Contributing Writers THE CITY - April 2018

The Reality of Mixed-Income Housing

Written by Rosalie Lucretia Ekstein, M.Sc.

Over time the development and growth of cities has been largely organic in nature. People are drawn to other people and resources. Especially when there are lots of pull-factors, this can lead to large concentrations of people in one place. That this might result in problems is no new insight. In Medieval times, for instance, the elite often perceived the poor as a risk simply because they lived nearby. On one hand this was sometimes ideological and political, but on the other hand, there was an objective threat as well, due to their poor hygiene. Living together in impoverished conditions, allowed diseases to spread easily amongst the poor, with many of these diseases being life-threatening, it’s not hard to imagine that the elite was worried about staying safe. Further, the concentration of different social groups on tight space led the elites to worry about their valuables and upcoming criminal behavior amongst the poor. Early forms of urban planning and healthcare hence focussed on combating disease and crime to protect the elites. Later, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution factories and housing for workers had to be built. This posed new challenges for urban planning as novel threats arose.

There are multiple ways to deal with a growing population and both the real as perceived problems that come with it. Urban planning is still very much alive. Gentrification, mixed-use development, and mixed-income housing are important concerns faced by urban planners today. Just like in the Middle Ages, one can question which individuals benefit from which forms of urban planning, as well as the motivations behind the plans that currently change the face of our cities worldwide. Mixed-income housing, the focus of this article, refers to the process of building an area with houses in different price ranges in order to attract people from different socioeconomic groups. Policy makers and public administrators seem to only focus on the sunny side of mixed-income housing. Let’s have a look at the motivations and the social reality of it. 

One motivation for mixed-income housing seems to be countering segregation. Segregation, on the other hand, refers to the process of people with a similar demographic and socio-economic background grouping or being grouped together, either willingly or forced. In the United States, for instance, this has happened to the African American community, who was forced into segregation through institutional racism.  Also in the Netherlands racist implications of certain housing regulations are slowly coming to the surface. Another factor that contributed to segregation is the “white flight” a term that originated in the U.S. during the 1950’s and 60’s and refers to whites migrating from the city center to the suburbs. The definition has evolved and can adopt different connotations depending on the context, but it always refers to a change of population from whites to people of color. These trends have led to the emergence of relatively homogenous neighborhoods in bigger cities around the globe.

Evidence shows that economically deprived segregated neighborhoods had higher numbers of crime, noise, and litter. Often only neighborhoods with people from low socioeconomic status are considered problematic, according to many policymakers, politicians, and people from high or even middle socioeconomic status. It is true that in those areas one will find a different situation than in richer areas. One of the problems is crime. Yet, the crime rates might be heavily influenced by structural forces, such as institutional racism, and hence shouldn’t be seen as an actual reflection of what is going on. For example, the rate of incarceration for African Americans is far higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. The reason for this is not an objective feature of African Americans that leads them to be more prone to commit crimes, but an implicit racial bias of American institutions, specifically amongst the police forces. Another problem is the neighborhood effect and the resulting lack of certain forms of social capital. The neighborhood effect is a concept introduced by William Julius Wilson in 1987, which supposes an effect on individuals as a result of the neighborhood they live in. There is quite some research that shows us that where you live, influences your chances in life, whether it be health, voting behavior, or chances for upward mobility, and plenty of research that criticizes this idea as well. Social capital, a concept introduced by sociologist David Émile Durkheim in the 19th century, can improve an individual’s position within a network, or neighborhood. Just like economic capital, can influence an individual’s well being, social capital similarly affects one’s chances in life through social ties, networks, knowledge etc.

Photo by Vladimir Chuchadeev

A quick anecdotal comparison might better illustrate this point: When I was at university, there was a young man in my class whose family moved here from Afghanistan. Nobody in his family spoke Dutch and there were few social ties to local people with resources. He made it to university, but struggled with financing, language, skills and even health. For me, my parents financed my entire education. When I struggled with math, they knew someone who could tutor me. When I was sick, my parents knew a specialist, while this young man, on the other hand, had great troubles simply being understood by his physician and was forced to miss classes due to health problems that in my case, would have been resolved the next day. Up to this day, I think he was smarter than me, but he didn’t have the chances that I was granted. He couldn’t pass the first year, while I received my master’s degree. After all,  living a segregated life can severely influence the chances of an individual in a negative way. Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by social scientists, politicians, and policymakers who try to intervene.

