What City Observatory did this week

1. Volunteering as a measure of social capital. Thanks to the work of Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and more recently, Our Kids, there’s a growing understanding of the important role of social capital–the relationships and norms of trust and reciprocity–in making our communities and our economy work better. But measuring social capital is tougher than measuring physical capital (like buildings and machinery). One of the indicators that illustrates the presence of social capital is the extent to which citizens volunteer their time for civic and social purposes. We present data for the largest US metro areas which show the places with the highest and lowest levels of volunteering. Here are some of the high performing cities:

2. Why America is of two minds about housing policy. There’s a fundamental contradiction between two of the most important cornerstones of public policy on housing:  We want housing to be affordable, and we also want housing to be a great investment for homeowners. The first implies that we ought to have few limits on supply and that we ought to encourage home prices (and rents) to stay low, and not increase. The second, in practice, implies the opposite: we enact zoning to “protect” property values, which has the effect of constraining supply, and we have a raft of policies designed to push up home prices. Resolving this contradiction is at the heart of solving our housing problems.

Must read

1. The culprits behind white flight.  Leah Boustan writes at the New York Times about the historical factors that fueled white flight from cities between 1940 and 1970. While there are many competing explanations, Boustan finds that all of them have a bearing on the outcome, a result she describes as comparable to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” in which all the suspects struck a blow in the crime. Not only did racism fuel white flight to suburbs, but it was aided and abetted by political and fiscal factors, notably the ability of suburbs to enjoy lower taxes for any given level of public services by including higher income households and excluding lower income (and often minority) ones.

2. The disappearance of racial disparities in public housing. A not-unrelated article in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog looks at the role of changes in public housing policies in attenuating racial segregation in US metropolitan areas. They report on the results of a new study from Johns Hopkins University looking at the racial patterns of occupancy of classic public housing and voucher-supported private sector housing. As recently as the 1970s, there was a clear racial division between the two types of housing, with black households disproportionately found in public housing, and white households in voucher supported housing. The latest data suggest that in the aggregate, these racial disparities have all but disappeared. Key factors behind the trend: the demolition of some of the most segregated public housing projects, and the expansion (and apparently more race neutral) availability of housing vouchers relative to public housing.