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"The Power and Limits of Space: New Directions for Housing Mobility and Research on Neighborhoods,"

by Xavier de Souza Briggs May/June 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

In recent issues of Poverty & Race (Nov./Dec. 2004, Jan./Feb. 2005, March Apr. 2005), some of the nation’s leading practitioners and scholars have offered a compelling, well-updated case for housing mobility and related strategies, with the aim of “dismantling ghettos” and expanding housing choice and opportunity for the urban poor. They rightly understand segregation by race and income to be a linchpin of inequality in America, a problem that makes progress vastly harder on school failure, violent crime and a host of other problems that get more attention from the public and the media. Beginning with veteran civil rights attorney Alex Polikoff’s proposal for a national Gautreaux program (Nov./Dec. 2004), some of the commentators made the case for targeting disadvantaged blacks, others for targeting residents of high-poverty or high-risk neighborhoods generally. In this essay, I outline some new directions for policy and research, and I review emerging evidence that takes us beyond studies of housing mobility programs old and new. What’s at stake is a clearer picture of the power and limits of place—not one to dissuade the mobility advocates whose commitments I share, but a picture, I hope, to make us more effective. Here I build, in particular, on the excellent research review by Margery Turner and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia (Jan./Feb. 2005), and I present ideas from a new book, The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America (Brookings Institution Press), a volume I edited with support from the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which includes thoughtful analyses and proposals from a range of researchers, policy analysts and advocates.

Let me outline and explore three key ideas. First, most discussions of housing mobility—and of “locational opportunity” (access to better places) generally — focus far too little on the repeat mobility of American families and, in particular, the high degree of “bad mobility” by poor and minority renters. In plain terms, the debate tends to center (understandably) on helping people move out, overlooking how they move on — again and again, often from poor neighborhood to poor neighborhood or from non-poor ones back to poor ones—in a difficult housing market, with too few formal and informal supports. I want to sharpen our exchange on the issue of where and when the minority poor move, which several of the earlier commentaries briefly mentioned.

Second, as Turner and Acevedo-Garcia note, the effort to understand which families benefit from particular locations (and why) is in its infancy. I will outline a more dynamic view of what determines the benefits and burdens of living in particular places. It is a view that respects Sudhir Venkatesh’s (Jan./Feb. 2005) advice about designing policy to reflect certain realities of poor people’s lives and preferences. This perspective has fairly clear implications for housing mobility, community development and other fields.

Third, there is the question of attitudes to support the sharing of neighborhoods (or tax-and-spend jurisdictions), across lines of race and class, to a degree that is unprecedented in America’s history. As a matter of problem-solving, one cannot empty a bathtub merely by bailing out water (i.e., moving people out) — not if something is constantly refilling the vessel. America’s local communities are changing fast, thanks in particular to immigration and continued economic restructuring, and this means that no conversation about ending the ghetto as we know it can proceed very far without considering the often segregative preferences of all Americans, including the immigrant groups (Hispanic, Asian and other) that tend, like whites, to place blacks on the bottom of their totem pole of racial others. It behooves any diverse coalition, particularly one eager to broaden its tent, to understand these attitudes. They are closely tied to white prejudice and discrimination, granted, but they will exert a force all their own as immigrants become more important in the nation’s housing markets as well its political life.

Moving on (and on)

Americans are famously mobile. Every five years, about half the nation’s population has moved, a Census-measured rate that has not changed much in the past half-century. What has changed is who moves often. About a third of the nation’s renters move each year, and low-skill minority renters move more often still, with the poorest neighborhood choices. Sociologist Claude Fischer, analyzing Census data over decades (“Ever-More Rooted Americans,” in City & Community 1(2), 2003), found that low-skill workers are the only major demographic group for whom mobility has increased in the past few decades, and the most likely culprit is tighter housing markets and less affordable supply, alongside stagnant wages. Some moves are hugely beneficial: Non-local moves, in particular, tend to be moves to opportunity, whether low-skill or high-skill workers make them (e.g., moving out of state for more education or to take a new job). But other moves—in particular, frequent, local, “involuntary” moves—tend to reflect the conditions that are both cause and effect of persistent poverty: substandard housing units, difficult or exploitative landlords, fractured relationships, the need to isolate kids from gang violence at school and in the neighborhood, being unable to stay on the job (or get a new one in time to pay the bills), child-rearing responsibilities, illness and other problems. Local managers of HUD’s Section 8 program tell me that repeat mobility by low-income renters is a major pattern, not to mention a burdensome one, and we desperately good national and region-specific evidence on this. Clearly, moving frequently makes it harder for families to leverage the value of a positive new location. I see ample evidence of this in the ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviewing Susan Popkin, John Goering and I have done over the past year among very low-income, mostly minority renters in the Moving to Opportunity experiment in metro Boston, Los Angeles and New York.

