In the US, mixed housing developments aren't working for low-income families

Mixed-income housing in Chicago, built on the site of a now-demolished public housing estate. Image: Authors' own.

For decades, public housing stood as the most architecturally visible and politically stigmatized reminder of urban poverty in many US cities. Originally built to accommodate an upwardly mobile segment of the working poor, by the 1970s public housing had become a last-resort option for low-income elderly and the poorest of families. Critics blamed public housing for concentrating poverty, encouraging welfare dependency, increasing crime and violence, and contributing to urban disinvestment and decline.

Over the past 20 years, the United States federal government and local housing authorities have replaced hundreds of troubled public housing projects with mixed-income developments. Has it worked?

It depends who you ask: scholars, elected officials, housing developers, and low-income residents continue to disagree. A key area of contention has to do with the term “mixed-income” – which, though widely used, is rarely defined.

In our research into public housing, we’ve concluded that if policymakers fail to agree on a clearer definition of mixed-income housing's aims and attributes, the sought-after benefits of public housing reinvention will remain elusive.

A new vision for public housing

Beginning in the early 1990s, policymakers proposed demolishing low-income public housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income housing. The idea was that this would reduce concentrated poverty and revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods. Between 1993 and 2010, Congress appropriated more than $6bn to fund these efforts through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program.

Today, “the projects” are now far less visually prominent in many cities, as more than 250,000 public housing units – including some of the most notorious high-rise complexes, like Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Homes – have been demolished.

Detroit's Frederick Douglass Homes development. Image: Mikerussell at Wikimedia Commons.

Supporters contended that the HOPE VI program would create safe and attractive neighborhoods to serve all incomes. Some former residents of demolished projects would gain a place to live in the new communities, while others could use subsidized housing vouchers to move into diverse neighborhoods (presumed to be less deprived than their former homes).

Detractors countered that mixed-income redevelopment would lead to a loss of much-needed “hard units” of public housing. As a result, many low-income households would merely be dislocated to other pre-existing, impoverished neighborhoods, where they would lack established social networks.

Others added that income mixing is a thinly veiled attempt by a neoliberal state to commit public funds to gentrification. Additionally, most scholars have found that many of the assumed benefits of mixing low-income residents with their higher-earning counterparts – such as role modeling and social networking – fail to positively impact the lives of low-income families.

By contrast, other aspects of mixed-income developments seem more promising: enhanced security, increased investment in neighborhoods, and higher expectations for management.

What does mixed-income mean, anyway? 

To assess whether mixed housing developments actually work, we need to decide what we mean by the term "mixed-income". However, if there is little consensus on what mixed housing actually does, there is even less of a consensus on what mixed-income housing is.

Our research shows that the term “mixed-income” encompasses a heterogeneous set of projects, which differ widely in several areas. These include:

  • The distribution and range of household incomes included in the redevelopment effort;
  • The spatial strategy for mixing different income groups together;
  • The proportion of dwelling units designated for home owners and for renters;
  • The length of time that selected housing units are guaranteed to be subsidized for low-income families;
  • The relative income levels of residents living in the surrounding neighborhood.

Even though all 250+ HOPE VI public housing redevelopment projects since 1993 have received funding from the same federal program and are bound by the same basic federal regulations, local housing authorities and their partners exercised considerable discretion over the final form of mixed-income projects. This discretion reveals distinct choices about where and how low-income families should be housed.

Based on our preliminary analysis of HOPE VI proposals sent to the US Department of Housing and Development, most redevelopment efforts stipulated that families at the lowest end of the income scale – in other words, those in most desperate need of housing – should constitute a minority of residents in new mixed-income communities. Some redevelopments even sought to have a majority of units occupied by relatively wealthy households who would pay market-rate rents.

Conversely, other HOPE VI proposals allocated the overwhelming majority of apartments to low-income public housing residents. Still others skipped market-rate apartments entirely and instead favored substantial tiers of “affordable” housing that included smaller subsidies for those working families who might never think to apply for public housing, but still had relatively low incomes.

In this latter brand of housing community, residents have a variety of income levels – and can still be considered “mixed” – even though all or nearly all of those incomes can still be regarded as “low”. Such initiatives have been implemented both before the HOPE VI program began, and under its auspices.

Unfortunately, these narrow-mix arrangements constitute the minority of mixed-income housing proposals. Because vastly different social, economic, financial, and spatial mixes share the name “mixed-income,” many kinds of communities have been too easily lumped together under the same term. HOPE VI seems best conceptualized as an umbrella that covers quite a large variety of local practices and strategies.

In 2006, protesters in post-Katrina New Orleans objected to using demolished public housing as the primary site for building mixed-income communities instead targeting wealthy neighborhoods. Image: Subculture Photography via Flickr

Who’s left out? Large numbers of extremely low-income households that once called public housing home.

Even if there are positive outcomes from mixed-income housing, important unresolved questions remain: which type of mixed-income housing plan will be best for achieving such gains? Do only some residents benefit, while others simply get displaced to other high-poverty areas?

In other words, before we can accurately evaluate the positive and negative effects of mixed-income communities, we must first agree on what we mean by the term mixed-income. Without disentangling this definitional knot, mixed-income redevelopment of public housing will remain deeply ambiguous as a practice. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lawrence Vale is the Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning and Shomon Shamsuddin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.