Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
In San Francisco, the crushing pressure of the nation’s highest housing costs is on constant display. It’s in the workers who commute two hours from Santa Cruz, and the roommates advertising a closet space as an open bedroom. It’s in the homeless folks asleep beneath robot baristas prepping lattés in the financial district. (Restaurants are trying to save on labor costs, after all.)
Without question, local housing crises weigh heaviest on the poor. But nearly 18 percent of San Franciscans spend more than 50 percent of their income on their apartments, far above the one-third threshold that most financial experts consider to be wise. That suggests that the costs of keeping a roof overhead are a serious burden to a range of households.
San Francisco is an extreme example of a national story. In a recent CityLab story, my colleague David Montgomery analyzed and mapped Census tracts to show the U.S. neighborhoods where residents are spending half their income on shelter. More than 10 percent of households fall into this category. “These severely housing-burdened households can be rich or poor, but around half of them are located in neighborhoods where at least one neighbor in three is facing a similar housing burden,” he wrote.
Unsurprisingly, many of these communities are in places like the Bay Area and other cities with very high costs. At the county level, high housing burdens also stand out in rural parts of the South and California, where American poverty is at some of its most extreme. But Montgomery found that dense urban neighborhoods—where wealth is more likely to be located near poverty—are where the majority of folks with severe housing burdens reside. They stand out on the West Coast especially, where even middle- and upper-income households feel the stress of super pricey housing.
For MapLab, Montgomery offers extra insight into how he reported his story:
It was going to be an easy project: take a dataset compiled by the team at County Health Rankings and map out the percentage of people with "severe housing burden" (i.e., spending more than 50 percent of income on housing) in each U.S. county. But as I started making the map, I couldn't shake that dangerous little voice that pops up in my head on projects like this: "What if you went deeper?"
A few hours and a gigabyte of data later, I had abandoned the initial spreadsheet of 3,194 counties for another of 74,001 tracts. This was important because counties—and especially the big urban and suburban counties where most of the U.S.'s housing burden is—are economically diverse places. It's not poor counties that have the highest shares of housing-burdened people; it's poor neighborhoods in rich counties. You have to go deeper to see that distinction.
Mapping was a powerful tool for visualizing this data both for what it showed—the epidemic of housing burden on the West Coast and much of the rural South—as well as for what it didn't, the dense urban clusters where poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods sit cheek-by-jowl. For me, good maps serve as both an ending point for a project, something to share with readers, but also as a starting point, a way to help me grasp the patterns at work in a huge dataset.
The road to better roads?
After an unusually friendly White House meeting this week, U.S. Democratic Senate leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and President Donald Trump resolved on a plan to spend $2 trillion upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, rail networks and utilities. In other words: it’s infrastructure week… again!
Big questions remain: namely, where the money will come from, and how it might be apportioned. There are a lot of ways to slice and dice the latter point. To help answer, in (another) special for MapLab, David Montgomery kindly mapped the states where road pavement is in the worst condition, based on 2017 data from the Federal Highway Administration. Think potholes and gashes, the ingredients of high auto repair costs and nasty accidents.
Montgomery also took a look at the metro areas where drivers are traveling on roads in bad shape. Los Angeles, New York, ouch! Sheveport, Duluth, ouch!
No more gerrymandering: Federal judges ruled that Michigan’s voting district maps were unconstitutionally drawn in favor of Republicans. (New York Times) ♦ Industrial machinery is loud. Scientists want to know how far the humming extends. (Gizmodo) ♦ Geography is destiny, even on the basketball court. A book by a cartographer-turned-author shows how. (Washington Post) ♦ How does the brain map memory? Epilepsy patients are helping scientists find out. (CBS L.A.) ♦ Like satellite imagery: the history of Leonardo Da Vinci’s map of Imola. (Vox)
Thanks for reading MapLab. The sign-up page is here.