The Dangerous Rhetoric of Escaping to Opportunity

At the Philly Federal Reserve conference last spring, in the “Future of CDCs“ discussion our own Harold Simon moderated, Joe Kriesberg, director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said something that really stuck with me: “Sometimes to attract funders you have to convince people the place you’re in is so terrible, so needy. . . . It can become self fulfilling. . . . That’s why I find the whole opportunity mapping thing so counterproductive. It’s respected voices declaring vast portions of our country terrible places to live.”

In his blog post on the subject, Kriesberg elaborates, noting that places are not universally “good” or “bad”—different kinds of places have dangers and strengths for different people in different life circumstances. (Think of all the queer kids whose lives were saved because they escaped from a “high opportunity” conservative suburb to a poor but welcoming urban neighborhood.) Some high-poverty places, for some period of time, are pretty extremely distressed. Many more are very complicated mixed bags—a place to leave for some, a beloved home to others even while they recognize the place has serious needs. Residents often paint a nuanced picture of even very high-crime, disinvested developments or areas. 

Kriesberg’s point came to mind again as I was trying to figure out what made me slightly uncomfortable with Alex Polikoff’s stirring speech (we published an excerpt here) about the moral imperative to make housing choice vouchers truly enable mobility and choice.

To make his argument for an important set of policy changes (with which I agree), Polikoff regularly refers to America’s poor neighborhoods as war zones that are killing everyone in them. He asks why we are not removing children from harm’s way. He speaks of any place in the country that is poor as first and foremost a place to be escaped from. 

That is a problem, and here’s why:

Advocates focused on different parts of the issue all agree (repeatedly) that really you need both—fair housing choice and improvement of conditions in the places where many poor people live (conditions, as Polikoff points out in his speech, that are the result of intentional, institutional discrimination and neglect, not the doing of the people who live there).

But despite that, it seems that the arguments for advancing housing mobility seem to frequently rest on the demonizing of any place that has a lot of poor people and/or people of color living there. This reinforces—unintentionally, and ironically for a movement based in civil rights work—the scary images that the broader society harbors about poor communities of color. It implies that most of the people in these neighborhoods are a problem, and we need to rescue the few who are not.

I fear that if we allow these implications to go unchallenged, they will make it much more difficult to accomplish the other two-thirds of the equation for achieving housing justice and healthy neighborhoods for everyone—i.e., doing any of the myriad of concrete things that can be done to improve conditions for folks living in those areas and making sure residents get to stay in the neighborhoods that do become more popular. It implies that the group of people is the problem, instead of specific, and addressable, forces and policies affecting them—the bus depot causing the asthma, a dehumanizing stop and frisk policy, insurance or appraisal redlining, slumlords, a minimum wage that is losing its purchasing power, etc. 

As Kriesberg notes, this kind of good place/bad place language also represents a huge backward step from the longstanding attempt to reframe discussions of disinvested places in terms of their assets rather than their deficits. It implies that those who stay in these neighborhoods are all either saints or victims.

When changing conditions in a distressed area is dismissed as something that takes too long to wait for, as mobility advocates often do, it can come across as “don’t bother with these places.” In fact, it can read as “for that matter, don’t bother with most of these people”—because dispersing every one of the millions of people living in high-poverty areas into “high-opportunity” areas is more impractical than changing all the conditions under which they currently live. (And changing those conditions is in fact possible—and doesn’t necessarily require changing the income mix.)

The flip side of that coin is that we shouldn’t have to paint extreme pictures of hellholes we’re trying to rescue people from to make the case for integration, mobility, and fair housing. In fact, doing so comes to make it look more like a matter of asking for charity—a permanent Fresh Air Fund, if you will—than what it is: a matter of fairness, decency, redress of historical discrimination, and equal treatment under law. (And incidentally also stronger and more sustainable regions, if you get rid of the jobs/housing spatial mismatch that comes from extreme segregation.) 

There’s a danger, and a disrespect, in assuming the fair housing/mobility cause (or for that matter the larger community development cause) needs to rely on these portraits of “war zones” to win. The danger is that we reinforce the idea that groups of people of color and/or the poor living together creates bad living environments and thus actually increase the resistance to opening communities to them.

The disrespect is to suggest that current residents of lower income majority African-American neighborhoods should only have the chance to move where they want to because they have something unremittingly dreadful to flee. 

