The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Housing Segregation Conundrum



I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether?

There are so many layers and follow up questions here: Is it ethical to uproot a family and put them in an unfamiliar environment? Would such a plan essentially abandon other members of a poor community (since presumably, not everyone could be immediately relocated)? Does simply being in a wealthy place lead to a stable, prosperous life? What is the point of affordable housing?

What is the Point of Affordable Housing?

Let me start with that last question. In my work, I help to rapidly rehouse homeless families with funding from the federal government (through the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). We provide these families with a subsidy to live in an apartment of their choosing for a year, in addition to case management. My boss constantly stresses to my coworkers and me that the goal of our program is not to end poverty for the families we work with, but to end their homelessness. This is partly tied to the parameters of our funding and partly to our own abilities as one organization with one small staff. We cannot end poverty–that is a decades long struggle that will take massive efforts from governments, nonprofits, corporations, communities and individuals. However, what we can do is provide safe, quality, affordable housing to homeless people in Milwaukee. We can drastically change their situation from a place of uncertainty and fear to a place of stability from which they can build better lives.

Echoing this sentiment, one of the large affordable housing organizations discussed in Edsall’s op-ed is Enterprise Community Partners. Enterprise states that it aims to “end housing insecurity in the United States within a generation. That means no more homelessness. No more low-income families spending half of their income on housing.” This statement makes clear that the central goal of Enterprise’s affordable housing efforts is to make sure that every person in our country has a home and can afford to live in that home. Again, the goal is not to make sure everyone goes to college or make sure everyone has a job or make sure everyone gets paid a fair wage. These are all important goals, but they are not the central mission of Enterprise. I would wager that this is true for more affordable housing corporations.

Now, I can’t tell you whether ending poverty is the goal of the federal government, some of whose money is being used to sponsor projects like those at Enterprise. I’m guessing if you asked President Obama, he would probably say he has broader goals than just ending homelessness. However, I think it’s unrealistic to offer a large pool of money or tax credits for the purpose of “affordable housing” and then get angry when it doesn’t also get people a college education, a high-paying job and so on.


A Troubling Trade-Off

Edsall claims that affordable housing corporations choose to build in low-income neighborhoods because it is easier to get projects passed through local government; if the projects were in wealthy neighborhoods, neighbors would be more likely object to “those people” moving in and shut down the project. Edsall also adds that affordable housing corporations build in low-income neighborhoods because they can easily get their projects approved by local governments who “welcome the opportunity to claim credit for new construction.”

But one big reason that Edsall doesn’t cover at all is cost. It is far cheaper to build a safe, high-quality building in a low-income neighborhood than in a wealthy neighborhood where the cost of land is high. If affordable housing developers were to shift their focus to building in wealthy neighborhoods, they would not be able to build nearly as many apartments or houses for people in need (unless they found new sources of funding). Asking affordable housing corporations to locate their buildings in wealthy neighborhoods, then, means choosing to “save” a handful of poor families from their “bad” neighborhoods, instead of offering opportunities for many more low income people to access affordable housing where they currently are.

Although Edsall fails to acknowledge this pertinent economic factor in affordable housing locations, he isn’t unaware of the finances of these corporations. In fact, Edsall accuses them of being “big business,” trotting out salary numbers for the CEOs of such well-known national nonprofits as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Enterprise Community Partners. He uses these salaries–between $200,000 and $900,000 in total compensation for top executives–to suggest that these leaders are in it for the profit, and that that’s why they want to maintain this policy of building primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

This argument is flimsy at best; any of these executives would make double or triple those salaries at a private development company. Furthermore, because LISC and Enterprise are 501(c)3 nonprofits, they are literally not businesses. Legally they cannot make profit. Finally, it’s my belief that hard workers should be well-compensated and that especially applies in the nonprofit sector. It only surprises us to hear of a nonprofit CEO making $300,000 because we assume those types of salaries only go to corporate, for-profit CEOs. In reality, this level of compensation more accurately reflects that of a middle or regional manager at a private company. I wish far more people working in nonprofits were appropriately compensated at levels like this. (As an aside, I have to point out that the president of the Inclusive Communities Project who is quoted in the article, accusing low-income housing developers of “mak[ing] a lot of money” makes $150k herself, not including benefits, so she’s clearly not living in poverty.)


