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

 
 
 
 

This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.


As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.