January 6, 2013

A New Mapping Tool that is Completely Useless in the RBA

We love real estate tools.  Maps are awesome.  Here’s a new one with the cute name Rich Blocks Poor Blocks that Burbed readers wahnny and Divasm both sent in this week when someone posted about it in Redfin Forums.  (No link, Redfin, until you resume trackbacks to our featured homes.  Neener neener.)

It’s a fairly good idea: take ACS income data for each official Census tract and show graphically how much they vary.  As they say on their main page, “See how much money people make in every neighborhood in every city in America.”  In theory you could use it to see how Special each part of the city is.  Here’s what it looks like when it’s working as the authors intended.


Each state uses its own scale, applying the color key to its own income range.  In the case of Illinois, above, the deep red, lowest income is under $23,120 and the deep green, highest income is over $106,503.  There appear to be 20 different segments in the color key, although we think there’s far too much green and not enough in the red, orange, and yellow. 


Since these are Google Map tools, you can zoom in and out to your heart’s delight, but you can only map one state at a time.As you can see in in the case of New Jersey, above, this tool isn’t that useful with metros that span multiple states.  Fortunately, that’s not an issue even in the furthest exurbs of the Bay Area.

No, the Bay area has different issues.  See what happens when we map the core RBA.


Too. Much. Dark. Green.

The California income scale ranges from $28,183.65 to $122,762.90.  We hope you’re beginning to see the problem: the top 5% income for all of California seems to apply to an awful lot of Census tracts in the RBA.  Or even places that are NOT in the RBA. Like this part of Santa Clara with the Oracle campus:


Contrast with an RBA tract we know is loaded: Los Altos Hills.


It’s the exact same shade of green, because the danged scale tops off far too early for the RBA.  According to this map, there is no difference between northeast Santa Clara and Los Altos Hills even though the latter’s median household income is 72% higher.

If a tract in the Triangle of Lost Equity can have median household income above 95% of California, Rich Blocks Poor Blocks in the Real Bay Area might as well be called Five Red Tracts of Suck Amidst A Sea of Deep Green Money.

Comments (17) -- Posted by: madhaus @ 5:04 am

17 Responses to “A New Mapping Tool that is Completely Useless in the RBA”

  1. magdalena Says:

    Useful tool. Now I can fine tune the value of my house by including the distance from the border of the closest poorer neighborhood. How soon will we be seeing it show up in realtor’s listings? Is it “solidly within” or “close to the border of”? Maybe we’ll be able to quantify it and declare with certainty that there are no poor people within x number of yards/miles/counties.

  2. PK Says:

    So – necessary but not sufficient, you say?

  3. Petsmart groomer Says:

    We need more shades of green. Let’s say 50.

  4. wahnny Says:

    Perhaps more shades of red as well. Some are near colleges/universities, and are not necessarily bad areas.

  5. Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks Says:

    Hello there Burbed.com,

    Thanks again for writing up this post and contacting me about the site.

    Critique is always appreciated, and I’m wondering if you or your readers might be able to help me out.

    You mention that there is “Too. Much. Dark. Green.” in the site’s California map.

    As someone who knows very little about the Bay Area but wants to learn much more, my question is: Why is that a problem, and for whom is it a problem?

    My second question is: Is there anyone here who knows how to program Google Fusion Tables so that the Fusion Table ID number changes depending on the coordinates of the Google Map? If I learn this, then it would be possible to localize this map to the metro area — though my guess is it might take a while before it’s fully implemented on the site.

    Thanks for taking the time to critique the site and write about it,

  6. Divasm Says:

    Because this blog is mainly aimed at real estate followers in the Bay Area, what we’d want to see from a map like this is much more delineation between the upper income brackets. As madhaus points out, there’s a large difference between Santa Clara and Los Altos Hills in terms of affordability. If we’re looking at that map to get an idea of cost of living or even cost of buying a home, the colors don’t help us a lot because we can’t see that you can buy a home for $400K in San Bruno, but travel a few miles South to Burlingame and you’ll need at least $1.1mil.

    That being said, there is a way to get more detailed information which is really useful. It would probably be a lot of work to start separating each region into it’s average income instead of just using a baseline for everywhere, but understand that when there’s talk of taxing the “upper class” who make $250K household annual income, here that income is actually closer to middle class due to our incredibly high cost of living. Which is why we have Too. Much. Dark. Green.