Let’s not unintentionally add to the problem we’re trying to solve.

(Photo: CC BY-NC-ND, Culture:Subculture, 2006 protest against demolition of New Orleans public housing. “In this image, Stephanie, a public housing resident speaks aloud to the unequal protections affecting lower-income residents of New Orleans public housing, insisting that if her neighborhood is being demolished and rebuilt as mixed-income housing, then so should the neighborhoods of the affluent and upper-middle class.”)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. The “dispersal consensus” (term coined by political scientist David Imbroscio) is supposedly balanced by HOPE VI, now Choice Neighborhoods. But it is hard to see how either one of these cast current residents and neighborhoods in a positive light. Both types of programs assume that residents are stuck in a place, assume they know the reasons why, and offer a solution narrowly based on these assumptions. This is in addition to the fact that such policies theoretically work at cross-purposes – one tries to “fix” neighborhoods so people want to stay and move in, while the other gives up on neighborhoods by moving people out. A clearer focus on the affected residents would be helpful. What do families need to become more stably housed?

  2. As one of the “voices” who developed opportunity mapping at The Kirwan Institute, I have tolerated Mr. Kreisberg’s misrepresentations of our work for some time. But with his latest comments featured by Shelterforce, I am moved to respond, as Kreisberg’s views about Kirwan’s opportunity mapping work are not only stunningly misinformed, they undermine the goals of the affordable/fair housing field.

    Part of the problem is that Kreisberg has never been willing to engage with us directly regarding his critique, despite our repeated attempts to communicate with him. He thus appears entirely unaware that our opportunity mapping model has helped channel funds into distressed communities across the country, even in his home state of Massachusetts. This result is the opposite of redlining. He also shows no awareness that Kirwan has long encouraged and paired asset mapping with opportunity mapping, assisting revitalization efforts through asset based development.

    More fundamentally, Kreisberg’s fear that, as in the past, neighborhood-level data will be used to harm rather than help marginalized communities seems unaware of the explosion in web based neighborhood mapping and data tools used extensively by the real estate industry. While we agree that data can be misused to repeat historic under- and disinvestment in communities with the greatest needs, that is precisely why opportunity mapping has been so helpful to the communities that have relied upon our work. Opportunity mapping helps to incentivize funding for new, more equitable community and housing revitalization work, and support for means that connect families living in distressed neighborhoods to opportunities located elsewhere. By contrast, the real estate industry’s neighborhood data operates without context and framing, and with no goal in support of housing equity. So if Mr. Kreisberg is fearful of data regarding communities becoming public, that horse left the barn long ago.

    Properly understood, Kirwan’s work acknowledges that multiple means exist to improve the lives of families living in marginalized communities. For the single mother living in assisted housing, in a neighborhood with high rates of vacant and foreclosed properties and low performing schools, the debate over honest data exhibiting the current state of her community, is far less of a concern than her children’s wellbeing, safety and ability to succeed in life. And if data-informed advocacy can drive investment back into her community, or help her connect her children to life enhancing opportunities, Kirwan will wholeheartedly continue to support it.

    Beyond woefully misunderstanding our opportunity mapping work, Kreisberg’s comments prolongs the internal bickering that divides the field of organizations and advocates deeply concerned about the housing needs of marginalized communities. The fair housing mobility programs Mr. Kreisberg denigrates, represent a “rounding error” in the realm of affordable housing expenditures. This is wasted self-immolation at a time when field unity is critically needed. An organized tea party and conservative backlash awaits the Obama administration’s attempts to rewrite the “Affirmatively Further” rule. While the field continues to squabble over in-place versus mobility interventions, support for discretionary funding for community development and affordable housing continues to wither, and financiers are rewriting the rules of housing finance in ways that could permanently limit home ownership in communities of color.

    I am disappointed that Shelterforce, a respected voice in this field, has chosen to add fuel to that fire, while the collective house around us burns.


