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Addressing Social Segregation in Mixed-Income Communities


Much scholarly attention has been given to metropolitan and city-level segregation; however, comparatively little consideration has been devoted to within community segregation. In some newly created mixed-income, mixed-race communities, we are witnessing “diversity segregation,” where people of different backgrounds, races, ethnicity and incomes live next to one another but not alongside one another. In these diverse communities, micro-level segregation is thwarting meaningful interactions, making it less likely that these “integrated” communities will enhance the life chances of the poor.

For over a decade, I have studied transitioning low-income minority communities that became more racially, ethnically, and economically diverse in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Additionally, as a public housing authority board chair, I have overseen the financing, construction, and maintenance of mixed-income housing projects in Alexandria, Virginia. During this work, I constantly ask myself, “Are these diverse communities and housing developments sufficiently designed to facilitate social interactions that benefit low-income residents?”

The national government has spent billions of dollars to create mixed-income neighborhoods where concentrated poverty once existed. The Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE, especially HOPE VI, public housing redevelopment) and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit programs have been the primary federal means of subsidizing mixed-income housing across the country. These federal programs, in combination with state and local governments and private foundation resources, have been used by public housing authorities and private and nonprofit housing developers to construct developments where market-rate homeowners and renters live next to people who receive subsidized units.

Mixed-income living, compared to concentrated poverty, is hypothesized to benefit low-income individuals in a variety of ways. Scholars such as Harvard University professor William Julius Wilson and National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities director Mark Joseph have theorized several mechanisms by which mixed-income living could help low- and moderate-income people. These scholars suggest that an influx of middle- and upper-income individuals to disadvantaged areas could broaden the social networks of the poor and thus improve their access to jobs. They also note that some middle- and upper-income people might serve as mentors, providing direct relationships that expose low-income individuals to an array of norms and cultural expectations. Additionally, upper-income individuals would integrate and bolster civic organizations focused on advocacy and community improvement, which might reduce preexisting structural inequalities in the distribution of public resources. Lastly, more affluent people would attract new businesses, increasing the availability of quality services and products.

However, many of these potential benefits to low-income people rest on a tenuous assumption: that physical proximity would close the social distance that often exists among upper-, middle-, and low-income individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The idea is that through a reduction in social distance, individuals across the income spectrum would begin to have and build meaningful social interactions. These interactions would then be the conduit for activities such as employment opportunity information sharing, mentoring and modeling, and collective action that would confer benefits to everyone.

Scholarly research has consistently demonstrated that mixed-income living is not facilitating as much interaction across race, ethnicity, and income as was expected. My fieldwork in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood, Laura Tach’s study of Boston’s South End, and Robert Chaskin and Mark Joseph’s mixed-income investigation on the West and South sides of Chicago suggest race and class differences translate to micro-level within-community segregation. For instance, in Shaw/U Street, the sidewalks appear racially and economically diverse, but the social infrastructure—churches, restaurants, recreation centers, grocery stores, schools, and neighborhood associations—remain primarily segregated. Without social interactions across race, ethnicity, and class, mixed-income neighborhoods and housing developments may never fully reach their potential of advancing the upward trajectories of low-income individuals and families.

Several practical strategies can grease the wheels of community-level integration in emerging mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods. We need to go beyond multiple-price-point housing to break down our traditional social dividers. In mixed-income neighborhoods, we must create “third spaces.” These localities are neutral places where people of different backgrounds feel empowered and comfortable speaking about difference. These spaces can be certain coffee shops, restaurants, recreation centers, or libraries. The key is that these spaces are welcoming, cater to multiple interests, and facilitate dialogue among different groups. Often mixed-income housing developments are mixed-use; incorporating private or public establishments that serve as effective third spaces are critical to bringing people out of their homes and apartments to collectively engage with one another.

Community associations should be created or re-purposed to serve as bridging organizations. In mixed-income communities and buildings, we need organizations whose mission is to reach across social boundaries to bring people together in formal and informal ways. Organized community-building activities, such as music and food festivals, community gardening and improvement projects, and certain historic preservation efforts, can stimulate dialogue, engagement, learning, and listening among people who might not otherwise connect.

For example, the recently completed Old Town Commons (OTC), a 364-unit, mixed-income development in Alexandria, Virginia, is located nearby a newly built recreation center that serves people with a variety of incomes. While many different types of people use the center, individual activities and events remained segregated along race and class lines. To address this situation and to better integrate the OTC residents, the housing authority requested the developer hire a bridge-building organization. The housing authority board, which I chaired, knew from prior mixed-income development experience that something beyond housing and common amenities were needed to bring market-rate folks, who tended to be white professionals, and the subsidized residents, who were mainly African American, together. While the developer agreed to pay for community-building services, which supported several events and activities that brought market-rate homeowners and subsidized tenants together, federal resources, such as Community Development Block Grant funds, should be targeted for these purposes.

Political empowerment is also important for facilitating meaningful as well as equitable interactions. In emerging mixed-income communities, upper-income newcomers, as William Julius Wilson predicted, do engage and bolster the civic infrastructure. They join the local PTA’s and the block groups and run for elected offices. However, they tend to take over and advocate for their community vision, including expensive restaurants, doggy day cares, and bike infrastructure, which is often at odds with the preferences of low-income folks. Furthermore, many mixed-income developments have homeowners’ associations that exclude subsidized residents or do not afford them voting rights.

Without some power to control their living situation, low-income people in gentrifying neighborhoods and mixed-income housing developments tend to become resentful of upper-income newcomers and civically disengage. Not only do these outcomes fly in the face of democracy and the ideals of integrated mixed-income living, they inhibit meaningful interactions between lower- and upper-income people.

To maintain civic dialogue and mutual engagement in mixed-income communities, democratic governing structures need to be implemented so that low-income people maintain adequate power to collectively work on a more equal footing with more affluent newcomers. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury should mandate that mixed-income developments receiving federal and local public subsidies have diverse resident governing boards that oversee common area amenities. Shared political power will help to ensure collective negotiation, planning, problem solving, and engagement among diverse populations that live next to one another.

Mixed-income communities do not immediately reduce existing social inequities. Rather, they make them extremely visible. Reducing within-community segregation is not going to instantly reduce these inequities. However, by having and facilitating meaningful social interaction among diverse groups, we might more successfully activate important low-income benefit mechanisms in mixed-income areas. By accomplishing this we will increase the probability that our racially diverse, mixed-income communities will be more sustainable, harmonious, and just.

Source: National Housing Institute/ ShelterForce / May 4, 2016

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