Opportunity Faculty Fellows: Examining links between neighborhood change, employment, transit and transportation

Gentrification, neighborhood change and displacement are hot topics in communities around the U.S., including Charlotte, as revived inner city neighborhoods with soaring property values attract new residents.

The changes are obvious enough, as breweries and hip new restaurants pop up in repurposed older buildings and small houses are torn down for big, upscale bungalows. What’s less obvious is what happens to residents who move or are displaced by rising rents and home prices. It’s commonly assumed that they relocate to far-flung suburbs or exurbs, where housing is cheap but transportation and jobs may be scarcer, and moving away from familiar neighborhoods, job centers and transit lines results in lower quality of life.

“We kind of make the assumption that people are worse off if they move out to more distant suburbs and bedroom communities,” said Elizabeth Delmelle. 

But is that true?

Delmelle, Isabelle Nilsson and Claire Schuch plan to test that assumption. In their two-stage project, they plan to map job accessiblity from different parts of Charlotte, by both car and transit. Jobs will be differentiated by wage categories. 

“This will provide insights on where gaps or mismatches exist between low-income residents and employment opportunities,” the researchers wrote in their project description. Then, they will estimate how job accessbility contributes to changes in unemployment, down to the neighborhood level. 

After the quantitative and mapping parts of their project are complete, the researchers plan to interview people who have relocated from center city neighborhoods and ask what impact the move has had on their lives. They hope to gather qualitative data to see whether issues such as increased distance from transit lines really are creating greater hardships for those people, or whether there are other issues that policymakers have not focused on. 

“It’s possible they feel like access to transit and jobs is not an issue,” said Schuch. Using a mixed-methods research design will ensure that people’s voices and perceptions of their own situation are heard in a way that could get lost in a purely quantitative study.

“We might say there are no buses here, no light rail here - this is a big issue,” said Nilsson. “But there could be something else that we’re not focusing on.”

Dr. Claire Schuch, postdoctoral fellow

Ultimately, their goal is to inform local officials as they consider how to achieve objectives such as increasing the supply of affordable housing, building out the city’s transit network and minimizing the negative effects of gentrification. 

“This will guide policy makers on how much importance to place on various transportation/housing tradeoffs when considering employment outcomes,” the researchers wrote. “Together, these research objectives are centered on the new opportunity landscapes that are being forged as the geography of segregation and poverty begins to shift.”

- By Ely Portillo