Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 14, 2015

Neighborhood Change and Public Housing

By David Reiss


The Effects of Neighborhood Change on NYCHA Residents, a report released to little notice in May, has received a lot of attention after the NY Daily News wrote a disparaging article about it. I will leave it to others to decide if this report was worth its six figure price tag, but I do think that there are some interesting findings. The report was prepared by Abt Associates and NYU’s Furman Center, two leading housing research entities. The Findings at a Glance state that

In this study, Abt finds statistically significant differences in earnings for NYCHA residents living in different neighborhood types. Annual household earnings average $4,500 higher for public housing residents in persistently high‐income neighborhoods as compared to persistently low‐income neighborhoods. Earnings are $3,000 higher for those in increasing income neighborhoods. Moreover, these findings are not attributable to any selection bias of residents choosing to live in either persistently high or low income neighborhoods. (1)

This is a pretty big deal, given that the average family income for NYCHA residents is $23,311. If this increased income is attributable to neighborhood characteristics, we would want to take that into account when formulating housing policy.

There were some other interesting findings that were also not highlighted by the Daily News:

  • Developments surrounded by persistently high‐income neighborhoods have lower violent crime rates (5.7 violent crimes per 1,000 residents) than those surrounded by persistently low‐income neighborhoods (8.3 violent crimes per 1,000 residents).
  • Developments in persistently high‐income neighborhoods are zoned for public elementary schools with higher standardized test scores than developments in persistently low‐income neighborhoods; 72% of NYCHA households in low‐income neighborhoods are zoned for schools in the bottom quartile for math proficiency (cf. 41% for those in high‐income neighborhoods).
  • Among public elementary and middle school students living in NYCHA housing, those living in developments surrounded by persistently high—and increasing—income neighborhoods score higher on standardized math and reading tests. (Findings at a Glance, 2)

Before this report is dismissed as a boondoggle, we should try to understand its implications for developing a housing policy that promotes socioeconomic diversity. This is a city of extremes of wealth and poverty and there has been a very negative reaction to policies, such as poor doors, that seem to reinforce that state of affairs. But it may turn out that public housing is a useful tool for creating the more equitable city that so many New Yorkers strive for. Let’s not shoot the messengers before we hear what they have to say.

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