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.