Every family should be able to live in a neighborhood that supports its well-being and boosts its children’s chances to thrive. But decades of racist policies and institutional practices have built a system of separate and unequal neighborhoods in US metropolitan regions that systematically undermine this ideal.1
What should we do to dismantle this system? We should invest in disinvested neighborhoods so they become springboards for their residents. In neighborhoods experiencing revitalization, we should preserve affordable housing and discourage displacement. And we should build more affordable and accessible housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods so families are not excluded based on their race or ethnicity, country of origin, disability, or income.
Community-based organizations, advocates, civic leaders, and local governments across the country are pursuing important work on all these imperatives. However, they rarely work in tandem or across jurisdictions to coordinate strategies at a regional scale. Here we offer a proposal to “go big” in a handful of metropolitan areas to test whether a coordinated regional strategy—planned and executed over a decade and supported by residents’ voices and power—can reverse the legacy of segregation, disinvestment, and exclusion.
More specifically, we propose a robust, well-funded, and sustained effort to support the development and implementation of “opportunity neighborhood” plans in select metropolitan regions. Participating regions would
- commit to amplifying the voices of and giving authority to residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods, people of color, and other communities facing barriers to housing and economic opportunity;
- engage in data-driven, participatory planning;
- develop a tailored, regional portfolio of investments and policy reforms that would include revitalizing disinvested neighborhoods, preventing displacement from gentrifying neighborhoods, and increasing access to high-opportunity neighborhoods;
- receive sustained support from philanthropy and government to bring their plans to fruition; and
- track and evaluate progress, adapting strategy and tactics over time based on evidence.
This effort would engage community-based institutions, advocates, civic and business leaders, researchers, philanthropy, and policymakers in three to five regions to design and implement a 10-year plan to transform each region’s geography of opportunity.
Six Building Blocks of a Regional Opportunity Neighborhood Strategy
Every region’s strategy for righting the wrongs of discrimination, exclusion, and segregation will differ, responding to its specific history, its residents’ priorities, and current economic, social, and climate realities. But empirical research, lessons from previous efforts to reduce neighborhood disparities or mitigate their effects, and discussions with experts suggest six key building blocks for designing and executing any opportunity neighborhood strategy.
1: Adopt a regional approach. Opportunity neighborhood strategies should be designed and pursued at a regional scale. Strategies that focus on one distressed neighborhood or even one city in a metropolitan region are likely to miss larger market dynamics that shape neighborhood vitality and the effects that policies outside a jurisdiction may have on the choices of families who live there. Adopting a regional lens to understand barriers to opportunity and the resources available to overcome them can encourage collaboration across jurisdictions and a sense of regional shared fate. It can also expose how racial exclusion has perpetuated separate and unequal neighborhoods and schools and encourage residents and political leaders (both in opportunity-rich communities and underresourced ones) to become champions for diversity and inclusion.
2: Pursue place-conscious strategies. Each regional strategy should include a portfolio of place-conscious programs and policy reforms that respond to local needs and market dynamics. These programs and reforms should work in concert to advance the shared goals of reducing neighborhood inequities, ensuring all families can afford and feel welcome in neighborhoods of opportunity and expanding neighborhood choices, especially for families of color. In some neighborhoods, this will involve investing in strong civic institutions, mixed-income housing, high-performing schools, and financial services. In others, it will involve preserving and expanding affordable housing and other supports for low-income families to prevent their displacement and ensure existing residents benefit from improvements. And in others, it will involve improving access to high-opportunity neighborhoods for all people through residential mobility programs, regional siting of accessible and affordable housing, and access to reliable and affordable transportation.
3: Empower residents to lead. Residents of neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment must play a leading role in designing and driving solutions. Too often, interventions are designed through planning processes and implemented by institutions that exclude the people most affected by discrimination and segregation. Such interventions often misinterpret community needs or assets and exacerbate disparities in power and access to resources. Although ensuring that residents have power and can make their voices heard is more easily said than done, it is essential not only for identifying where and why barriers to opportunity exist, but also for creating ongoing mechanisms for accountability in overcoming them. Community engagement and leadership development should not be limited to residents of underresourced neighborhoods. Effectively implementing an opportunity neighborhood strategy also requires residents of opportunity-rich communities to champion intentional strategies to undo exclusionary practices, especially in the areas of land use regulation, transportation, and school financing.
