Does mixed-income housing amelioriate poverty?

One of the most troubling features of the way North American cities have developed in the past quarter century is social isolation, as our own desires and the dynamics of the real estate business sort us into spaces exclusive to ever-narrower slices of humanity. Separate spaces for people of different incomes, places reserved exclusively for the elderly, spaces from which children are barred, and more.

There is much to worry about in this trend, but most worrisome of all is the social isolation of the poor – the formation of neighbourhoods largely or wholly populated by people who live there only because they cannot afford to live elsewhere; ghettos, defined by poverty and often race, and marked by deteriorating public services and facilities, as well as limited opportunities for jobs, recreation and education.

Small wonder then that policy-makers have devoted thought and effort to attempts to recapture the social diversity that once was an essential feature of cities and that, even today, is a big part of what we mean by the word “urbanity”. In part this has been done by dispersal programs whereby residents of low-income neighbourhoods are offered an opportunity to collect rent subsidies and use them to move to other neighbourhoods.

Another approach has been to redevelop large-scale public housing projects that have become fearsome ghettos, and turn them into mixed-income neighbourhoods. The biggest of these efforts is the massive Hope VI scheme, which provides funding for the rehabilitation of low-income housing estates throughout the United States. A similar effort is underway in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, a public housing project that has gained considerable notoriety.

These programs have met with widespread opposition. Dispersal schemes have been criticized for depriving already distressed neighbourhoods of their most capable residents, on the grounds that it is they who are most likely to be motivated or able to take advantage of opportunities to move to other neighbourhoods. Opponents of public housing redevelopment programs have pointed to statistics that show a relatively small percentage of original residents returning to the redeveloped areas as proof that redevelopment is tantamount to gentrification and displacement of the poor.

Proponents of income-mixing schemes, whose pedigree goes back at least to Jane Jacobs’s Death and life of great American cities, have offered a variety of reasons why mixed income neighbourhoods are better places for the poor: a middle-class presence builds social capital; middle-class people provide salutary role models; they know, and can teach others, how to take advantage of education and job opportunities; a middle class presence deters criminals, and makes it more likely that a good level of public services and facilities will be provided by the municipality.

There are plenty of arguments on both sides, and public discussion has resolved itself largely into a left-liberal ideological debate, with maximum opportunity on both sides for rhetoric and minimum enlightenment. A recent article in the Urban Affairs Review, therefore, blows over this tired controversy like a breath of fresh air. Authors Mark L. Joseph, Robert J. Chaskin and Henry S. Webber offer a careful examination of the theoretical underpinnings of the various arguments for mixed-income neighbourhoods and draw on a large literature to assess the evidence for each theory.

The outcome of their assessment is a specification of the benefits we might reasonably be able to expect to gain from mixed-income development and those that are less likely to materialize. The authors find, for example, that personal social ties between low-income and middle-income residents of mixed neighbourhoods are unlikely to develop. This largely puts paid to the notion that less well-off residents can expect to get advice regarding job or education opportunities from their better-off neighbours, and casts doubt on the idea that the affluent will provide role models for the poor (a dubious notion to begin with, given the frequency of personal problems, bad habits, and social discord throughout society).

At the same time, the evidence the authors find gives credence to the idea that a middle-class presence can provide a bulwark against social disorder and support for the provision of a high level of public services for the neighbourhood as a whole. The authors go on to point out that, if we start with a specific and realistic set of expectations for mixed-income development, we will be in a better position to make intelligent decisions about such things as the design of neighbourhoods, the mix of populations, the level and types of public services provided, and the procedures followed in implementing programs.

In three other posts, “Thinking a little harder about urban crime”, “Are you tired of the sprawl game?”, and “Fixing sprawl would be a lot easier if we’d focus on the problem”, I provided examples of how the fixed ideological positions we love to argue about tend to defeat our intentions of improving our lives and those of others. We imagine ourselves to be standing up and fighting for what is right, but often we are in fact substituting slogans for thought, and putting up obstacles to the improvements we seek. Big ideas are well and good up to a point, but we have plenty of them. What we need more of is critical questions and smart research. Authors Joseph, Chaskin and Webber thought of a good question to ask, and have assembled answers we can use.

Want to ask some critical questions about mixed-income neighbourhoods, and do a little smart research, of your own? The points briefly summarized in this blog entry are subjected to careful analysis and thorough documentation in:

ResearchBlogging.orgJoseph, M., Chaskin, R., & Webber, H. (2007). The Theoretical Basis for Addressing Poverty Through Mixed-Income Development Urban Affairs Review, 42 (3), 369-409 DOI: 10.1177/1078087406294043

Joseph et al also provide lots of citations of other good research, as does:

Susan J. Popkin, Bruce Katz, Mary K. Cunningham, Karen D. Brown, Jeremy Gustafson, and Margery A. Turner. 2004. “A decade of Hope VI: Research findings and policy challenges.” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Accessed at

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