Place, Poverty, and Politics: A Growing Divide

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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.”

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?”

Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. He previously served on the board of the National Housing Institute, publisher of Shelterforce.


  1. Thank you, Gregory for an important post around the place-mobility debate. I have a simple approach to my CED work- Place-based, People-Centered. At times, the approach is a compliment to stregthen efforts to empower communtiies and residents. Other times, families should seek opportunities through mobility. I share a similar fear and frustration that unless you endorse mobility as THE means for improving the lives of families and individuals then you’re complicit in resegregation and promoting concentration of poverty in our neighborhoods. I will remain steadfast, that an approach that embraces being place-based and people-centered allows for a two-prong approach to improve our communities.

  2. First, Professor Squires (Greg!), I am disappointed that you lump together voluntary housing mobility programs with involuntary displacement programs like HOPE VI and urban renewal – that “straw man” approach is unfair to the efforts of so many advocates and practitioners who are trying to expand mobility programs to give low income families more than just the one “choice” of a segregated, high poverty neighborhood.

    Second, it is important for all of us who advocate for a “both/and” approach that encompasses both community revitalization and housing mobility, to acknowledge how far we are from any real balance in our national housing policy. Housing mobility, inclusionary zoning, and opportunity-based development in the LIHTC program are just a small fraction of our overall low income housing investment. This is particularly true for families with children, and in our segregated metropolitan areas. Until we come to terms with the extent of this imbalance, it will be difficult to come to a real consensus on the kind of “balance” we are seeking.

  3. I like this story named “Place, Poverty, and Politics: A Growing Divide”. The three U.N. food agencies said Wednesday that East Asia and Latin America showed the most progress in reducing hunger, thanks in part to economic growth that doesn’t exclude the poor, investments in agriculture and political stability.

  4. in light of recent events here in Baltimore, and the national media’s “discovery” of entrenched poverty and abandonment, I had hoped we could finally get beyond the frame of gentrification displacing poor people from city neighborhoods as a national phenomenon. Yes, its a big issue in DC, NYC, SF and a relative few other places where the “experts” and pundits tend to live.

    As I think the nation saw, just 30 miles up the road here in Baltimore gentrification is a non-issue and a huge distraction. Long before he was harmed by police, Freddie Gray was harmed by growing up surrounded by vacant houses, open air drug markets and deep poverty. The threat of “serial displacement” by gentrification was the least of the threats to his health and well-being.

    I think its hard for folks whose world view sees all cities as threatened by gentrification and resulting displacement to understand why we need a both/and approach that includes mobility.

  5. Phil,

    I did NOT lump together the various programs as you suggested. I did note that some of those in the community development field have done so, and that is part of the problem I’m trying to point out.


  6. Phil Tegeler’s response to our colleague Greg Squires in Shelterforce was spot on. The drip, drip, drip of resources our nation spends on mobility, inclusionary zoning, opportunity-based strategies and, I would add, efforts to remove continuing barriers (systemic discrimination) to housing choice pales by comparison to the virtual tsunami of resources devoted to place-based approaches that perpetuate residential racial segregation and concentrated poverty. I would remind anyone who is tempted to oversimplify this debate that they cannot ignore the unmistakable imbalance in both the allocation of resources and public policy emphasis. I am not persuaded that this imbalance will ever be addressed unless or until we are able to have a far more honest debate about the status quo. The reality is that the net result of our current policy approach, both in intent and effect, is to summarily restrict housing choice in a way that fuels a vicious cycle of inequality and limits access to vital opportunities, particularly by lower income families of color. Individuals and families seeking to exercise their legal right to move to a low poverty neighborhood in pursuit of better opportunities are being harmed every day, not only by continuing discrimination and the failure of government to adequately enforce fair housing laws, but by misguided public policies that place a greater value on neighborhood preservation than they do housing choice. Failing to assist lower income African American and Latino households who voluntarily choose to move to other neighborhoods must not be viewed as merely an unfortunate consequence of poverty, a vestige of our segregated past, or collateral damage in our nation’s continuing effort to revitalize urban neighborhoods. More public and private resources must be devoted to enforcing fair housing laws and to assisting lower income African American, Latino and others to overcome barriers to housing choice. And I hasten to add that I find it equally repugnant and despicable when government or private housing providers pursue redevelopment strategies that trample on the fair housing rights of lower income residents of poor and minority neighborhoods too often leading to displacement and increased homelessness. If we hope to succeed with any kind of “both/and” approach that is fair to all and addresses the gross disparities that persist in our metropolitan regions, then “getting along” with each other the way Dr. Squires recommends must mean that our colleagues who are strong advocates of community development and affordable housing support, in word and deed, a truly balanced approach which gives rise to policies and programs that expand housing choice just as vigorously and passionately as they do the revitalization of high poverty urban neighborhoods.

