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Index map with the county's communities from highest opportunity (dark blue) to lowest (dark red)

Opportunity Index

When Success by 6 searches for families in need, it has the help of a powerful data-mapping tool.

by Trilby MacDonald

From the October, 2021 issue

The early-education program works with families to ensure that every child arrives for the first day of school ready to learn. The program hires "trusted parent advisors" from underserved communities to go door to door, connecting families with young children to support services and subsidized preschool. In the year before the pandemic, advisors knocked on thousands of doors, some multiple times, to recruit 419 families. They would have knocked on thousands more without the Opportunity Index to guide them.

The Washtenaw County Opportunity Index maps one of the most prosperous but also most economically segregated counties in the country. It's used by nonprofits and government agencies to see where resources are needed and to make the case for continued support. Managed by the county's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) and powered by data from a dozen public agencies and the U.S. Census, the index lets users visualize "structural privilege"--the degree to which neighborhood residents have access to safe and affordable housing, quality education, gainful employment, adequate transportation, and health care. According to its authors, "More so than individual choices or lifestyles, access to structural privilege influences outcomes in people's lives."

The Sycamore Meadows and Danbury Park affordable apartments are located in census tract 4074 in southern Superior Township. Through the Opportunity Index, the Success by 6 program found this tract has a high number of young children, so it sent advisors there to recruit families. When they found it was hard to convince parents to send their children to free education programs when they were struggling with basic necessities, "we gave our trusted parent advisors information about community resources so they could do a warm handoff," to support programs, says director Margy Long.

The index posits that the single greatest factor in determining access to opportunity is the legacy of "historical development patterns established through racist housing and lending policies designed to exclude people of color." OCED director Teresa Gillotti explains that tract 4074

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is historically black because the WWII-era Willow Run bomber plant "had separate housing for black people, and it became the basis for subsidized housing that is still going on and mostly black." It was also "easier to build subsidized housing in black neighborhoods because the land was cheaper, and these historically racist practices are still playing out."

Fair housing laws in the 1960s ended legal segregation, but housing costs have limited their impact: "Today, in seven of the county's 10 census tracts with the lowest access to opportunity, people of color make up the majority of residents," the authors note. "This is compared to all but one of the highest opportunity census tracts having a majority of white residents."

In census tract 4031--northwest neighborhoods off Newport Rd.--fewer than 1 percent of the residents are black, and the average life expectancy is eighty-nine years. In tract 4106--Ypsi's south side--61 percent of residents are black, and the average life expectancy is seventy-two years. All of the children in 4031 are in preschool, but fewer than half are in 4106.

Ann Arbor's scattered low-'opportunity neighborhoods are well known to local nonprofits like Community Action Network. CAN offers housing stabilization, community-building, and education programs in the Green Baxter, Hikone, Creekside, and Bryant public housing complexes, and the Arrowwood Hills co-op.

While the index doesn't provide CAN with new information, "It helps to have third-party organizations share data that exemplifies why we are doing the work where we are doing it," emails executive director Derrick Miller. CAN uses index data in most of its competitive grant applications because "it gives you a more holistic view on individual, family, and community developmental needs." For example, the index shows that child poverty is 21 percent in southeast-side tract 4056, home to the affordable Arbor Oaks neighborhood and the Forest Hills and University Townhouses co-ops. Just two tracts north, in 4052 between Packard and Washtenaw, only 4 percent of children live in poverty.

Despite their limited opportunities, many residents feel tremendous pride in their historically black neighborhoods and are skeptical of changes that may bring gentrification. "You can't turn a switch and change land use practices [established] over a hundred years," Gillotti says. "We need to change things in a positive way with the people we hope to impact, rather than for them."     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2021.]


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