What Would It Look Like to Win?

In case you haven’t seen it, the Urban Institute has been organizing a great series of online conversations. The latest focused on Housing and Economic Mobility. Urban asked eight national […]

In case you haven’t seen it, the Urban Institute has been organizing a great series of online conversations. The latest focused on Housing and Economic Mobility. Urban asked eight national experts to identify changes to federal policy that could promote economic mobility.

While these experts laid out in a very concise way the argument for reorienting federal housing policy to explicitly promote economic integration, their recommendations left me with the sad feeling that we are not playing to win on this issue.


Marjory Turner nicely summarized the challenge:

“A growing body of evidence argues that growing up in a disinvested community, where crime and violence are commonplace and public schools are ineffective, undermines a child’s long-term life-chances, other things being equal. In contrast, higher cost communities with safe places to play, high-performing schools, and an abundance of enrichment opportunities boost a child’s prospects for future success.”

Patrick Sharkey followed up with a clear description of what it would look like to overcome this dysfunctional situation. Low-income families living in economically integrated communities “would still struggle with all of the challenges that come with poverty, but the family would not have to deal with the additional challenges that come with concentrated poverty. The parents could count on sending their children to decent schools with diverse student populations, they could feel more confident that their children would be safe in public spaces, and they could rely on stronger local institutions.” The result, borne out in research by Sharkey and others, would be that children raised in poverty would be no more likely to end up in poverty as adults than middle-class children.

Urban’s experts all seemed to agree that economic integration is the way to eliminate generational poverty, but decades of federal investment in urban development and fair housing have essentially failed to achieve much in the way of economic integration. Urban was asking these experts for new ideas.

Urban picked an impressive cross section of some of the most thoughtful people in the field and I certainly agree with all of their recommendations. Among the proposals mentioned by one or more participants:

  • Greater investment to preserve project-based properties with expiring rent restrictions (some of which are in high opportunity areas)
  • Confronting exclusionary zoning and promoting fair housing
  • Expanding state and local housing trust funds
  • Shared equity homeownership
  • Reforming housing voucher programs
  • Improving access to home mortgages for minority buyers
  • Short term emergency loan programs

The most specific recommendations mentioned by several of Urban’s experts involved modifications to the Housing Choice Voucher program. Barbara Sard of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recapped findings from their recent report calling for, among other things, the use of smaller geographic areas in setting fair market rents, which would enable programs to pay more for units in high cost areas. These seem like practical changes, but I have a hard time seeing any voucher program as a long-term strategy for combating economic segregation. 

Surely, if we raised monthly rent subsidies high enough we could buy our way into any community, but sustaining integration this way would require an enormous ongoing outlay. Every time rents rise in a community the subsidies would need to rise with them.

Similarly, of course we need to preserve the affordability of expiring use properties. A meaningful share of these properties are now located in higher income communities but were in distressed areas when we first subsidized them. As the communities have improved, private investors have realized the gain, while the cost to the public of preserving any kind of income mix has gone up. Once again, we seem to be renting access to opportunity at an ever increasing cost.

Why rent when we can own? 

Many of the proposals for confronting economic segregation amount to playing defense. Even fair housing enforcement, something which we absolutely must do more of, is mostly a defensive strategy: we will never get to Sharkey’s future that way. We need an offensive strategy that allows us to steadily gain ground and hold on to it. 

There is no getting around spending public money to make space for lower income residents in high opportunity areas, but we should not have to pay for that access more than once. We should own the land.

Any serious strategy to actually increase economic integration simply has to focus on buying property.

With steady annual investments, we gradually build the stock of properties in every type of community that are sustainably affordable. We don’t need to achieve perfect integration in every neighborhood to bring an end to generational poverty, we just need a large enough portfolio so that mixed-income communities start to seem normal.

This is not a new idea. We are already underway with this strategy. In every part of the country, public and nonprofit agencies are investing in rental and ownership properties that will remain permanently affordable. But there is a tendency to see this as “just one approach” among many. Surely economic mobility is just one goal of our housing policy, but when we talk about promoting economic mobility, we should focus our attention on the only strategy that can actually win: building a geographically distributed stock of affordable housing that is permanently controlled by a public or nonprofit agency. 

That has to be the core of any strategy and we need to more aggressively commit to it before it is too late.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Memphis CVB, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Related Articles