The Ethics of Relocation

Now that I’ve thoroughly taken apart the argument that low-income housing developers have ulterior profit motives, let me turn to another key aspect of this issue: What does “moving” someone entail? Is it merely offering them the option to live in one neighborhood by showing them several affordable apartments in many different neighborhoods? Or would “moving” mean knocking on someone’s door and telling her she has 10 days to find a new apartment on the other side of town before her “blighted” neighborhood gets bulldozed? I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it has happened throughout history to people in poor neighborhoods. The government decides it’s time to get rid of the tenement buildings in the 1930s (shown above), time to build a highway through a poor neighborhood in the 1950s, time to take down dilapidated public housing in the 1980s and 90s (housing the government itself built decades before). Each of these actions involved the systematic removal of whole communities from their neighborhoods, separating them from the homes they grew up in, the friends they relied on, the houses of worship they attended. Yes, their housing may have been better after they were “relocated,” but were their lives?

If we start building affordable housing exclusively in wealthy neighborhoods, will the poor families that move into them be welcomed into those communities? Will those families feel like they belong, or will they be ostracized and excluded based on their class? Picture a young single mother moving into affordable housing in a wealthy neighborhood with her 11-year-old daughter. This child is going to start attending a school where her peers can afford international vacations, designer clothes, and private tutoring, while she is living on food stamps. Her mother may get a job as a cleaner in the homes of her neighbors or become their bagger at the local grocery store. Is this family better off in such a place? I don’t know the answer, but I know it is not a simple one.

A Chance for a Better Life

The best argument Thomas Edsall raises for locating affordable housing in middle or upper class neighborhoods comes at the end of his column. He shares the findings of a Harvard study which shows that that “children under the age of 13 experience benefits after moving from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods.” These benefits include higher rates of college attendance and approximately 30% higher earnings for these children later in life. (It’s important to note that the data showed diminishing benefits as the age of the child increases at the time of the move, meaning that a 5 year old who moves to a wealthy neighborhood may see these benefits, but a 15 year old probably won’t.) If we trust the research, young children will live better, more prosperous lives if they move from poor neighborhoods to wealthier areas, and affordable housing corporations could play a role in facilitating that move. Many of them already do.

However, Edsall’s accusatory tone in this op-ed is unjustified, given the limited focus and resources of affordable housing corporations. If the federal government wanted more affordable housing in high-income neighborhoods, it would need to increase its subsidies, or risk leaving behind the many families that would lose their housing in low-income neighborhoods as a result of this shift. Given the research at hand, perhaps a program that gave some families with young children an opportunity to move to a higher income neighborhood of their choosing would be the most ethical and productive.

Let’s return once again to the central question: Which is better for poor people, to improve the neighborhood where they already live, or to move them to a different, wealthier neighborhood? I think most of us would agree the answer is probably somewhere in between. Relocating all the resources in wealthy neighborhoods would abandon the poor who are unable to uproot and move to another neighborhood. It could also create more opportunities for abuse of resources (by, say, college kids looking to get a cheap apartment in an upscale neighborhood) and for the same class-stratification to reignite itself in a new place. Then again, based on the research from Harvard, families with young children might have a lot to gain by moving to affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods.

I desperately want to see more racially and economically integrated cities. I think mixed housing should be the norm everywhere. But I don’t believe that attacking affordable housing corporations is the way to accomplish that. We need every ounce of effort from LISC, Enterprise and other experienced affordable housing providers. We also need many more developers to join this cause and commit to building or transforming affordable units in all neighborhoods.  I know the road to ending poverty is long, but I think the road to ending homelessness and creating more resilient neighborhoods is far closer at hand.

Photo creds: citybaby, tenement


4 thoughts on “The Housing Segregation Conundrum

  1. You should try to see the HBO mini-series “Show Me A Hero.” It revolves around the attempted integration of the city of Younkers, NY in the late 80s. The show definitely touches on many of the topics from you post.


  2. nice, well reasoned analysis of a very complicated issue. I think you are right…step one is to end homelessness, step 2 is to provide universal health care and step 3 is to have living wage jobs available for everyone.. keep on your road, Warrior Rachel!! you are making a better more thoughtful world.


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