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"Making Wrong Right: The Search for a Durable Urban Policy,"

by Elizabeth Julian September/October 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

The title of Patrick Sharkey’s new book says it all: Stuck in Place describes 45 years of public policy failure. Forty-five years after the Civil Rights Movement promised otherwise, separate is still separate, and separate is still unequal for far too many Black children in America. Sharkey is blunt. “Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” For those children, “living in a high-poverty neighborhood typically means living in an economically depressed environment that is unhealthy and unsafe and that offers little opportunity for success.” One of the most salient aspects of a high-poverty neighborhood is the prevalence of violence—black children live in an environment that is “unknown among whites, whether they were born in the late 1950s or the late 1990s.” His meticulous and comprehensive description of the persistence of neighborhood inequality between blacks and whites across generations is brought home in his examination of the consequences of cumulative, multi-generational disadvantage. Perhaps more than any other, Chapter 5 of his book should stir outrage. It makes the ongoing debate between whether the government should continue to pursue “place-based” community development and low-income housing strategies, or expand tenant-based “mobility “strategies, look indulgent. The question might more appropriately be what legal causes of action are available to people who have been subjected to these conditions for multiple generations while we have engaged in such public policy debates.

While Sharkey’s research conclusions are stark, his policy recommendations for addressing the severe situation he describes are not bold. He revisits the long-running “people versus place” debate, looking for evidence to guide future policy.

The evidence on tenant-based mobility comes primarily from the Gautreaux research, which reflects the results of remedial efforts in a long-running public housing desegregation case in Chicago, and the MTO research, based on a two-year research “experiment” at HUD in the Clinton years. In spite of these very modest investments in tenant-based mobility programs, only one of which was voluntary on the part of the government, he finds that “scholars have generated a substantial amount of evidence to guide decisions about what types of mobility programs are likely to foster positive results.” In spite of design flaws in both programs, he admits that subsequent Gautreaux researchers, “even after attempting to adjust for any differences between families that moved to different residential environments, have continued to find that families placed in low-poverty neighborhoods or less-segregated neighborhoods fared much better than families placed in high-poverty or highly segregated neighborhoods.” Moreover, “these (Gautreaux) studies continue to indicate that mobility out of Chicago’s ghetto seems to have been beneficial —perhaps extremely beneficial—for poor families.” The weaker intervention in MTO produced less encouraging results, but he identifies the weaknesses in design and implementation that could inform future initiatives. Even so, recent, more in-depth MTO research is consistent with his basic conclusion—that sustained exposure to low-poverty, more advantaged environments over time shows the most promising outcomes. Overall, he concludes that the evidence is “encouraging” that when families are able to move out of the most violent, poorest, racially segregated neighborhoods in the nation, their children’s academic and cognitive test scores rise sharply, and when the degree of concentrated disadvantage surrounding a family declines, children’s economic fortunes improve substantially as they approach adulthood.

Turning to “place-based” strategies, and the evidence of “whether or not a sustained effort to reduce concentrated poverty by investing in neighborhoods will have a positive impact on the residents of those disadvantaged neighborhoods,” he concludes that “there is no equivalent evidence to evaluate that claim,” a startling conclusion in itself, given the time and money that has gone into place-based community and housing development programs and activities over the past 45 years. Sharkey then develops his own evidence, based on extensive survey data available for parents and children over several decades, to conclude that place does matter, and that the policies and program we have been funding to improve the places in which many black children growing up in America have lived over the past 40 years have not had significant positive impact on the children’s lives who live there.

He then concludes that, while there may be a place for tenant-based mobility in limited circumstances, the more durable urban policy is comprehensive and sustained place-based community development and affordable housing investment in communities of disadvantage, albeit focused more on individual outcomes of people living in such environments than such policies have attended to in the past. He acknowledges that it will take more political will than has been demonstrated to date to achieve the sustained and concerted activity necessary for real change in neighborhoods of serious disadvantage; it is beyond peradventure that under the best of circumstances, the sort of change required will take a great deal of time; and he acknowledges implicitly that without that political will there is no reason to expect real change. So we are back to the future.

Why the reluctance to embrace expanded tenant-based mobility, even when it seems to satisfy Sharkey’s own criteria for a “durable” policy component of urban policy? He gives several reasons, including his view that not everyone wants to “move to opportunity.” That is a straw man. Mobility proponents have consistently maintained that a decision to make a mobility move should be an informed and voluntary choice, consistent with the view that housing mobility, at least for African-American families confined to the ghetto, is a civil right. And beyond that, we have not yet provided a fraction of the opportunities needed for families who want to move to safer neighborhoods with improved schools.