But the nature of the sender and receiver neighborhoods is at issue as well, and to date, there has been surprisingly little evidence on what kinds of neighborhoods families are exposed to over time, as they move about and neighborhoods change around them. Using a nationally representative sample of blacks and whites in the 1980s, sociologist Lincoln Quillian found that exposure to poor neighborhoods over time is more closely associated with race than with income or household type (in general, female-headed families are at greatest “locational risk”). Quillian found that most blacks, but only 10% of whites, lived in a poor neighborhood at some point in the decade and that little of the difference was accounted for by racial differences in poverty rate or family structure. For example, when blacks in female-headed households with income below the poverty line were compared with whites in comparable households, 57% of blacks, but only 27% of whites, spent at least half of the ten-year period in a poor neighborhood. By this measure, even blacks in male-headed households with income above the poverty line face more risk (39%) than whites in female-headed, poor households (27%)—and far more than whites in comparable households (3%). Blacks leave poor neighborhoods often, but they fall back into such neighborhoods much more often than whites, leading Quillian to conclude, “For African-Americans, the most difficult part of escape from a poor neighborhood is not moving out but staying out.” (See his 2003 article, “How long are exposures to poor neighborhoods?: The long-term dynamics of entry and exit from poor neighborhoods,” in Population Research and Policy Review, 22:3.)

Notably, mobility patterns contributed much more than neighborhood change to increases and decreases in families’ neighborhood poverty exposure. That is, it’s where one moves more than what happens when one gets there that predicts exposure to neighborhood poverty, and with it associated risks, over time.

In a new study, I am checking to see whether these patterns continued into the 1990s, when the geographic concentration of poverty dropped markedly in many regions, and also analyzing patterns for Hispanics for the first time (data limitations make it hard to measure representative, long-run Hispanic patterns and, for now, make it essentially impossible to measure comparable Asian ones). I find, using a simulation model, that even dramatic changes in the 1980 patterns uncovered by Quillian — for example, doubling the rates of exiting poor places and halving the rate of re-entry (“falling back”) into them — would leave many families exposed to poor neighborhoods for long periods of time. This leads to the second main idea—about rethinking the power of place, and what we really owe families, in the context of such barriers.

Leveraging the Power of Place: A More Dynamic View

Prior research has emphasized the kinds of mechanisms that may affect some families once they are living in particular neighborhoods. But in general, three dynamics shape the consequences of place in our lives: the life course (because our needs change from cradle to childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and so on); neighborhood change (“churning” through exits and entries, as well as in-place gains and losses by those who stay put); and family-managed exposure and adaptation to risks and resources. Turner and Acevedo-Garcia implicated the last-mentioned dynamic in distinguishing families that seem remarkably resilient even in the riskiest places (often because they buffer and restrict families members’ activities in order to isolate them from risks in the immediate environment) from those families that are overwhelmed regardless of where they live.

Notwithstanding the well-founded assertion that we should shrink and, in time, eliminate ghettos because of the intolerable costs they impose, it is also true that the value of wider housing choices for disadvantaged families seems extremely variable, so variable that we need much more attention to what the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other innovative institutions have termed “family strengthening” strategies. In this view of what it takes to enable families to leverage the value of a place, not merely to get there, our task is helping families cope, buffer, connect and adapt wherever they live—this at least as much as helping them to relocate. Yes, pre- and post-move counseling are part of the answer, but as other commentators have suggested, so are health and human service linkages, school choice counseling and transportation aid to help families “source” aid widely, across a metropolitan area (e.g., with car ownership promotion programs, also known as “car vouchers,” linked to housing vouchers).

Choosing Neighbors in a Rainbow Nation

Accounts of segregation’s costs, and of what produces and re-produces it, rightly emphasize the impact of white attitudes and behaviors, from direct acts of discrimination in the marketplace to the perfectly legal “self-steering” through which whites avoid certain communities, at least as places to live. But with our society fast becoming the most racially and ethnically diverse in human history, our discussions of housing choice and the geography of opportunity must evolve — and soon. Not only is the white/black paradigm terribly incomplete, but the hopes for a new, majority-minority-led coalition powerful enough to change the rules of the housing game may be naïve. Simply posed, what if fast-growing immigrant groups adopt prejudice and avoidance faster than the nation can undo our long color-coded geography, which reproduces itself? This is more than an alarmist hypothetical. In our new book, sociologist Camille Charles (“Can we live together? Racial preferences and neighborhood outcomes”) offers the best-available evidence on evolving racial attitudes and neighborhood racial preferences — i.e., whom we would prefer to share neighborhoods with and whom we’d just as soon avoid — in a multi-ethnic America; and she reminds us that preferences, according to recent economic analyses, are not just what-if’s offered to survey researchers but actually predict residential outcomes.

The evidence in sobering: Blacks are on the bottom of every other group’s hierarchy of preferred neighbors, and immigrant Hispanics and Asians report many stereotypes of black people similar to those held by whites, albeit to a more modest degree (groups report certain stereotypes, including flattering ones, of all other groups, but blacks suffer the most consistently negative and widely held ones). This is not a portrait cut in stone, of course, and as Paul Wachtel argued in his reply to Polikoff (Jan./Feb. 2005), shaping attitudes is a crucial part of social change. Sometimes, bold policy has to lead, not follow, a breakthrough in attitudes. But this evidence should disabuse us of the simple notion that immigration-led diversity will produce communities that are generally more inclusive. It should remind us to place well-informed discussions of desegregation, mobility and inclusionary housing in a rapidly evolving racial context that brings with it new hope, new risks and much uncharted terrain.

Xavier de Souza Briggs a member of PRRAC's Social Science Advisory Board, is Associate Professor of Sociology and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at HUD, 1998-1999, and has been a community planner in the South Bronx and other inner-city communities, as well as a frequent advisor on urban strategies.

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