Can We Stay, Can We Go? A Discussion on Displacement, Mobility, and Concentration of Poverty

As part of a research project funded by the Open Society Institute, one of the sessions Monday at the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual policy conference was a “guided […]

As part of a research project funded by the Open Society Institute, one of the sessions Monday at the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual policy conference was a “guided discussion on housing preservation, investment, and mobility,” titled “Should we stay or should we go?”

As Asst. Sec. John Trasvina said in our recent interview, this is a topic where allies often find themselves at odds over whether the focus should be on helping to improve existing communities or helping people who want to move to higher opportunity communities do so.

Moderated by NLIHC’s Sheila Crowley, the conversation was held between Derek Hyra, associate professor at Virginia Tech, Linda Leaks of Empower DC, George Moses of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, Phil Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, and Leonard Williams, an NLIHC board member from Buffalo, N.Y.

The conversation, which was refreshingly blunt, made clear that while everyone agrees that the real answer is we have to do both, there is a lot of emotion underlying conversations about how to do both and how to prioritize allocating funding between them. I’m going to provide a brief summary of some of the main points of the conversation and then make a few observations about the discussion, including some things that weren’t said.

Tegeler started off by saying we have to move past the framing of this as a dilemma. We’ve all agreed that we have to do both, even HUD now. But, he said, it’s frustrating that the largest portion of HUD’s money continues to concentrate low-income housing in the same areas. He spoke of the various costs, especially to children, of living in high poverty communities and of the right to move, as well as the right to stay.

Williams offered the personal experience of choosing, as a father, to move out of his community in Buffalo to a suburban town with a better school districts. He had hundreds of conversations with his neighbors, however, who said, “I don’t want to go nowhere.” After his kid grew up, he moved back. “Buffalo is my home,” he said. “Amherst was not my home, it was where I had to raise my child.”

Hyra noted that we have research on the bad outcomes of growing up in a high-poverty community, but not yet enough to show that moving into a low-poverty community improves outcomes. We do know that when people leave their communities, they lose their networks, but it is hard to quantify what somebody’s social network does for them, so there is little research on that. He also was the first of several people to mention how housing vouchers, which are often mentioned as a vehicle for greater housing choice, are accepted in so few places that they are really reconcentrating poverty.

George Moses and Linda Leaks spoke passionately about the reasons people choose to stay in impoverished neighborhoods, and the terrible losses they suffer when they are forced out due to redevelopment, public housing demolition, and gentrification. “Folks say, why do I want to go out there, they don’t want me out there. I’d rather walk crime ridden streets than go to a place where people won’t talk to me,” said Moses. “People always viewed poor neighborhoods as a crazy violent place to be. Everybody writes their thesis on the Hill. People come and they say ‘Hey, I like this place.’ Why did they knock down the jazz club? Take down the supermarket?”

“I’ve seen people literally die,” said Leaks, “from not knowing where they are going, from the anxiety of not having a community. I have knocked on people’s doors where they have become literally hysterical because they don’t know what is going to happen with their housing. . . . If we’re concerned about high poverty neighborhood… I don’t want to live next to gun violence. I also don’t want to live next to a professor who is dealing in child pornography or doing in cocaine all the time. I don’t want to live next door to a corporate owner who is stealing the wages of the people in this hotel. I don’t want to live next to that kind of criminality.”

Tegeler said he thought that Hope VI and related projects had given desegregation and fair housing a bad name because they were done badly — no one-for-one replacement, no right to return. People absolutely need to be protected against displacement from gentrification and redevelopment, he said, but that didn’t change the fact that HUD should not be only putting resources into housing in segregated communities.

Crowley suggested that perhaps we are arguing with ourselves because we are fighting over crumbs and asked if we could imagine that there were sufficient resources to fulfill the housing needs of the people in the United States, would that change the debate.

Tegeler said the problem would remain the same because there is tremendous pressure to continue to funnel low-income housing into already poor neighborhoods, and that will continue until we as a community speak with one voice to the federal government to say that we have to fight back against the racist, exclusionary policies of states and localities.

Expanding the Conversation

I can’t do justice to all the storytelling and nuances of the discussion, but a few points do strike me:

  • First, this really is a discussion about allocating resources between three priorities, not two. There is enabling people who wish to move from low-opportunity neighborhoods to higher opportunity neighborhoods to do so. There is preventing people from having to leave neighborhoods that are experiencing reinvestment. And there is investing in neighborhoods that are still suffering from disinvestment for the benefit of the current residents.
  • Trying to have this conversation in binary terms gets confusing and awkward. Also, associating moving to opportunity and the phrase “mixed income” with the conditions and projects that cause displacement seems to be one factor in the emotional resistance to embracing the fair housing cause.
  • But there’s another factor that wasn’t even voiced in this conversation, even though people were open about naming race/racism, and class/classism as major factors at play. And that is that when you describe the problem with a neighborhood as it being “high poverty,” it’s very easy to extrapolate that to “Poor people make bad neighborhoods, they make bad neighbors unless they are safely diluted, and we should prioritize letting people get away from other poor people.” No one in the civil rights community would actually say that, I think, about any individual poor person, but because of the phrasing and the data, that’s how it comes off.

I was struck by hearing an audience member describe “communities where no one in this room would choose to raise their children,” after hearing from numerous panelists how many people they knew were choosing to do just that.

That, even more than the history of HOPE VI’s failures, was, I think, driving the insistence of many people in the room on telling story after story of people choosing to stay in their communities with their social networks, and I don’t think that was unique to this particular gathering.

It’s tricky. The data does stack up on the side of all sorts of negative outcomes for people, especially kids, living in high poverty areas and attending high poverty schools. This is likely because the percentage of people living in poverty in an area is much easier to measure than all the ways in which such communities (and their residents) are routinely redlined, underserved, isolated, underfunded, stereotyped and profiled, etc. We can’t, however, just ignore the implications of all this research either.

Given that, here are few things that it occurs to me might be useful to move this conversation forward:

  • Consider at least sometimes talking about segregated communities, disinvested communities, low-opportunity communities, rather than always “high poverty” communities. Remember that the words we choose imply a history and a cause of the problems.
  • Explicitly recognize preservation of affordable units and non-displacement in communities seeing a lot of reinvestment as one of the points of the triangle.
  • Acknowledge and address Tegeler’s important point that got a bit buried in this talk, which is that what poor communities need most is economic development, not just more housing, but when we are talking HUD policy, they only have housing resources. They can open doors to high opportunity communities with just housing resources. They cannot, with just housing resources, make the sorts of comprehensive investments needed to bring health back to disinvested areas. That doesn’t mean they can’t encourage them or walk away from those areas, but it’s a different level of action they can take. How does that change what we ask of them?
  • Start asking the question, “How many people would want to move and under what circumstances?” Everyone should have the choice to, but when it comes to amounts of development, and especially money being directed to preservation of existing units and redevelopment of troubled properties, it would be good to know what the demand was, so that they conversation can be more about meeting the need/enabling choices people want than appearing to be driven by a more theoretical goal of integration.

I think Tegeler’s right, we do need to speak with one voice to fight both exclusionary policies and budget cuts that leave us fighting over crumbs. Many of the actual policy changes needed — such as reforming the Housing Choice Voucher program so that it can provide real choices to those who hold them — are things that we do all agree upon. But to speak with one voice, we have to trust each other and be having the same conversation.

What would you add to my list of how to move this conversation forward?

Photo Courtesy Michael R. Allen

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