more interdisciplinary and provide comprehensive education,” says Rawls. “As community activists, members, and professionals, we have to come together and bridge gaps. That’s the only way any of this is going to be effective.”

Concentration of non-white population in and around Braddock  

Braddock is both running and dying on the fumes of steel, the primary source of both employment and smog in this small city of less than 2,000 people. The U.S. Steel complex in the Monongahela Valley region is a sprawling ecosystem of manufacturing facilities located just outside of Pittsburgh, which include the Edgar Thomson mill in Braddock, the Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, and the Clairton Coke Works. Throughout history, U.S. Steel, which today has its official world headquarters in Pittsburgh, has produced the bulk of the materials used to build and fortify buildings (and weaponry) across the globe. However, the steel industry’s center of gravity had shifted overseas by the 1980s, when U.S. Steel began shuttering many of its operations in the region, draining Braddock of its economic livelihood in the process.

The city that was once defined by its steely resolve is now defined by poverty and pollution. The region’s long legacy of pumping iron, steel, oil, and coal out of its mountainous terrain has extracted a huge toll on the lungs of the people living there—and the air hasn’t completely cleared despite a huge reduction in those manufacturing and extractive operations in recent years.

Air pollution concentration in and around Braddock

Yet, it’s been difficult to consistently hold these polluting companies accountable because the culture of steelwork is so ingrained in the identity of the greater Pittsburgh region. “If you throw a stone you’re going to hit someone who worked in a steel mill like my father did briefly. And my grandfather and my great-grandfather spent their whole working careers there,” says Jamin Bogi, the policy and outreach director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), which has been advocating for cleaner air policies in Pittsburgh since 1969. “Yes, it was amazing that our steel won World War II, but we also know that the air pollution shortened our lives by 10 or 20 years, and we know more now than we did then, so we can do something about it.”

The American Lung Association currently ranks Allegheny County 12th in the nation for year-round pollution from particulate matter—the particles of dust, soot, and smoke. When ranking Metropolitan Statistical Area, the ALA ranks Pittsburgh as eighth among all cities in this category, in its 2018 State of the Air report. A great deal of that particulate matter blasts regularly from the pipes and smokestacks behind Rawls’s office.

“I want these people to live,” says Rawls. “I want all these babies to live, and for these women to have good quality of life. I don’t want people to just get wet with a feeling of hope or change, I want to saturate the people.”

A culture ingrained in steel

Train yards run across Braddock and its neighboring towns, with locomotives transporting steel and coal materials, sprinkling extra layers of soot into the air from diesel engines. More diesel is spread from the trucks, boats, and barges that lug mounds of coal up and down the Monongahela River. (A few of those barges recently broke loose and spilled coal in the river near Braddock.) Toss in the elevated presence of lead from the many abandoned factories and mills, and the lead paint from old housing stock, and you have a cumulative toxic assault that makes Braddock one of the most polluted cities in a county that’s already considered one of the most polluted in America.

Lead paint risk rates in and around Braddock

Toxic air emissions are a way of life for the steel manufacturing industry. Government agencies permit steel companies to emit a certain level of air pollution that they believe is otherwise unavoidable. However, U.S. Steel plants have regularly blasted out air toxicants beyond the permissible levels established by the county and federal governments. Last November, the Allegheny County Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint notice to the steel plant in Braddock for “past and potentially continuing” violations of its permit for visible emission limits. The steel plant is not only a major emitter of particulate matter (the smog stuff), but also sulfur oxides (the funky-smelling stuff), volatile organic compounds (the liver-damaging and cancer-causing stuff), and carbon monoxide (the stuff that can silently kill you).

Braddock already suffers from some of the highest rates of respiratory disorders in the region. The asthma rates are so bad, and among black children in particular, that it has triggered a chronic absenteeism crisis in the schools. The county health department also issued a $1 million fine in June to the Clairton Coke Works plant, roughly 12 miles down the river from the Braddock steel plant, for frequently exceeding its toxic-emission permit levels.

GASP and the Clean Air Council sued the health department in July 2018, arguing that it is drawing millions of dollars from several funding programs for a new building-renovation project when that money is supposed to go toward projects that clean the air. GASP and other environmental groups that focus on air pollution work have been past recipients of grants from the fund. But as GASP’s executive director Rachel Filippini says, those grants have typically been in the thousands of dollars, while the health department is expected to spend $4.5 million for its new building.

“We certainly want them to have a quality staff working in proper facilities, but these are county facilities so this should be funded and maintained with [general] county funds, not by taking clean air money at a time where we have such terrible air quality,” says Filippini. “It’s an unprecedented amount of money that they want to take from this fund to do a project that will not result in cleaner air.”

The paradox of what’s happening in Pittsburgh

There’s even more urgency for clean air projects considering that there’s another pollution threat headed for the region: fracking. Last December, New Mexico–based Merrion Oil and Gas announced plans to develop six wells for hydraulic fracturing for natural gas on the Edgar Thomson steel mill site, taking advantage of the Marcellus Shale that runs through the valley. U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox told NPR that the company views “this project as a potential opportunity to enhance the long-term cost competitiveness of our local Mon Valley works facilities, including Edgar Thomson plant.”

