Mapping a Path to More Equitable Housing

EarthTime helps residents, decisionmakers see what’s happening in their communities

For the sixth consecutive year, Carnegie Mellon University’s EarthTime platform will help leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, visualize data on global challenges such as climate change, poverty and mental health.

It’s a unique map-based tool that’s proven popular at the annual meeting, helping experts from institutions worldwide present data in a way that makes their subjects and viewpoints clearer and more compelling. Presenters and audiences both appreciate the ability to zoom in on locales of interest to explore how physical and social forces are affecting people and the environment.

But staff members of the Robotics Institute’s CREATE Lab, where EarthTime was developed and continues to be enhanced and fine-tuned, know that EarthTime can be just as influential when it takes a narrower, more intimate view of the world. At home in Pittsburgh, they’re using it to ask questions about a subject critical to all — housing.

Most of the available housing data is of relatively recent vintage — since 1990— but project scientist Anne Wright says a much older document — a 1937 redlining map of Pittsburgh — continues to illuminate today’s housing issues. Though redlining is illegal today, the outlines of those old redlined areas that banks considered too risky for housing loans match up well to today’s areas of concern: neighborhoods where home values and median incomes are low.

“For me, the biggest insight I’ve had because of EarthTime is that data becomes undeniable when we map it out,” said Megan Stanley, executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. “One example is the legacy of redlining in Pittsburgh. We all agree that this is a terrible practice, but we talk about it like it happened in the distant past. However, when you look at housing value and mortgage acceptance rates today you see that the legacy of racism in housing still exists and affects a huge portion of the population.”

Indeed, these relationships to historic redlining become obvious when Wright uses EarthTime to display 2007-2017 data available through the Housing Mortgage Disclosure Act.

“The vast majority of mortgage applications in those areas are denied,” Wright observed, pointing out a swath of pink on the map. African-Americans receive far more denials than do their white counterparts, she added. Locked out of purchasing, many families in these areas are subject to “milking” — landlords who buy up wornout homes and apartments and charge as much rent as they can while avoiding repairs and other expenses.

Time-lapse images deepen the story, as the disappearance of public housing units is accompanied by a rise in rents. A time-lapse of evictions from 2000 to 2016 shows a swirl of dots between many of these neighborhoods, with each dot representing a family, Wright noted. EarthTime shows many of these moves are across school district boundaries. That, she added, suggests regular disruptions for many school children.

“EarthTime helps connect the dots,” Wright said. “You may know what’s happening to you and your family, but here we see what’s happening overall.”

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