Mixed-income neighborhoods are part of the urban planning canon and will make any good urbanist’s list of prescriptions for an ailing city. The potential benefits are overwhelming: better job and school access for the poor, increased diversity of residents and services, reduced crime and class animosity, etc. Most importantly, they are the exact opposite of “concentration of poverty,” the case against which has been made many, many, times (pdfs). Unfortunately mixed-income neighborhoods have proven difficult to achieve, and the degree to which our cities remain segregated by class is easily visible in the geographic distribution of per capita income of any major city, such as for Los Angeles at right.
Section 8 was supposed to fix this. Not fix poverty or make every block magically diverse, but de-concentrate poverty and create less daunting occurrences. Not so, enclaves of extreme poverty remain; Section 8 has duplicated many of the problems of traditional public housing. Why?
Currently through Section 8 (less popularly know as the Housing Choice Voucher Program) the US government subsidizes up to about 70% of the rent of low-income families. Landlords may make their building a project and receive payments through the local public housing authority or accept individual tenants who pay part of their rent with government vouchers. This is the first problem.
Landlords may accept vouchers, but they also may not; participation has always been voluntary. This has very effectively curtailed the range of housing options available to poor folk, in some cases leaving them with privately-owned ‘public’ housing as their only choice. Responding to this issue, New Jersey, New York City, & DC have all enacted laws to prohibit landlords from discriminating based on income source, meaning that they can’t refuse a renter because they will pay with government vouchers. Giving low-income renters the opportunity to live where they choose is certainly a positive step that should be emulated elsewhere, even if the non-discrimination laws prove difficult to enforce.
As problematic as the legal barriers to allowing Section 8 tenants to move out of poor areas are, the social barriers are more intractable. Moving To Opportunity is a test program to study the results of moving people out of low-income neighborhoods. It suggests that even when given the option, many do not or cannot take advantage. As summarized at The American Prospect:
“Many families offered the opportunity to move chose to stay. Others relocated but then returned to their old neighborhoods. When families did move, many youths remained strongly attached to their old neighborhoods. Most participating families who did move ended up in relatively nearby, majority-minority communities that were safer and modestly more prosperous than their old neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these receiving neighborhoods…themselves have relatively low-quality, racially segregated schools…children didn't show much academic improvement.”
So: how do you get people to move when your “concentration of poverty” is their lifelong home? When they have a community of support they clearly value more than school quality?
Money is one answer: Government could provide a stipend or mandate that a landlords provide one to entice Section 8 tenants out of low-income areas. Zoning is another: restrictions could be placed on the quantity of Section 8 housing available in low-income areas (something that has local political support in some poor areas). Either way, it seems illegitimately paternalistic to attempt to manipulate low-income folks into deconstructing their communities - it’s based on the assumption that they can’t properly evaluate their housing choices.
Mixed-income neighborhoods remain a venerable goal. Certainly laws should facilitate their formation rather than hinder. However, the focus on where cities should stock their poor is misplaced, especially in the context of the choice of actual low-income people.
(Photos from Flickr user The Voice of Eye and Radical Cartography. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)