Housing Advocacy

Place, Poverty, and Politics: A Growing Divide

Relocation or reinvestment? This longstanding debate has been reignited by recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and many other cities, and the release of a new report which finds that where […]

Photo credit: jjMustang_79, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Photo credit: jjMustang_79, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Relocation or reinvestment? This longstanding debate has been reignited by recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and many other cities, and the release of a new report which finds that where children grow up significantly affects their chances for escaping poverty and experiencing upward mobility, contrary to many recent reports that HUD’s Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program found few such anticipated outcomes. It is a debate that is driving a wedge between two increasingly conflicted camps on the left of the community development political spectrum. Both reject cultural explanations of poverty (the perspective that most Americans share, unfortunately) and assert that opportunities to move and to stay put are both essential.

But each faction increasingly advocates different directions for policy. In progressive community development circles there is one group of organizations whose focus is on fighting gentrification, advocating for reinvestment in traditionally underserved neighborhoods recently discovered by many professionals and middle income families, and assisting long term residents in their efforts to remain in their neighborhoods. A second group focuses on fair housing (and fair lending) issues and advocates mobility policies to help racial minorities and poor people relocate to neighborhoods previously closed to them. These are not mutually exclusive policy agendas and, again, most of these organizations have sympathies for both. But they are growing apart in some ways.

Dueling Narratives

Two very different stories are emerging, but from the same understanding of history.  Slavery, Jim Crow, officially sanctioned redlining, urban renewal, deindustrialization, mass incarceration, predatory lending and other forms of intentional, institutional, and implicit bias are recognized as the major forces that have created various forms of durable inequality in the nation’s cities. But the organizing agendas and policy objectives diverge.

At a recent conference on equitable development in Washington DC organized by ONE DC (an organization that has long been fighting gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood of the District) and George Washington University [full disclosure, I was one of the organizers of this event] passionate pleas were made to stop the displacement of long time DC residents. In a powerful keynote address, Mindy Fullilove (Clinical Psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of two compelling books about the fall and rise of cities (Root Shock and Urban Alchemy) noted that whenever urban America has a problem, the solution is to “move black people around.”

She called for an end to “serial displacement” noting that people of color need to strengthen their communities so they can organize effectively to protect their rights. She observed that Martin Luther King Jr. was able to organize 50,000 residents within five days to boycott the buses in Montgomery, Alabama because they had a strong, tight community at that time. Nothing was said about MTO, mobility programs, or desegregation.

Many organizers and academics share the view that mobility programs do more harm than good. Pointing particularly to the impact of urban renewal, MTO, and Hope VI, they assert that federal programs presumably designed to create greater racial and economic diversity lead to displacement and disempowerment. A critical shortcoming of mobility problems, according to its critics, is the damage they do to social networks that help many poor residents survive. As planning scholars Ed Goetz and Karen Chapple argued, “Policies that relocate the poor outside of high-poverty neighborhoods usually fail to improve their economic situation or health and often disrupt their social support system, creating new difficulties to overcome.”  The appropriate policy objective should be to help people stay put.

For fair housing advocates, eradicating discrimination and creating integrated living patterns is the linchpin of opportunity. They have enthusiastically embraced the recent study by Harvard’s Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendron (“The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility”) that place is a significant determinant of upward mobility and that children fare much better in life if they move from communities exhibiting low levels of mobility to those featuring high social mobility. As Sheryll Cashin argued in her book, The Failures of Integration, “I have reached the conclusion that the best–and likely the only–route to full equality for African Americans is a socioeconomically integrated one.” One reason for this position is evidence provided by Northwestern University sociologist James Rosenbaum who found that when families move from low-income public housing projects to middle income suburbs they often find more support from neighbors who can watch their children in an emergency, help them get to work when their car breaks down, and offer other assistance that was not available in their previous neighborhoods.

A Growing Divide? An Emerging Consensus?

To be clear, virtually all parties to this debate pay at least lip service to the need for both relocation and reinvestment. The challenge is whether agreement on such a dual agenda will become more than a throwaway line. To more concretely illustrate the emerging divide, the executive director of a civil rights research and advocacy organization recently told me that the Community Reinvestment Act (a federal law prohibiting redlining and encouraging mortgage lenders to serve traditionally underserved inner city neighborhoods) was the nation’s largest resegregation program since urban renewal.

His concern was that the CRA may be creating more housing opportunities for low-income and minority families in central cities, but the objective should be to help these families move to higher opportunity neighborhoods. After release of the Chetty/Hendron study, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said his department has been planning to reallocate funding so that low-income families moving to higher income areas would receive larger vouchers to support those moves. Castro also acknowledge that some people cannot or do not want to move and that, “We can’t walk away from them. We need a two-pronged approach.”

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

But is there truly a commitment to that “two-pronged approach?” Unfortunately, two leading forces for progressive housing policy and social justice generally seem to be moving apart on key questions of policy and advocacy. It is often said that the influence of the progressive movement is less than the sum of its individual parts. Both have much to offer and can exert more influence on policy with a more united voice. Opposition from the right is strong enough without these emerging divisions. Hopefully, the progressive camps will recognize how much they have in common and say to themselves and each other, “Can’t we all just get along?”

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