But there’s another side to this story, which focuses more on the experience of people from outside. It has been suggested that individuals who haven’t lived in segregated areas, lack the first-hand experience and also might be biased in their interpretation of the existing problems. People often interpret the world from a value specific standpoint that they take as being universal. However, if one would take a look at other cultures, times, or meta-ethics, the conclusion would be that there is no such thing as a universal set of norms and values. Instead, it seems to be a pragmatic notion that enables a person to judge others. What I find ‘unacceptable’ could be totally fine for you, and I have no right to tell you that what you’re doing is ‘antisocial’. If you are in a rich area, it will tend to look tidy and be quiet. If you go you a less privileged area, you are likely to hear music, see more damaged houses or vehicles,  and people sitting outside, talking louder than what you might be used to, and perhaps even drinking. It never bothered me that much. However, it does bother other people a lot. Dutch people have all kinds of nasty words for inhabitants of areas like that, including some racial slurs. In the U.S. as well, for example Harlem and The Bronx, have had bad reputations not only due to objective criteria, but due to many subjective ones as well. The idea is that ‘deprived’ neighborhoods have more ‘problems’. I could write a whole paper on what these perceived problems are and why they might not be problems, what matters is that in the minds of policymakers and politicians these neighborhoods are problematic. The fact that there are complex social forces at work here which play a large part in this, is easily overseen or simply unknown (even though within social science, there is so much research regarding these topics!). Also, in these deprived neighborhoods, a term which in itself speaks volumes about this bias, social control, social ties, and cohesion still exist, but in different forms. Research usually doesn’t focus on things like the ability to get non-European hair done, or how residents might share food with each other, or how peers support each other emotionally. So the question here is determining which factors play a role in the life quality of inhabitants and which factors might be biased towards a subjective and value specific norm. The idea that these neighborhoods are just problematic and have nothing valuable in themselves and therefore should be torn down to make room for new houses and new people, might be crude. There’s a risk of tearing down social cohesion and ties, which still matter a lot for people and could even contribute to their welfare, well being, safety, and chances in life.

Mixed-income housing is an idea based on the exchange of social capital between groups, and the possibility for those problematically called lower socioeconomic groups to elevate themselves. This is the recipe: you take one piece of land, you put in some cheap flats, some nicer apartments, and some bigger houses. The first would be for rent and the latter for buying. What happens is that the people that used to live there, are being forced out of their homes. Only a small portion of them can move back, due to a significantly smaller amount of cheap housing. So instead of being surrounded by your peers, you will be confronted with different people for once. Then, of course, you will start to mingle with them. Friendships are formed and people can learn from each other (i.e. the rich will elevate the poor, by increasing their social capital). Sounds neat huh? Guess what: it hasn’t happened so far. It seems to be mere wishful thinking because the sad reality is that even if people live on the same street, they are still segregated. In the Netherlands, sociological research shows that the average income of the neighborhood does go up after establishing mixed-income housing, however, those individuals who came from a low socioeconomic status are not being elevated into said status.

Even though residents’ chances for a better income does not rise, many politicians and policymakers still believe in the supposed neighborhood effect. Between 2008 and 2012, the Netherlands invested hundreds of millions in neighborhoods which were deemed ‘highly problematic’. There was a top 40 of problematic areas, called the ‘Vogelaarwijken’. I have lived in number two on that list during my own sociology study, after growing up in quite a rich area, and I have never been in a warmer, friendlier, and yes even safer area. The people knew each other and took care of each other. Then the whole block got restructured and the prices doubled. The social fabric of that place has been torn down. In the U.S. as well, there is plenty of research pointing into this direction. For example, the work of Ellickson (2009) shows that mixed-income projects in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, did not bring about the desired outcome. He concludes that “the benefits of social integration are seldom as great as advocates of mixed-income projects suppose. The high costs of producing these project thus can rarely be justified on this basis”. Sociological research has not only shown that the neighborhood effect does not seem to exist, but that people with low socioeconomic status might actually be worse off after moving into areas characterized by mixed-income housing. Instead of exchanging social capital, people in the social housing are confronted with the social and economic distance they have from their neighbors.

It seems that there are many flaws in the assumptions underlying mixed-income housing policies and the results are by no means successful enough to justify the fact that these policies are still being used worldwide. The rise and continuation of these policies can be explained by the political influence of those who gain from supplying these developments, and not by positive results for the population inhabiting the area. Too often it seems to be the case that the underlying assumptions of policy and planning are ideological instead of factual, and only seem to represent the view and needs of the already privileged.

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