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Using opportunity mapping to improve affordable housing policy

The geography of housing and the well-being of communities are intrinsically linked with each other. Where we live defines so much about our lives, from our physical and emotional health to our ability to get to work, that providing access to housing in a fair and equitable manner is an essential aspect of creating a healthy and balanced society. It should be no surprise that the use of geographic data to evaluate the impacts of housing policy has become increasingly important. This evaluation often takes the form of “opportunity mapping.” Opportunity mapping uses various data sources to show segregation patterns and to help us see how these patterns affect individuals’ abilities to access amenities and services that help promote economic well-being.

The earliest well-known use of opportunity mapping was by john powell during his time at the Kirwan Institute. Powell used the technique in his testimony for the plaintiff in Thompson v. HUD in Baltimore, arguing that “[t]he segregation of African-American public housing residents isolates them from the opportunities that are critical to quality of life, health, stability and social advancement.” Powell’s use of layered geographic data to create a standard index of opportunity was an innovation that has since been used in cities and regions across the country. Our new research brief, “Opportunity Mapping,” demonstrates how housing practitioners and advocates can best use maps to increase the success of affordable housing policy.
Part of the reason that interest in opportunity mapping has grown is because of recent federal actions regarding fair housing. The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program required grantees to produce a Fair Housing and Equity Assessment, and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule requires an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) from jurisdictions that submit plans for federal funds. Neither of these requirements explicitly calls for the production of a map. However, HUD strongly encourages jurisdictions submitting AFHs to use geographical data in their assessments, and provides a tool for jurisdictions to analyze their own socioeconomic patterns.
Some issues to consider in creating opportunity maps:
  • Creating more inclusive communities through mapping. Maps can show only what you want them to show. Deciding what kind of data is represented (and what form that representation takes) determines the story that the map tells. Making the process of creating the map as transparent as possible is essential in producing an objective policy tool. Even the most well-meaning policy solutions can be damaging when the process of developing them is too opaque or oversimplified. This means the data sources should be accurately cited, the process for choosing indicators should be as inclusive as possible and the process for analyzing the data should be made available publicly.
  • Choosing the right tools to analyze your data. Desktop GIS software like Esri’s ArcGISand the free, open-source QGIS are powerful applications that allow you to do almost any kind of geographic analysis imaginable. At the same time, many small organizations do not have the budget or technical expertise to make full use of such software. There are several online mapping services—like Mapbox, CartoDB and PolicyMap—that allow you to create your own maps using publicly available data. PolicyMap also includes some licensed data from its partners through its subscription-based accounts. ArcGIS Online has a similar service and includes the benefit of easily integrating with the ArcGIS desktop software.
  • Mapping as communication. A map is a particularly powerful tool for policymakers because it can communicate complex information in a straightforward and highly visual manner. Maps can be distributed at community meetings, featured in articles, published online or used in any other situation where complex information needs to be communicated quickly and easily. In addition, creating an opportunity map generally involves a number of datasets that are publicly available but are often not particularly accessible to the general public. Getting all the data in one place is a great chance to improve the public’s access to those data. This can be done by creating an online tool (as in Austin and Minnesota) or by simply listing the data somewhere in easy-to-use formats (like on the Opportunity Project website).
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