Some US cities now have worse inequality than Mexico, a study has shown

Skid Row, Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

The cities of the Americas are unequal places. US census data and recent American Community Surveys show that in most modern American metropolises, resources are unevenly distributed across the city – think New York City’s lower Manhattan versus the South Bronx – with residents enjoying unequal access to jobs, transportation and public space.

In 2014, New York City’s GINI inequality index was 0.48, meaning that income distribution was less even in New York City than in the US as a whole (0.39). It was also higher than the most unequal OECD countries, Chile (0.46) and Mexico (0.45).

Latin America, which is the world’s most unequal place, is also by far the most urbanised region of the globe. More than 80 per cent of its population lives in large cities. Between 1950 and 2005, the region’s big cities grew precipitously. Both Mexico City and São Paulo jumped from just under three million people to, in both cases, nearly 19m.

Data on urban inequality is largely unavailable, but it is clear that this rapid urbanisation has been far from equitable. According to a 2012 UN Habitat report, the large majority of Latin America’s non-poor population lives in major metro areas, while the poorest live in rural areas.

What does inequality look like?

No matter where you live, measuring inequality is tricky, because its incidence and extent changes in different parts of the city.

Sure, there are rich neighbourhoods and poor ones: high-income and low-income households sort themselves across cities according to preference (for local public goods and neighbourhood composition) and needs (according to budget, job location and housing prices).

But not every neighbourhood is comprised fully of households with the same income. Income sorting across space is often “imperfect”, meaning that rich and poor households might live in the same neighbourhood and share common social ties and local amenities.


As a result, a very specific and local kind of inequality emerges within neighbourhoods. This phenomenon is sizeable in US metro areas, Census Bureau data shows. Not only do unequal households live very close together, but neighbourhoods also represent small communities where local inequality, on average, seems to track overall urban inequality.

For example, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles all have neighbourhood income inequality at least 20 per cent larger than Washington’s, which matches the difference in the cities’ GINI indices. We found that inequality within individual neighbourhoods has also been rising precipitously over the past 35 years (even in very small neighbourhoods), indicating an increase of income heterogeneity at the community level.

This unexpected finding is likely related to the comeback of North American cities over the past decade – the so-called great inversion. Across the Americas, jobs and firms are moving back into major metro areas, attracting more skilled people, who are generally young, receive higher wages and prefer to settle down where their jobs are.

As high-income young couples buy up homes in historically distressed neighbourhoods long dominated by the working and renting class – and gentrify them – they push up income heterogeneity in those places. This is happening in cities across the Americas.

Gentrification has occurred in many North American cities, increasing local income inequality and, in some cases, tensions. Image: Michael Premo/Flickr/creative commons.

Keeping up with the Joneses

We wanted to better understand this phenomenon. Why is local income inequality rising? How can we quantify it? What are the trends in uber-localised inequality? And what does it all mean for city dwellers?

Those were the questions driving our study – So close yet so unequal: Reconsidering spatial inequality in US cities – which focused on US cities. Our preliminary findings were recently published in a Catholic University of Milan Working Paper.

Unlike traditional assessments of inequality, which accept administrative partitions of the city as the unit of analysis and measure income inequality in those neighbourhoods, we look at inequality among neighbours, putting people at the centre of our analysis.

The underlying thought experiment consists of asking individuals to compare their income with that of neighbours living within a given distance range (from few blocks to entire census areas), thus quantifying income inequality in that particular person’s neighbourhood.

In doing so for every person in a city – any city – one should be able to measure two aspects of spatial inequality: the average income inequality within individual neighbourhoods (is my neighbour richer than me?), and inequality among the average incomes of each neighbourhood (is that neighbourhood richer than mine?).

We found that these two indices define a typology of cities that mirrors what urban planners have found at the city level. Some places are “even cities”. Like Washington DC, they display relatively low income inequality everywhere.

Other metro areas, among them Miami and San Francisco, show high urban inequality, but high and low-income households are rather evenly distributed throughout the city. These are so-called “mixed cities”.

The largest US metro areas also have the most unequal neighbourhoods. In New York and Los Angeles, the way high and low-income households are distributed across the urban footprint reflects what planners call the “unstable city” model.

The Great Gatsby in the ‘hood

Such substantial and increasing inequality appears to imply several contradictory things for cities and their residents.

As shown in Figure 1, lower neighbourhood inequality is associated, on average, with large upward mobility gains for young people who grew up in poor families, a phenomenon reported in recent work by Stanford University’s Raj Chetty.

Figure 1: upward mobility in America’s urban neighbourhoods. Upward mobility gains/losses for children living in poor families in 2000, by Commuting Zone. Image: author provided.

Children of better-off families benefit, too, from living in a homogenous local community, thanks to “positive contagion” facilitated by social interaction among wealthy young peers.

Both findings are evidence of a “Great Gatsby Curve” in America’s neighbourhoods. That is, greater income inequality in one generation amplifies the consequences of having rich or poor parents for the economic status of the next generation.
Yet greater income inequality within individual neighbourhoods may actually be a good thing for poorer locals. Figure 2 shows that they experience life expectancy gains, perhaps due to positive health modelling and increased aspirations among poor adult residents.

Figure 2: Life expectacy in America’s urban neighbourhoods. Image: author provided.

Addressing inequality

For policy makers, then, our findings create an intergenerational trade-off. A “mixed city” model would seem to promote life expectancy gains for poor adults who live there, while the “even city” ideal furthers economic mobility of young people who grow up poor.

Lessons learned from such a policy debate in the US could have important international consequences.

No one has yet applied our neighbourhood-based inequality analysis to Latin America’s unequal cities. But we can see that in metropolises such as Mexico City, and São Paulo in Brazil, as well as in smaller cities, uncontrolled sprawl and lack of urban planning has increased the distances between high, middle and low-income households.

The view from the Rocinha favela, in Rio de Janeiro, where ‘urban renewal’ is now encroaching on some of the poorest parts of the city. Image: AHLN/Flickr/creative commons.

This is the “polarised city” model, and our paper found little evidence of it in US cities (with the exception of Detroit and Washington). Such places have substantial heterogeneity in income across neighbourhoods and relatively little heterogeneity within neighbourhoods.

In Latin America’s polarised cities, the poor are separated from the rest of the population. As a result, they have lower access and opportunities for education, employment and services. This inequality has been exacerbated by gentrification and by the region’s growing global economic engagement. This has strengthened urban elites’ connections to the world while relegating Latin America’s poor further into the periphery.


In such cases, increasing the urban income mix seen in New York City might actually have beneficial effects for the city’s neediest residents. This is a relevant area for future study. It would be interesting, for example, to plot cities across the Americas on the same graph, examining regional trends in longevity and mobility based on neighbourhood-level inequality.

The ConversationSuch hyper-local analysis would offer both policymakers and international agencies the kind of information they need to improve the lives of today’s city dwellers, both now and in the future.

Eugenio Peluso is associate professor of economics at the University of Verona. Francesco Andreoli is a post-doctoral researche at the Luxemburg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.