In partnership with a White House initiative, Redfin has unveiled property ratings designed to help consumers pinpoint homes that offer short, low-cost commutes to lots of jobs. Redfin’s “Opportunity Scores” are meant, in part, to promote economic mobility, though whether they actually do may be a matter of debate.

  • Redfin’s “Opportunity Scores” offer high marks to properties within a 30-minute car-less commute of lots of jobs.
  • They can help families find more affordable homes without sacrificing their job prospects.
  • The ratings tend to knock suburban affluent neighborhoods down a peg, but could also magnify stigmas attached to already-distressed communities.

In partnership with a White House initiative, Redfin has unveiled property ratings designed to help consumers pinpoint homes that offer short, low-cost commutes to lots of jobs.

Redfin’s “Opportunity Scores” are meant, in part, to promote economic mobility, though whether they actually do may be a matter of debate.

How are properties scored?

Redfin assigns “Opportunity Scores” to properties based on the number of jobs they have access to via 30-minute, car-free commutes. A score of 100 represents a home with the most job access. Scores are weighted by population to account for competition.

In addition to showing scores for individual properties, Redfin offers a bird’s eye view of local “opportunity” by displaying opportunity score heat maps.

Users who look up a particular address see bubbles on the heat maps that encircle all of the territory containing jobs within a 30-minute commute by public transit or on foot.

The scores naturally favor urban areas and are designed to help families find affordable homes with cheap, environmentally friendly commutes to an ample supply of jobs.

Imagine a car-less family living in the East Bay of San Francisco, Redfin said in explaining the benefit of opportunity scores. Mom has a job downtown with a two-hour commute, while dad was recently laid off, and is looking for work. Given the circumstances, the couple wants to downsize to a more affordable home.

If the family evaluated neighborhood by their opportunity scores, they might discover that they could purchase a two-bedroom home in Daly City for around 35 percent less than what a typical two-bedroom home runs for in their current neighborhood.

That’s because Redfin’s opportunity-score tool shows median prices for different types of homes alongside property opportunity scores. It also breaks down the most popular types of local jobs, so consumers can make sure areas offer the sort of opportunity that specifically matches their job skills.

downttown center

Opportunity Score map for address in Downtown San Francisco, which puts the median price of a one-bedroom home at $807,000

daly city

Opportunity Score map for address in Daly City, which puts the median price of a one-bedroom home at $807,000

What’s the score based on?

Opportunity scores bake travel times calculated by Walk Score, which Redfin snapped up in October 2014, with government jobs and population data made available through the Opportunity Project.

Launched by the White House, the Opportunity Project aims to spur the creation of tools that help people “navigate critical resources such as access to jobs, housing, transportation, schools, and other neighborhood amenities.”

Other real estate discovery tools that have been developed using Opportunity Project data include Zillow and GreatSchools’ “Opportunity Badges,” which accompany the ratings of schools deemed to offer more opportunity than other schools in similarly-priced neighborhoods; PolicyMap’s “Opportunity Tool,” which lets users search areas based on different forms of opportunity; and Streetwyze, a “neighborhood navigator powered by local knowledge.”

“Where you live can have enormous implications for your family’s economic stability and upward mobility,” said Redfin Chief Economist Nela Richardson in a statement. “A family may be able to find an affordable home to buy or rent, but if it’s far from quality jobs, highly-rated schools and other amenities, it could hinder the family’s chances to get ahead.”

Unintended consequences?

But while part of the purpose of Redfin’s opportunity scores may be to support economic mobility, the scores also point towards the potential unintended consequences of mixing certain data into property search websites and apps.

Opportunity scores may knock gas-guzzling, affluent suburbia down a peg — not something anybody is likely to shed tears over. And they may call attention to hidden gems for the working class.

But what about the areas that are cheap, in no small part, because they offer poor access to jobs?

Opportunity scores have the potential to magnify stigmas attached to already distressed neighborhoods. The potential for crime, school and demographic data to produce similar effects is easier to grasp, and some experts say it’s only a matter of time until the courts will be forced to decide if mixing sensitive data into property search tools can violate fair housing laws.

In an April 2014 article about data and fair housing laws, industry expert and former association executive Russ Cofano said, “There will be people who push the envelope,” and “fair housing laws will at some point in time have to address how access to data could be used in a way that creates a discriminatory effect.”

Asked about the possible side effects of property opportunity scores, Richardson said in a statement that they the scores don’t “solve the challenge of housing affordability.”

But, she added, they do shine a light both on affordable, often-overlooked neighborhoods and “places where people may be stranded without the ability to reach the rich opportunities within their broader communities.”

The second effect means the scores could help local governments with transit planning and employers understand “where workers live and how to best meet their needs.”

Email Teke Wiggin.

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