    Jason Reece

  3. August is a slow news month, but that does not justify setting up straw men to knock down. Opportunity mapping does not “demonize” neighborhoods, much less the people living in them, anymore than similar data mapping tools used by the community development industry, e.g. TRF’s neighborhood typologies. Nor do mobility proponents characterize neighborhoods as “good” or “bad.” Rather, it is the residents of those neighborhoods who often use those terms, as well as terms like “war zone” to describe where they live. If you have haven’t heard mothers (and sometimes fathers) talking passionately about the real dangers they and their children face, the stress and anxiety that wears on them, and relief they feel if they are able to get out, then you haven’t been there, are not listening or are disregarding their voices. Where is the respect for the people who want to leave and their autonomy to make that choice? Should they be held hostage in neighborhoods that others long ago left, waiting for … what salvation exactly? The federal government to reinvest in their neighborhoods? The private sector? A big community development project that will likely displace them?

    Clearly, the moral argument for mobility, so eloquently set out by Alex Polikoff, has hit a nerve in some quarters. Attack the messenger, set up and knock down straw men if you will, but mobility proponents are just echoing the voices of people who are being ignored and disrespected.

  4. I’m trying to think of how to jump into this discussion in a way that moves us to consensus and not towards more confrontation.

    I agree with Jason Reece that we should not be squabbling over mobility vs. community development when the real enemy is the conservative backlash that threatens both community development and mobility strategies. I agree with him that opportunity mapping has been helpful to channel resources to distressed communities. I think mobility strategies should be robustly funded.

    I also agree with Barbara Samuels that we should respect the autonomy of people who want to move.

    But at the same time, I also really liked Miriam’s post. I really share her discomfort in hearing low-income neighborhoods of color described as “war zones.” In this vein, I don’t like it when “kids these days” use “ghetto” as a pejorative. Maybe this means I am getting old and am not hip to youth culture slang. But, even when the term contains a subtext pride, I don’t like it when people say that “[such’n‘such] is ghetto.” I don’t want to excommunicate people who say it. But I don’t use the term myself and I feel uncomfortable when I hear others use it.

    I took Miriam’s post along these lines. There’s something about the terminology of “war zones” applied to low-income/people of color neighborhoods that is problematic. I read her critique as less about the legitimacy of mobility/moving to opportunity as a strategy and more about the rhetoric that is sometimes associated with promoting mobility strategies.

    And this is a rhetorical problem that is not exclusive to mobility advocates (nor is it universal within mobility advocacy) and I don’t think Miriam was trying to go there. Community development advocates are also guilty of speaking from deficit models when advocating for their own communities. And it makes me just as uncomfortable when I hear comparable rhetoric from community development advocates. From social service agencies. From activists. From academics. From neighborhood residents. From friends and relatives. From whomever.

  5. I think Josh hits the nail on the head, and agree with all of his points, including his outlining of our points of agreement.

    I would never in a million years discredit the experience of the people who have real reasons to want to move. My point is that if their advocates rely too heavily on language that unintentionally reinforces fear of integration, we may shoot ourselves in the foot in the bigger picture and fewer people will end up able to move.

    Wanting to have a conversation about the language we use is not disagreeing about the goals, not advocating for defunding actual programs, and not suggesting we stick our heads in the sand about the data and what needs to be changed.

  6. Meanwhile, I do want to apologize for the way I set up the piece, which seemed to have led too strongly with an implication that I was critiquing one particular opportunity mapping project, which was not my intention.

    I meant to merely be giving an example of the idea of labeling some places ‘high opportunity’ and others low, which is much broader than that one project, and was not really the core of the rhetoric that I was concerned with critiquing.

    As for fueling a fire, and straw men, the fire is there, whether we wish it to be or not. I don’t think acknowledging it and discussing things I believe to be making it worse necessarily fuels it.

    It always tricky to address these controversial issues, but they are there for the people doing this work, so we do have to periodically tackle them.

  7. This post, with its many helpful links, is a rich lode for further dialogue. It and they have stimulated me to put down some thoughts:

    1. I don’t have an “answer” to the basic conundrum you pose. Two conundrums, really. The first, the “danger” you call it, is how to honestly describe harmful conditions in severely distressed neighborhoods without implying that residents rather than institutional practices have caused the conditions, perhaps thereby increasing resistance in “receiving” communities. The second, which you call the “disrespect,” is suggesting that mobility should be offered “only” as an escape from something dreadful rather than as a matter of housing justice.

    2. I think some of the implications you draw from my talk don’t come from my language, such as “the group of people is the problem,” “don’t bother with these places,” “don’t bother with most of these people,” demonizing “any place that has a lot of poor people and/or people of color living there.” I don’t think I said — I certainly didn’t intend to say or imply — any of these things. I was talking about places with 30% and 40% rates of poverty, though I suppose I could have been more explicit about that. (And will be in the future.)

