Housing Desegregation, Diversity, and Social Interaction
by Allan Lichtenstein
WRITING IN The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asks what can be learned from the residents of New Orleans who left for good after Hurricane Katrina struck. Quoting research that compared a group of evacuees who relocated to Houston with residents who returned to New Orleans, he suggests that the residents who preferred New Orleans “put family and continuity first: they wanted their community back.” They prefer New Orleans’ unique culture, the overall quality of life, family and friendship networks, better transportation, and the friendlier people. For this group, New Orleans is home. Gladwell quotes one of the returnees as saying, “We sit down, we barbecue, we have our crawfish.”
On the other hand, the ex-residents of New Orleans who preferred Houston saw things very differently. They valued things such as better schools, ability to find a job, lower crime, overall quality of life, better housing, and better access to healthcare.
While Gladwell acknowledges there is “value in both positions,” he admires those who relocated to Houston: “In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and the spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.”
By juxtaposing housing mobility and neighborhood and community revitalization, Gladwell is delving into the conundrum that perplexes housing policy decision-makers: how to find a housing strategy that will alleviate poverty and economically and racially desegregate neighborhoods. In supporting those who remained in Houston, Gladwell is siding with the case for housing mobility rather than neighborhood and community revitalization.
THE SUPREME COURT decision of June 25, 2015 in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project bolstered the proponents of housing mobility. The decision recognized it as a legitimate strategy to achieve the goal of racial integration. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy affirmed that the intention of the Fair Housing Act is to desegregate communities, and wrote, “The Fair Housing Act must play an important part in avoiding the Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that ‘[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.’”
A key element of the Supreme Court decision was its recognition that “disparate impact” claims are recognizable under the Fair Housing Act. Because the disparate impact clause helps to identify intentional discrimination that is not overt, it speaks to the issue of residential segregation. Florence Roisman argues that advocates for inclusionary housing policies should use this Supreme Court opinion to induce local, state, and federal agencies to take action to facilitate greater place-based racial and class integration.
Other proponents of housing mobility, such as Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, while applauding the Supreme Court decision, expressed concern that Justice Kennedy’s decision left open the option of revitalization as legitimate government policy. Rothstein believes that “experience has shown the revitalization approach on its own has been unsuccessful in remedying the segregation that Justice Kennedy so eloquently denounced.” The decision was therefore “weakest where he (Kennedy) speculated that disparate impact could be avoided by revitalizing ghettos as well as by supporting their residents in moves to higher opportunity neighborhoods.”
The Supreme Court’s decision paves the way for increased place-based racial integration. It assumes, however, that social interaction between racial groups will follow as communities become more racially desegregated.
IN EARLY 2015, scholars at Harvard released research that boosted the case for proponents of housing mobility. Reworking data of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiments undertaken by HUD between 1994 and 1998, Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that there had been value to the MTO experiments, which earlier research had shown to have improved the mental and physical health of adults who moved to higher-income neighborhoods but not the earnings of either adults or older youth. In contrast, Chetty and his colleagues, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz, in reworking the MTO data, “make the most compelling case to date that good neighborhoods nurture success,” according to Justin Wolfers.
Chetty and his colleagues found that the duration for which children are exposed to a good or bad neighborhood is critical in determining their future earnings. The longer young children were exposed to the new low-poverty neighborhoods, the greater their earnings when they reached adulthood: “Every year spent in a better area during childhood increases a child’s earnings in adulthood, implying that the gains from moving to a better area are larger for children who are younger at the time of the move.” On the other hand, they confirmed that there had been little or no impact on the earnings of the adults who moved to these neighborhoods. “Our estimates,” they concluded, “imply that moving a child out of public housing to a low-poverty area when young (at age 8, on average) using a subsidized voucher will increase the child’s lifetime earnings by about $302,000.” They ended with a strong endorsement of the housing mobility program: “Our findings suggest that efforts to integrate disadvantaged families into mixed-income communities are likely to reduce the persistence of poverty across generations.” (See the Upshot section of the New York Times.)
The findings of Chetty and his colleagues certainly suggest that housing mobility creates new opportunities for families moving to higher-income neighborhoods, while at the same time advancing the neighborhood’s fair-housing obligations. Their findings are so compelling that HUD is using them to persuade affordable-housing owners of HUD-assisted properties or public housing agencies to make the most of RAD’s (Rental Assistance Demonstration) mobility option. Its Choice Mobility provision, HUD contends, can create opportunities for residents and their children when they move to high-opportunity, low-poverty communities.
