Friday, February 11, 2011

Displacing People isn't Going to End Poverty

The Federal and city governments across the country have been moving people out of public housing for decades in the belief that moving them to better neighborhoods will improve their lives. Just last year, Edward Goetz and Karen Chapple evaluated the social science research since 1995 on this topic. What did they find?
  • Families moved from high-poverty areas felt an increased sense of safety and of satisfaction with their new environment. Adults and female youths had mental health benefits, while male youth had adverse effects.
  • These households, however, did not experience benefits in employment, health, or social integration.
  • These families experienced increased social isolation. They had little social interaction with higher-income neighbors.
  • These families also lost the social networks that helped them survive on a daily basis. As John Betancur demonstrated in an article published this month, lower-income groups rely on neighborhood-based fabrics of support "far more than do the higher income" and, thus, displacement "can seriously disrupt or destroy their systems of support, exchange and reciprocity or social fabrics." The loss of these networks make it more difficult to find jobs, childcare, etc.
  • Many of these families ended up in other high-poverty, racially segregated areas due to the lack of affordable housing, lack of housing for the "hard to house" population, discrimination by landlords, and other reasons.
  • Distressingly, many are forced to leave when they, in fact, remained attached to their particular development as their home and community. A study of a project in Portland found that two-thirds of the residents did not want to move and later mourned the loss of their neighbors and their housing development. This is similar to what I discussed in my last posting.
The authors found that "mere mobility is not the answer to problems of chronic joblessness and poverty." Displacement seem to primarily dismantle neighborhoods. What to do about this? Don't displace people. If you want to improve low-income peoples' lives, according to Goertz and Chapple, more effectively manage and maintain public housing, help residents feel more secure (such as through community policing), and provide resources that have a proven track record, such as community development financial institutions and workforce development.

But is trying to reduce poverty really the reason why governments are moving people out of public housing?


  1. Johanna,
    I am puzzled why the underlying assumption here is that, if displacing people from center-city public housing projects does not lead to improvement in their livelihoods, then the best solution is to keep them in the projects. Having walked through most of our neighborhood public housing clusters on community policing efforts, I can say they are so dismal and problematic that I would make a different argument - that better services and affordable housing policies to help people after displacement seems more likely to succeed than relying on (who? the city? community or church groups?) to improve public housing and sense of security, safety and comfort. Both are depressingly unlikely to materialize, but if forced to choose I would say that improving current public housing situations is less likely than finding ways to better serve - and locate, and house - people displaced from them.

  2. Thanks, Amy, for your comment. It seems strange to me that the DC government would not invest in public housing for so long letting it fall apart and then suddenly it invested $450 million (see my previous posting on this) in it when they decided to redevelop it as a multi-income site. It is great that the site is multi-income and not only market value (other condos in the area were going for over $600,000). However, aside from the seniors, the former residents have not been allowed to benefit from this wonderful redevelopment because even the rentals require at least a $50,000 household income and a variety of other requirements. There are many more options than just either 1) keeping people in housing without maintenance and 2) displacing them to locations without job prospects, adequate transit, social connections, etc. How about some of those nice apartments or houses in the new development?


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