He also cites more “pragmatic” reasons why tenant-based mobility may not be sufficiently politically palatable to qualify as a “durable” policy. Those make more sense, though Sharkey overstates his case. Any “successful” program or policy for poor people must figure out a way to make it a “win-win” for more powerful interests and constituencies. (Food Stamps have the agriculture and food retail industries; public housing construction had the labor unions, etc.) Housing mobility strategies do not serve the political interests of any traditional constituency, certainly not one with any power. Indeed, almost by definition, mobility policy put the interests of low-income minority families at the top of the interests-served fountain. People with power and influence are not accustomed to having to wait for their benefits to “trickle down.” Place-based policies, on the other hand, do have influential constituencies with interests. And that influence is reflected in the last 45 years of public policy.

Politicians and Public Resistance

Laws are passed and policies made by people actively involved in the political process. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, white and non-white, are products of the demographic status quo. For obvious and not so obvious reasons, public policy that creates opportunities for low-income minority families to move out of high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods into housing in more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods is not a cause many politicians will support, much less champion. Sharkey’s analysis of the challenges that would be involved in expanding residential mobility strategies underscores that reality—though his analysis does not reflect the actual scale of even our most ambitious housing mobility programs.

In Chapter 6, Sharkey seeks to justify his ““rejection” of expansion of tenant-based housing mobility as a “durable urban policy” by invoking images of families moving out of the ghetto, “en masse.” He cautions advocates of a more expansive residential mobility program about seeking “to disperse the ghetto population across a metropolitan area” because such efforts would be “politically hopeless” due to Americans’ preferences with regard to the race and class of their neighbors. He cites the proposal of one Yale Law Professor to “offer” subsidies that “allow” every resident of poor, racially-segregated neighborhoods to move to economically and racially-diverse neighborhoods across the metropolitan area and invokes the image of six million Black families from the ghettos invading the rest of the metropolitan area. He lectures that “attempts to engineer the type of ‘ideal’ communities that policy analysts or academics envision by moving large number of residents across a city will never end well.” One might say the same thing about attempts to engineer economically and racially homogeneous neighborhoods by isolating and containing large numbers of Black Americans in high-poverty, severely disadvantaged geographies. That has not ended so well either, at least for those so contained. The main difference is that the former is not and has never been close to being even momentary public policy, but the latter has been de facto “durable urban policy” for the last 45 years. By setting up this false dichotomy, Sharkey fails to grapple with the real public policy choices that should be debated around housing mobility programs— how to dramatically expand existing “durable” desegregation like the Gautreaux, Dallas and Baltimore mobility programs to more places in order to benefit hundreds of thousands of additional families (a much more feasible goal than Sharkey’s example), while working to design and implement the kind of ambitious re-investments that he says are necessary to achieve similar results for the families who stay.

As daunting as these political challenges are, there are even more powerful interests that will continue to hold back housing mobility policy, and we need to confront these directly if we are to have any hope for progress in this area.

The “Affordable Housing Industrial Complex”

This is my term for the powerful set of economic interests that has evolved over five decades and continues to expand in poor communities across the country. Public housing created jobs for the construction trades, the HUD-assisted privately owned housing programs (221d3 and 236) created not only jobs, but perhaps more importantly made many political donors of both the Democratic and Republican Parties wealthy. Today, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, the most sophisticated and complicated low-income housing development program to date, takes the notion of “doing well by doing good” to new levels. The big banks, the syndicators/investors, the government-supported “intermediaries,” the developers, non-profit and for-profit, all the related entities that operate in that environment, and certainly the law firms that represent them, all make serious money on their way to creating each unit of affordable housing for a low-income family (and even then some resist the notion that the lowest-income people can be served). While at least a segment of this industry sees the possibilities of creating affordable housing opportunities in higher-opportunity areas for low-income people seeking to escape the poverty and distress of the ghetto, that is not the history of federal low- income housing development programs. The reasons for this continuing imbalance have been widely documented, but suffice it to say HUD has never complied with its obligation under the Fair Housing Act to require that its low-income housing development programs affirmatively further fair housing and address effectively the legacy of segregation and neglect of African Americans who need low-income housing assistance. And to date the Department of Treasury, which regulates the LIHTC program, simply refuses to acknowledge that obligation. So, while not excusable, it is perhaps not surprising that housing development, like any investment, has taken the path of least resistance.