The MTO study focused only on comparing the economic outcomes of the families with low incomes who received assistance in moving to higher-income neighborhoods with those families who remained in their low-income neighborhoods. Although the research found no differences in the earnings of white, black, or Hispanic children who moved at young ages — earnings increased for all — it did not investigate whether social relationships across racial lines changed after families moved into the low-poverty, mixed-income neighborhoods. A second, much larger study that tracked the outcomes for five million people over a 17-year period went further in its analysis than the MTO study. In this second study, Chetty and his colleagues distinguished five characteristics of places that have higher rates of upward mobility: “less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households.” (They also noted that “areas with large African-American populations tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.”)
The revitalization of low-income neighborhoods, on the other hand, has had only limited success in improving the economic conditions of residents with low incomes. As Mark Joseph notes in summing up the proceedings of a conference that discussed mixed-income housing programs in the United States and Great Britain, “whereas these (mixed-income) policies have had measurable and, in some cases, dramatic effects on urban places, they have been far less successful on the people side.” Likewise, the co-editors of the conference proceedings make a similar point: “[T]he actual benefits from living in mixed-income developments or income-diverse areas have been limited for low-income households,” although some improvement in employment has occurred. On the positive side, they note that there have been “some benefits stemming from neighborhood investments,” such as improvements in housing quality, better neighborhood amenities and services, and improved safety, with reductions in criminal activity.
FRAMING THE ISSUE as “a bifurcated choice of community revitalization vs. resident mobility” is not helpful. Housing mobility cannot be a universal solution; although mobility programs are being expanded, only a few have been undertaken and funds are limited. Moreover, moving families out of neighborhoods of low-income will only further weaken these neighborhoods.
For example, Kimberly Skobba and Edward Goetz, in critiquing housing mobility, argue that it causes the dissolution of the social networks much needed by families of low-income in their existing neighborhoods. They found that housing policies that relocate families to opportunity neighborhoods are ignoring the “significant importance of informal support networks in the lives of the target households… Forced relocation out of communities and into opportunity neighborhoods is especially insensitive to the necessary social supports that low-income families construct and maintain.”
Diane Levy and her co-authors conclude that in either poverty-relief scenario, “propinquity has led to little social or otherwise meaningful integration across lines of income.” Hilary Silver goes further when she writes that although “attractive, accessible, and safe public spaces are facilitating, if insufficient, conditions for social interaction across class and racial boundaries…. the vast bulk of evidence shows little interaction across income or racial groups in mixed developments or neighborhoods.”
This sparsity of racial and ethnic interaction, in fact, is not unexpected. Not only are whites, African-Americans and Hispanics less likely to live in racially diverse neighborhoods than their stated preferences — although for different reasons — but even within historically diverse neighborhoods, patterns of micro-segregation exist that contradict the superficial appearance of racial diversity.
Research undertaken in Chicago by Maria Krysan and her colleagues reveals the disjuncture between peoples’ stated preferences and actual practice, and the variations in behavior by race and ethnicity. There are
salient racial and ethnic differences in terms of the relationship between where people want to live, where they live, and, importantly, where they look to live. That is, mismatches exist between their attitudes toward living in diverse neighborhoods and their actions, reflected in the kinds of neighborhoods in which they search and live.
The three major racial and ethnic groups (whites, blacks and Latinos) examined in the study reported a preference for living in diverse neighborhoods. All three groups, however, failed to live in racially diverse neighborhoods, but for different reasons. The mismatches varied, depending on the searcher’s race or ethnicity. Whites, contrary to their stated preference, in fact searched neighborhoods that were less diverse. African Americans and Latinos’, in contrast, searched locations that matched quite closely their attitudes, but for reasons not clarified in the research, ended up moving into less diverse neighborhoods.
The lack of interaction across racial and ethnic groups is the key finding of Laura Tach’s study of the South End neighborhood in Boston, a neighborhood that has been both economically and racially diverse for an extended period. The South End neighborhood, in fact, attracts residents who appreciated the neighborhood’s diversity. In her study, Tach contrasted what residents said about their appreciation of the neighborhood’s diversity with their actual behavior in order to assess “the extent to which integration brings about desired benefits.” She found “little cross-race or class-class contact. Instead residents engaged in micro-segregation, or homogeneous pockets of interaction and organization within the larger neighborhood.” This occurred both formally and informally. Micro-segregation in the neighborhood could be found in the residents’ daily routines, interactions, and use of neighborhood space as well as in their interactions in neighborhood associations and organizations. The result, she concludes, is that “patterns of micro-segregation fueled race- and class-based perceptions of inclusion and exclusion that belied the simple, idealized characterization of diversity residents initially espoused.”
While the Supreme Court’s decision is important in furthering the effort to integrate housing, it can only do so much. To the extent that housing desegregation and greater neighborhood diversity is advanced, much more is required to bring about interaction between racial and income groups at the neighborhood level — which requires a profound change in the political, social and economic structure of our society.
Allan Lichtenstein, a contributing writer to our website and magazine, has a Ph.D in urban planning from Rutgers University and has been working in the field of poverty research for nine years. He grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986.