  7. SEA Says:

    “Why is that a problem, and for whom is it a problem?”

    How about a map of income-cost. You might find that dark green instantly become very red in some areas.

  8. nomadic Says:

    Why is that a problem, and for whom is it a problem?

    We aren’t uniformly rich, therefore a solid green map is of no value.

  9. Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks Says:

    Divasm and SEA: The map is only intended to show the estimated median income for each Census Tract. It isn’t meant to show the cost of living — that would come later, since it is a really good idea. As for “too much green,” that problem would disappear if it’s possible in Google Fusion Tables to change the Fusion Tables layer based on the map’s coordinates. If anyone here knows that that is possible, please let me know.

    nomadic: As I said, I don’t know much about the Bay Area. Where I’m from, people might think there’s a bigger difference between $40,000/year and $70,000/year than between $125,000/year and $200,000/year. The former pair is a difference between lower-middle class and upper-middle class. The latter is a difference between rich and richer. What is it like in the Bay Area?

  10. SEA Says:

    “The map is only intended to show the estimated median income for each Census Tract.”

    So, for the Bay Area, it only shows a high income Census tracts. Is this meaningful?

  11. nomadic Says:

    RBPB, don’t worry too much about us. We like to be snarky and think of a multitude of ways others can improve their stuff, but we aren’t always very helpful in the execution. My point was that when the median income is somewhere near $100k, then lumping everyone earning over $122k doesn’t differentiate in a useful way. Maybe someone can help out with your programming question to change that.

    You can get some flavor of what it’s like here by seeing the ridiculous houses on this site. You don’t get a lot for your money, and a down payment here will buy a house in many other parts of the country. But the quality of life – at least for those of us making higher incomes – is such that we put up with a lot to stay here. Money isn’t everything, and from what I’ve seen, there’s better work/life balance here than what I experienced in Michigan where things are cheaper.

  12. Divasm Says:

    RBPB – ditto on what nomadic said, don’t worry about us snarking on your site, we’re used to the fact that we live outside the norms when it comes to incomes and cost of living. 🙂

    For us the difference between lower middle-class and upper middle-class in the “RBA” as we like to call it is more like $125K – $250K (household income), believe it or not. That may seem like a lot, but when a 3/2 1400 sq ft. house in a fairly safe neighborhood costs at least $850K, it’s suddenly not as much money. 🙂 That’s why we are saying that your high point isn’t very useful to the RBA.

    I did ask a Googler and he didn’t know if it was possible to do what you’re asking, nor did he know how to do it himself.

  13. madhaus Says:

    Just comparing the Chicago map with San Jose shows that It’s Special Here. The other limitation is that California is a honking big state, and we’re getting drowned by SoCal’s low numbers (smiling as I say that as Southern California numbers look pretty dang high to auslanders). I word assume the highest Illinois incomes would be in the Special Suburbs of Chicago (e.g. Oak Park etc). There aren’t lots of other large and wealthy regions skewing your numbers.

    If you look at the region and zoom out a bit you’ll see more non-dark green in the Least Bay, but we already know it isn’t Special over there. Historically there were large-scale industrial jobs there as opposed to SF as a finance hub and Silicon Valley reinvented itself as a software nexus. Our groundwater is still paying for the semiconductor history, though. We got 22 Superfund sites! Or is it 28? Now that’s Special you just can’t recreate in Austin or Research Triangle.

  14. SV Shopper Says:

    Fact is, everyone makes over $100k in the Bay Area, that’s why there is no differentiation.

  15. Divasm Says:

    In pondering this more, I realize what truly bothers me about this map. Somebody in Iowa is looking at it thinking that everyone in the RBA is filthy rich, right? The reason the folks here on this site don’t find it useful is because we specifically discuss housing affordability and trends, and this site doesn’t compare cost of living to income.

    Now, that’s fine – that’s not what RBPB set out to do with the site. But as RBPB states above, many see anyone who makes over $150K as rich, because there’s no context for that number. I think it’s interesting particularly because of our congress trying to define “middle class” on a national scale, when it’s just not possible to do so.

  16. SEA Says:

    It’s so unfortunate that those outside of the BA don’t understand that $500k is “not a lot of money.”

  17. A New Mapping Tool, Useless in the Real Bay Area | Bay Area Real Estate Trends Says:

    […] I showed over on Burbed, a mixed-use industrial/residential zone of Santa Clara is one of several tracts with the darkest […]

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