There’s a growing economic gap in the region, with jobs concentrating in the west while poverty is growing in the east. This from a new Brookings Institute report on how close people were to jobs in 2000 and 2012.

A map showing areas that saw an increase (or decrease) in nearby jobs. Image from Brookings.

Most poor residents can only afford to live in the east, which leaves them stranded far away from job opportunities.

DC has a “favored quarter,” and if you don’t live in it, it’s hard to find work

Jobs in the DC region are heavily concentrated in a “favored quarter” that starts downtown and stretches west-northwest. Residents in the ten-mile-wide circle that covers the northwest quadrant of DC, Arlington, and neighboring parts of Montgomery and Fairfax counties, can easily commute to about a million jobs.

For people in that area, chances are pretty good that one of those jobs will suit them. City Observatory recently noted based on Brookings’ data, core-area residents in the DC region have, on average, three times as many jobs within commuting distance as residents of more distant areas.

DC’s favored quarter is also adding more jobs. Between 2000 and 2012, about 100,000 new jobs became available within a reasonable commuting distance of north Arlington, Bethesda, Wards 2 and 3 in DC, Herndon, and Sterling.

In the years the study looks at, the average resident of the “core jurisdictions” inside the original DC diamond (the District, Arlington, and Alexandria) saw their proximity to jobs improve by 8.6%. That’s far better than the region-wide 2% average.

For a practical look at these findings’ implications, consider Tysons Corner and Largo Town Center, two areas opposite one another on the Capital Beltway. Tysons residents have four times as many jobs within commuting distance. Largo residents, on the other hand, have to commute across the entire region in search of work.

The difference between being inside and outside of the core is even starker for areas with non-white majorities. Census tracts within the diamond where most residents are not white saw 7.5% more jobs within commuting distance in 2012 than in 2000.

While most of the region’s jobs didn’t shift far from the favored quarter,

the Dulles Airport/Route 28 area did emerge as a big new job center. Unfortunately, that area is far from transit, and very far from where most of the region’s residents live.

And most areas in the favored quarter are doing a pitiful job  of adding new housing units, meaning they’re missing out on opportunities for people to live near where they work. Policy makers in these areas seem content to let housing prices rise, while rejecting new transit lines that would improve connections to their job centers.

Job locations have a huge impact on home values

When it comes to housing costs, proximity to jobs has a whole lot to do with why housing prices within the diamond have increased relative to farther-out areas.

That difference in home values is growing as job opportunities keep expanding in the west and shrinking in the east, causing poverty to shift farther into eastern areas that are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with service needs.

Outside of the Beltway, the lack of job opportunity in Prince George’s and eastern Montgomery counties has depressed property values and ruined many families’ finances.

All of this leads to what social scientists call a “spatial mismatch” between jobs and affordable housing. Over time, a spatial mismatch can widen into what sociologist Robert Putnam calls an opportunity equality gap, disadvantaging families for multiple generations.

Despite all this, smart transit and planning are reasons to be optimistic

Encouragingly, some job location trends in recent years are chipping away at the problem, particularly for residents who live within Metro’s reach and especially within the diamond. Jobs are shifting away from distant locations, towards transit accessible areas like downtown DC. This shift should make it easier for residents who live outside the favored quarter to reach job opportunities.

New transit links to existing job centers, like Maryland’s Purple Line, will also literally bridge the east-west divide. More infill residential development within the favored quarter, both at job centers like Tysons and within neighborhoods, will also improve access to opportunity and cut long commute times.

One caveat about the report: due to data limitations, the study assumes that people travel a “typical commute distance” in an as-the-crow-flies radius around their homes. It doesn’t take into account whether transportation routes, like bridges or transit lines, are available between those points.

What else do you notice from the report? How can we cut down the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing in the DC region?

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Payton Chung, LEED AP ND, CNUa, sees the promises and perils of planning every day as a resident of the Southwest Urban Renewal Area. He first addressed a city council about smart growth in 1996, accidentally authored Chicago’s inclusionary housing law, and blogs at west north.