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"Housing Mobility as a “Durable Urban Policy”,"

by Alexander Polikoff September/October 2013 issue of Poverty & Race

Stuck in Place, Patrick Sharkey's recent book on the relationship between urban neighborhoods and racial inequality, should end the long-running "neighborhood effects" debate. The evidence Sharkey marshals ought to persuade any fair-minded reader that—independent of personal characteristics—the neighborhood in which you grow up causally affects your life trajectory.

Against the background of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) from the CDC and Kaiser HMO, and medical research explaining why and how bad outcomes happen, it now seems beyond dispute that growing up in a severely distressed, disinvested neighborhood puts adults at risk, not only of emotional and cognitive problems, but also of diabetes, lung cancer, heart disease, and the like. Moreover—another important Sharkey point—the bad outcomes are not confined to the current generation; they are likely to be passed on inter-generationally.

These are potentially enormous contributions to urban policy; hopefully they will put us on the road to a clearer-eyed focus on what to do about these neighborhoods before too many more generations of children amass high ACE scores in them. Kudos to Patrick Sharkey!

On the what-to-do question there is less to praise, although here too Sharkey desirably emphasizes an important truth. Whatever we do, he says, point-in-time investments are likely to be pointless. We need what he calls "durable" urban policies. The black ghetto is a construct deliberately created and maintained over generations; it is hubris to imagine that it can be dismantled quickly or easily. Sharkey rightly urges that to be effective, anything we do must have staying power, not be subject, for example, to the uncertainties of annual Congressional appropriations.

In an audio interview, Sharkey called the Gautreaux Residential Mobility Program an example of durable urban policy. And he has referred approvingly to mobility programs in Baltimore and Dallas that "are giving families the chance to make moves that improve their lives and lead to a permanent change in their neighborhood environments." (Quoted in Richard Florida, July 25, 2013, The Atlantic Cities Place Matters.) In his book, however, Sharkey does not give residential mobility high marks. While acknowledging its benefits, especially for children, he suggests as a "tentative conclusion" that residential mobility programs work well only with families moving out of the very worst neighborhoods, not if they come from a "wider range of poor neighborhoods."

This erroneous, if tentative, conclusion stems from two mistakes. The first is that Gautreaux families came from public housing—that is, the very worst neighborhoods—whereas in fact they came mostly from a "wider range" of neighborhoods, for they were mostly applicants for public housing, living in private housing in various parts of Chicago. The second is that MTO families from Baltimore and Chicago, where neighborhoods were the very worst, fared better than families from New York, Boston and Los Angeles, where the neighborhoods were less bad. In fact, as Margery Turner and colleagues have shown, MTO families from all five cities who made substantial moves and stayed in place a long time experienced multiple benefits. (Benefits of Living in High-Opportunity Neighborhoods, Urban Institute, September 2012.)

Sharkey is also concerned that large-scale residential mobility might lead to new pockets of concentrated poverty in receiving communities. While acknowledging that there is an "ideal scenario" that would avoid that unhappy result, he assumes (for unstated reasons) that the ideal scenario would not be employed in new residential mobility programs. In fact, as was done in Gautreaux, mobility administrators in Baltimore and Dallas do avoid clustering that would risk creating new pockets of concentrated poverty. There would be every reason to employ the "ideal scenario" in any new round of residential mobility programming.

While opting for a strategy of fixing up high-poverty neighborhoods, Sharkey rightly notes that the report card on such efforts shows mixed results (a charitable description), and that in any event fixing up is not a stand-alone policy but requires the support of a host of other investments—growing out of a "federal commitment to economic equality"—in human capital, health, transportation, criminal justice and the like.

The arresting and poignant circumstances highlighting Sharkey's thesis is that, notwithstanding the breakthrough gains of the Civil Rights Movement, blacks born after the end of state-sanctioned segregation are doing worse economically than their parents. From sea to shining sea, racial inequality remains a prominent feature of the American landscape. The ultimate lesson to be drawn from Sharkey’s book is that we cannot afford to overlook any promising remedial approach—including high-quality housing mobility programs.

Alexander Polikoff is Co-Director of Public Housing and Senior Staff Counsel at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest in Chicago (BPI), and lead counsel in the Gautreaux litigation.

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