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

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.