    3. A “case” can’t be based on anecdotes. For every good person who loves her/his neighborhood and stays to better it, there is probably another who wants out for good reason, e.g., to avoid gang recruitment of a young child. As one of the links suggests, it would be nice to have some data on the relative size of the two “groups,” but I don’t know of any. (We do know that demand in most mobility programs has always far exceeded supply.)

    4. Which leads to an important point–the “rights” of persons in each group. The “stayers” should have a right healthy to a neighborhood environment, and the “movers” should have a right to seek such an environment elsewhere. This should be both/and, not either/or. Too often, I fear, community rejuvenation advocates ignore the “other” side; I don’t believe mobility proponents do.

    5. I like very much your three-part formulation, adding the right to stay in neighborhoods that become “more popular”–the other two parts being “achieving housing justice” (which I take to include realistic mobility options) and “healthy neighborhoods for everyone” (which I take to mean rejuvenating distressed communities). I’ve long been frustrated that we haven’t done better on planting affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods early on. We can do better on this, and should. (Shelterforce to convene some bright people?)

    6. Which shades into an important point Phil Tegeler makes, namely, that HUD only offers housing whereas most community rejuvenation requires much more than that (economic development, for example). And the Tegeler point leads to the reality that what goes on within a neighborhood is often so profoundly a function of outside forces, such as labor force policies, policing/sentencing, etc. But this is a different (though not totally unrelated) conversation.

    7. I was struck by the view in one of the links that national policy has been skewed in favor of mobility and against place-based strategies. I had thought exactly the opposite–fifty years of place-based, beginning with model cities, and nothing for mobility except a couple of court orders. I suppose that in the linker’s view HOPE VI is a “dispersal” strategy, but I see HOPE VI as displacing people without offering a realistic mobility alternative.

    Which leads to a last thought. Our community rejuvenation track record is (at best) mixed. As Paul Jargowsky tells us, “more people live in high-poverty neighborhoods today than ever before.” His “primary finding” is “the rapid increase in the prevalence of such neighborhoods.” This at the very time that research is supplying compelling evidence that–as regards health, child development, educational attainment, labor market outcomes, and more–growing up in such neighborhoods can be harmful. Without slackening in community rejuvenation efforts one bit, it seems to me obvious that we should also retool the voucher program to offer those parents who desire it a realistic opportunity to move their children away. (I guess this merely repeats my moral imperative point.)

    Finally, back to the beginning and the two conundrums. On the first, I suppose explicitly addressing the implication would be helpful. I know that mobility administrators always paint positive images of “their” families. On the second, yes, the housing justice point should always be made, as I believe mobility advocates generally do. But neither of these “answers” really resolves the conundrums you pose. I spoke as I did out of concern for children who are being harmed. I’d welcome your thoughts on how to express that concern (which I know you share) in ways that minimize the danger and disrespect you address.

  8. Alex, we collaborated back in the late 70’s – early 80’s when the CDC I was with in Chicago had been stymied in our attempts to develop subsidized rental housing, You supported an amendment to the Gatreaux decree that limited the development of new subsidized housing in minority communities, recognizing that in some “revitalizing” communities if there were no government subsidies available the residents would soon be displaced by gentrification.

    I mention that first to reconnect, and also to suggest that this discussion of the overlap between philosophical approaches to addressing the rights of people to safe, secure, affordable living environments and the application of policy and resources to address the problems in those communities goes back a long time.

    Conspiracy theorists abound in all areas of public discourse, but one does not have to believe a handful of people control everything that happens in the world to accept that there are indeed very powerful interests at stake in the future of many of the communities where poverty and unsafe, unhealthy living are the norm.

    And too often those interests are served by a general public acceptance of the notion that the poor residents of those communities are somehow “helped” if we empty the area of poor people. I believe that activists of all stripes and persuasions on issues like these have an obligation to raise and discuss publicly the possibility that the “help” being considered might actually be serving the interests of the few.