Community Development Institutions

CDCs whose work is focused on a specific urban geography rarely have an interest in supporting housing mobility strategies. To the extent that small CDCs have aligned themselves with the housing development industry, they, perhaps more than the bigger players, have a stake in insuring that housing development dollars, and particularly developer fees, continue to support housing development in the communities in which they work. The CDC community has a long and rich relationship with both the large philanthropic and progressive political communities that have influence on policy and funding related to low-income people and communities. Housing mobility strategies are not consistent with the CDC business models developed over the past 40 years, and change is not yet seen as desirable, though some CDCs have been exploring more regional models.

If Sharkey is right, the federal government will and should continue to primarily focus resources on enhanced community development and revitalization strategies to improve conditions in the most distressed neighborhoods and communities, where current and future generations of low-income African-American children are going to be born, grow up, live and die. I have spent a significant part of my life as a poverty lawyer representing people who live in such communities, trying to address the history of social and economic disinvestment (and non-investment) by the public and private institutions in the communities in which I have worked. While I am not as optimistic as Sharkey about how those efforts are going to play out over the next two generations, I will continue to support real community revitalization and redevelopment activities, and advocacy to compel the commitment of resources necessary to make such communities equal to the predominantly white communities that have always had those advantages. However, it is also important that we not conflate economic and community revitalization with the development of low-income housing in an already concentrated neighborhood.

Housing mobility as a public policy choice inadvertently suggests a different level of accountability for place-based strategies. In spite of efforts to ignore or deny the successes and benefits of the very limited government investments in housing mobility over the years, the fact is that mobility works pretty well for the families able to make that choice. From Gautreaux, to Dallas, to Baltimore the conclusion really is inescapable that low-income people of color who desire to do so can effectively be assisted to move from high-poverty neighborhoods of disadvantage to low-poverty ones of advantage. Sharkey’s research shows that when they do, and are able to remain in better environments for a sustained period of time, they and their kids do better on a number of “life chances” indicators. No, not every kid from the ghetto goes to Harvard in the first generation after a move, but from looking at Sharkey’s data they are more likely to be alive, be reasonably mentally healthy, and to graduate from high school, all of which are prerequisites to more ambitious achievements.

After 40 years waiting for “opportunity to come to them,” perhaps it is reasonable if some people “stuck in place” decide they want to “move to opportunity” that already exists elsewhere. Established interests on both the right and the left do not see that choice as one worthy of a federal program or policy. However, for those who disagree, Sharkey’s book really makes the case for redoubling our efforts to give families, particularly those with children, a chance to live in less disadvantaged places—now. In keeping with the current popular “Transit Oriented Development” theme, housing mobility should be advanced as a sort of 21st Century “Under-Ground Railroad,” drawing its resources and its support from passionate “true believers” in the goal of an open and inclusive society, and in the obligation to remedy the ongoing harms of Jim Crow segregation for African Americans whose lineage shares that history.

The families with whom I and my colleagues work on a daily basis are not naive about the costs and benefits of moving into a new environment, which they know is filled with both opportunities and risks. Our job is to make sure they have all the information they need to make an informed choice, and the support to effectuate that choice if they decide to make the move. There is nothing like watching a mom who says she is tired of having to sit up all night to make sure no one breaks in her door, look at a map which shows her that she lives in an area (and in a housing unit often built by a federal low-income housing program) that the local police have designated as a crime “hot spot,” and then showing her places on that map where she could move where she probably won’t feel the need to do that. She knows that it may be a place where more white people live than she lives near now, and it may be a place she only has heard of. She may need to get her old clunker running, because there is no reliable public transportation, and her kids may struggle, at least initially, in a new and more demanding school. There will be other challenges, depending on personal and community circumstances. But until she looked at that map, and talked to a counselor, she didn’t know that her voucher would buy her a unit in a non-crime hot spot, non-food desert, non-low-performing school attendance zone. Because no one has told her. Not the Housing Authority, not the city, not the local “community leaders,” not her caseworker, not HUD, and certainly not anyone in the low-income housing development community. Sometimes, with that information, she chooses to stay, and sometimes she chooses to move, but whatever the choice, after she works with someone truly dedicated to making it real, she knows she had one. Given the unforgiving and unforgivable story that Sharkey’s research tells, that is worth the effort.

Elizabeth Julian , a PRRAC Board member, is President of Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based non-profit organization that works for the creation and maintenance of racially and economically inclusive communities, where opportunity is created through access to good schools, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunity and a healthy environment. She served as Deputy General Counsel for Civil Rights and Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD from 1994-1996.

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