4: Partner with and strengthen effective organizations. Investments in regional opportunity neighborhood plans should strengthen the institutional capacities of local organizations working at the neighborhood, city, and regional levels. Strong neighborhood-level institutions can empower residents to pursue and set priorities for investments and mobilize capital to address neighborhood needs. They can also help residents learn about and access resources and opportunities throughout their cities and regions. City-level organizations can coordinate efforts across sectors to ensure neighborhoods are not left behind. And regional organizations, such as metropolitan planning organizations, councils of government, or regional chambers of commerce, must focus on “access to opportunity” and recruit member jurisdictions to break down the barriers excluding people from economic prosperity and mobility from poverty. Strengthening institutional capacities at these three levels will be essential not only to support a participatory planning process, but also to hold partners accountable for implementation, press for systems change, and sustain progress.
5: Use data to evaluate and refine strategies. Regional strategies should invest in the collection and application of data and knowledge to support evidence-based decisionmaking, community engagement, and continuous learning and program improvement. The first step is for each region to develop high-level metrics that document patterns of neighborhood disinvestment, inequity, and exclusion. Then, they can use those data and performance metrics to measure progress on implementing plans, evaluate the effectiveness of plans in improving access to opportunities, and share lessons with other regions.
6: Confront racism. Opportunity neighborhood strategies must explicitly confront and overcome racism and its pervasive influences. America’s tragic history of slavery, racial violence, and oppression has produced not only today’s patterns of neighborhood segregation and concentrated poverty, but also racist narratives about the inferiority of Black people. These narratives profoundly influence people’s beliefs about who “belongs” in their neighborhood and who “deserves” to be a member of their community. Undoing the country’s legacy of racial segregation will require abandoning these destructive narratives in conjunction with changes to policies and systems. Meanwhile, systematic efforts to narrow neighborhood inequities and expand people’s residential choices can contribute to antiracist narratives by creating opportunities for white people and people of color to know each other as neighbors, and by restoring ladders of economic opportunity in the neighborhoods where many people of color live.
Each of these building blocks has been and is being implemented, with varying success, in communities across the country. What is new and potentially powerful about this proposal is that it would combine these building blocks at a regional scale and pursue them over a longer period to reverse the legacy of segregation, exclusion, and disinvestment so every family can live in a neighborhood that supports its well-being and upward mobility.
Roles for Government and Philanthropy
Success will require support from philanthropy and all levels of government. Broadly speaking, philanthropy will help set a diverse and representative table, support strong institutions and evidence-based decisionmaking, and make catalytic investments during implementation. The role of government will be to remove structural barriers to opportunity through policy reforms, strategic investments, and improved coordination to deepen impact.
Local governments in each region are likely best positioned to directly address recommendations made in the opportunity neighborhood plans by revising policies and investments that perpetuate segregation and concentrated poverty. But local governments often have strong fiscal and political incentives to maintain patterns of racial and economic segregation, meaning state and federal governments have critical roles to play.
State laws and constitutions define the boundaries of what local governments must, may, and may not do in varying ways, with implications for local budgets, land use decisions, and policymaking across a range of issues. State governments can incentivize solutions that cross jurisdictional boundaries. And they play a large and increasing role in distributing federal resources for housing, community development, transportation, and infrastructure.
Federal policies and subsidies helped create and reinforce the patterns of segregation and concentrated poverty we see today, and they will be essential in undoing them. Under existing civil rights, fair housing, and environmental justice laws the federal government already has the authority to act, but it has lacked the will and resources to do so. It can help level the playing field across cities and regions and ensure access to opportunity is equal everywhere in the United States. And only the federal government manages the budget and scale of resources necessary to reverse long-standing inequities in access to capital, services, and opportunities across the nation’s neighborhoods. It can start by vigorously enforcing the long-neglected statutory mandate to affirmatively further fair housing, implementing a place-conscious equity review for all major discretionary spending, and providing data, guidance, and resources to state and local governments to support robust planning for fair housing.
1 This paper summarizes a more extensive paper by Margery Austin Turner, Solomon Greene, Antony Iton, and Ruth Gourevitch that advances and documents the Opportunity Neighborhoods proposal, produced by the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. That report is available here: https://www.mobilitypartnership.org/opportunity-neighborhoods.