    You mentioned Hope and its failures; absent one-for-one replacement the destruction of public housing has nothing to do with serving the needs of the people who live there, whether through dispersal/mobility or improved housing. In Chicago (anecdote alert here!!) we saw years of systemic neglect of public housing, mistreatment of residents, and then a more activist approach to further destroying the quality of life. In the early 1980’s the Chicago Housing authority and police department teamed up for a “war on gangs”, which did little to curb drug dealing and gang warfare, and if anything escalated the level of violence. The housing authority adopted strategies like emptying the lower floors of partially vacant high rises where the elevators worked infrequently if at all, forcing mothers with children to walk up dark stairways past the gangs which had taken up residence in the vacated apartments below.

    The mainstream press screamed for years for the City to tear down these awful, dangerous, inhuman places where it isn’t safe to raise your children. Eventually that liberal call for what on the surface appeared to be social concern helped pave the way for real estate developers, bankers and City Hall to take over the land they had craved all along. Were some families who moved out with vouchers helped by the rush to vacate and eventually tear down the housing? Sure, and thousands of others lost forever their chance to live in a decent, affordable apartment.

    The University of Chicago (yet another anecdote) didn’t help win passage of the early Urban Removal legislation to assist the poor black residents of the surrounding Woodlawn neighborhood – they did it to get the land so they could expand. For that they needed the government to help, and we have ever since been blessed with the designation of “slum and blighted” (a/k/a “war zones”) to justify the destruction and taking of whole communities. I wasn’t around at that time, but I’d venture to guess that there were politicians and newspapers justifying the destruction of much of Woodlawn as something that would help the former residents.

    Those of us who advocate for mobility and those who passionately raise concerns about the living conditions in our communities are not to blame for the destruction of those communities when it happens, nor for what happens to the families as a result of policies that grow from that advocacy. At the same time, don’t we share a responsibility for raising public awareness of the motivations of those who would end up controlling the real estate, exposing that as at least one important factor in the moral equation?

    Whether place-based or mobile, given the wealth of this nation overall and its enormous number of poor families on the one hand, and compared to most industrialized nations on the other – we simply don’t have a policy in this country. For all the attention received by those of us in community based affordable housing development over the past few decades our work amounts to a tiny percentage of the need – and when that need is exacerbated by the policies which lead to and then ultimately destroy communities which might be at least marginally viable, it is even more important that we speak out. We can’t simply say that there should be both options – to stay or to move, if we know that in most cases there are no real resources to “stay”, and the resources available to those who would have us move are seemingly unlimited.

    How we talk about this is important, as this entire conversation brings to light; when it comes to moral considerations so too is what we don’t talk about.

    Bob Brehm

  9. I came home from my summer vacation in Europe to read Jason Reece’s comments and frankly i was taken aback. I would expect Jason to disagree with me, but was surprised at the tone and personal nature of his remarks.

    For the record, I have no recollection of the Kirwan Institute ever reaching out to me to discuss my concerns so I’m not sure what Jason is referring to in that regard. That said, I emailed Jason after I read the comments and would be delighted to engage in a substantive conversation about the pros and cons of opportunity mapping. I believe the concerns that I articulated in an article three years ago and since (concerns shared by many others) are based on substantive and factual grounds – not misrepresentations and misunderstandings as Jason asserts.

    FACT: Kirwan attaches a negative label to 40% of the communities in Massachusetts, including the City where my wife and I have chosen to live and raise our family (Boston). I think that is unhelpful, unfair, and inaccurate. Jason disagrees. That’s a substantive disagreement, not a misunderstanding.

    FACT: Kirwan’s methodology fails to recognize that different households seek different opportunities at different times. I think this is a serious flaw in the methodology. I presume Jason disagrees. That is a substantive disagreement, not a misunderstanding.

    FACT: Kirwan’s methodology does not factor into its definition of “opportunity” museums, public transit, affordable housing, after school programs, youth programs, grocery stores, local businesses, higher education, day care, senior citizen centers, parks. I believe that this is a serious flaw in their methodology. I presume Jason disagrees. That is a substantive disagreement, not a misunderstanding.

    Perhaps a final point of disagreement is that I believe it is helpful for practitioners, advocates community members, and scholars to debate these issues vigorously and publicly. I’m certainly glad that Shelterforce provides a forum to have those conversations. Far from hurting the movement, I think open debate will make us stronger and better able to achieve the goals and advance the values that we – Kirwan, MACDC, Shelterforce, and many others, all share.


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