Is ZIP code destiny? However you answer that question, the frame behind the question shapes how we think about policy. In a housing context, connecting where you live to your life outcomes can lead to a too-quick conclusion that people should just move (if they can afford to). But “change where you live” means two things: to move to a new home, and to make where you live now a better place. Too-high housing costs limit both of those options.
In the popular press and policy circles, the ZIP code-as-destiny concept is a common point of debate. Some focus on evidence that your neighborhood shapesyour educational achievement, health and economic success. Others focus on your individual choices as key. President Obama used the idea as a springboard to talk about the Fair Housing Act. Still others look for ways to make place matter less, such as online work and education. Much of the discussion started with research from the Equality of Opportunity project.
I was recently at a roundtable, “Building Healthy Communities: How to Support States in the Development of Community-Based Solutions and Sustainable Infrastructure,” convened by the National Governors Association and attended by a mix of housing, environment and health experts. The ZIP code-as-destiny concept came up a few times, mostly from the health experts. Some from the health field think in detail about how to improve homes and neighborhoods, particularly experts in lead contamination. But many are quick to ask for housing policy change to help people move to better neighborhoods, as are advocates from other fields.
In America, 6.3 million poor people live in places of concentrated poverty (out of a total of 14 million people living in those places). Practically speaking, most of those people aren’t likely to move, nor should they have to. And in America, they should have a chance to better their own lives and those of their children.
But the vast majority of poor households spend far too much of their income on housing. They’re stretched just to afford where they live now, and homelessness is just one minor crisis away. People at higher incomes are stretching, too, and are finding their range of housing options shrinking.
Changing where you live has to mean giving everyone more and better choices. Making housing less expensive, helping communities thrive and ensuring some help for those who need it most are all part of changing where you live.