Edith Abeyta and her North Braddock neighbors caught wind of the incoming fracking threat in 2014, and began organizing to stop it. They successfully lobbied their city council to pass a zoning ordinance that would ban fracking within its borders. (The city of Pittsburgh passed a similar fracking-ban ordinance in 2010, as did other small surrounding municipalities.)

But the site where Merrion Oil and Gas plans to build wells and drill, on the Edgar Thomson footprint, is in North Versailles, a small municipality that neighbors Braddock. Abeyta’s group realized this was close enough to them that they’d have to redouble their anti-fracking efforts, which they’ve been doing under the banner North Braddock Residents for Our Future.

There are risks from fracking operations that could further pollute the air and water of surrounding communities, hampering children’s cognitive and women’s reproductive abilities. A 2016 study linked exposures to the chemicals used for fracking to reproductive and developmental problems in female mice. Another study that year, based on an examination of the health of thousands of people living in Pennsylvania, found that the closer they lived to fracking operations the more likely they were to suffer from migraines and sinus infections.

“For me,” says Abeyta “there is this paradox of what’s happening in Pittsburgh, not very far away where a lot of people and foundations and government officials are working to make the region more green and sustainable and livable. But then we have actions like this with fracking coming, and it seems like the antithesis of what’s happening in the rest the region.”

Abeyta has no background in environmental science, nor do most of the 100 or so members of this North Braddock collective. Like Brandy Rawls, they have become environmentalists out of necessity. “I just wanted to be involved in shaping the place where I live,” Abeyta says.

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How Participatory Data Collection is Shaping China’s Mobility & Climate Policy

Ms. Xumei Chen works as one of the key research fellows in the China Urban Sustainable Transportation Research Center (CUSTReC), an international think tank on urban transport under Ministry of Transportation, China. In early July, Meeting of the Minds Consultant and Writer Kate O’Brien connected with Ms. Chen to learn about her research and policy work focused on public transport systems in her rapidly urbanizing country.

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Paying High Rent in Pricey Cities Is ‘Saving’ for the Future

Another month, another paycheck tossed into the bottomless craw of some shadowy rental management company. That’s what paying to live in expensive cities can feel like when you don’t own property.

Take heart, tenants: You are “saving” for the future by paying up in the present. That’s the optimistic rationalization—er, explanation—at the heart of a new working paper published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It offers a somewhat counterintuitive framework for understanding housing choices and the financial trade-offs tied to them.

The paper, authored by Esteban Rossi-Hansberg and Adrien Bilal, a Princeton University economics professor and Ph.D student respectively, explains that as with any form of investment, the place you choose to settle or stay has a cost associated with it—i.e., how much you’re paying in rent. And every location pays back on that investment in job opportunities, education for your children, cultural amenities, and so forth. Whether it’s Wichita, Palo Alto, Durham, or the heart of Manhattan, your location should be considered an asset with which you can make different investment decisions.

So, when you choose to move to a pricier and amenity-laden city, you’re transferring resources into the future—i.e., saving!—by establishing yourself near opportunities for higher pay and human capital, Rossi-Hansberg and Bilal argue. On the flipside, when you relocate to a community with a lower cost of living but fewer economic advantages, you’re pulling resources into the present that you might have gained in the future—i.e., borrowing.

Given that writing high monthly rent checks feels like setting your savings account on fire, it’s a nifty bit of psychological judo to think of them instead as a form of savings in themselves. Unfortunately, just as the uneven economic landscape means that not everyone can afford to keep their savings account afloat, let alone invest in financial markets, most of us can’t easily upgrade our neighborhood as a form of future savings.

But, Rossi-Hansberg and Bilal hypothesize, if your location is an asset, it can also be “sold” when you need the income. In other words, if you’ve just lost your job or been hit with a big bill, you can cash in your location by moving to a less-premium one. The researchers tested this theory against a large dataset of employer tax returns in France, which represented about 4 percent of workers there from 1994 to 2007. They found strong evidence that, compared to wealthier counterparts, individuals at the bottom of income curve were more likely to “trade in” locations, whether they rented or owned, as a result of a negative change in their job status or prospects.

This is not a surprising conclusion: If you can no longer afford your rent, you’re going to move somewhere cheaper. But the location-as-asset theory may complicate what the researchers see as the prevailing explanation for why people choose to stay in areas with fewer opportunities. “The traditional view out there is that people are trapped in certain bad neighborhoods, due to high mobility costs,” Rossi-Hansberg said. This study, on the other hand, gives more agency to the individual making a location choice. “In many cases, people want to live where they live, so that they can transfer resources to present.”

This study has caveats aplenty: The dataset the researchers used doesn’t get into the specific circumstances that pushed individuals from one neighborhood to another; clearly, changes in someone’s family composition, health, and transportation choices are huge factors. And it doesn’t do much to acknowledge the profound inequality and discriminatory policies currently conspiring to make the housing market intractable in many cities. Some people really are stuck.

But a wealth of literature shows how the investment pays off when individuals are able to upgrade from poorer to pricier neighborhoods. That concept is the basis for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Moving to Opportunity” 10-year experiment, where very low-income families given federal assistance to move from super-impoverished urban areas to higher-income neighborhoods showed marked improvements in health. The economist Raj Chetty has found that parents who move to a location where median rents are $176 higher can increase their child’s future earnings by 1 percent.

The takeaway? The explanation for you live where you live may be more financially sound than you give yourself credit for. The rent check may hurt this month, but you could make it back, with interest, in the future.

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