  7. Fred,

    Strategically, I think that telling people working on trying to turn distressed communities into places that don’t need escaping from that they have a “tsunami” of resources is not going to win you any new allies. Even if there is an imbalance, it is a matter of larger crumbs and smaller crumbs relative to need—implying that a fellow hard-working advocate has more than they need is no way to build unity. (Which isn’t to say we couldn’t find redevelopment money that was poorly directed or spent.)

    I also wonder—and it truly is wondering because I don’t know—about whether the implication that “balance” would mean equivalent resources is accurate when the work being done is so different. It would seem to me that the end goal is not when the resources are balanced, but when the results are balanced–when low-income people actually have a real choice of where to live, of whether to go or stay with both choices involving viable neighborhoods, with both funded to the extend necessary to fully function.

    Finally, Barbara, I think concerns about displacement are broader than gentrification, and they arise from the people in these neighborhoods themselves. Many of those ‘involuntary mobility’ programs as Phil called them are still in effect, such as public housing demolition without unit replacement, and are trumpeted as being about deconcentrating poverty. That is not choice either, as all the people protesting for their right to stay when their homes are demolished ought to be evidence of.

  8. I want to assure Ms. Axel-Lute that I was not trying to be strategic in my choice of words or win converts. I was more interested in being honest. Your statement “even if” there is an imbalance reveals your position. There is an enormous imbalance and it is not only financial as my comments indicated, it is also a matter of emphasis in current housing policy. You are of course more than welcome to ponder what choices people would make if all neighborhoods were of equal quality. I prefer to look at how people’s housing choices continue to be constrained today whether by displacement as you point out or by an array of policies and discriminatory barriers that have been erected to prevent lower income families of color from exercising their fair housing rights and moving to low poverty areas.

  9. it seems like much is impacted by the ability to borrow money ,especially for infrastructure. Moving to the “burbs” is a step into newer streets, infrastructure and schools. New money builds new schools, it;s not part of some huge capital improvement budget that is always stretched thin trying to maintain existing older systems. Try to find the funds to build a track at an old middle school, or revamp the technology wiring. You’ve got to get in line with a lot of competing interests. Watch how the new ones are built for the future.

  10. At the risk of prolonging this discussion, its worth pointing out that Miriam is correct that urban redevelopment projects like HOPE VI and other forms of public housing demolition cause far more displacement than gentrification. But these projects are essentially urban renewal projects carried out in the name of “revitalization. “ It is disingenuous to lump them in with housing mobility or anything related to fair housing.

    Some have incorrectly suggested that urban revitalization strategies are about “deconcentration” simply because the housing rebuilt on cleared sites is usually mixed income. But in virtually all of these cases, there is no “deconcentration.” The only assisted housing replaced is limited to the same site or neighborhood. And the relocation plans almost never provide a mobility counseling component because HUD doesn’t require it. Policies of this sort are just another tool of segregation.

    In contrast, a fair housing “deconcentration” strategy would replace all of the units demolished —- partially on-site and partially off-site in a variety of safer, healthier neighborhoods with strong schools (since most of the demolished housing served served families with children). Any necessary relocation would include mobility counseling, and families would have the right to return, or to choose among the replacement housing options developed in higher opportunity neighborhoods.

    So can we be candid and acknowledge the truth that historically (and currently) it is urban renewal/revitalization that has been causing the hardship of displacement and forced relocation —- not voluntary mobility programs that allow people a choice that revitalization programs have never offered? Once we do that, I am more hopeful that we can work together toward a new and powerful “both/and” paradigm to improve the quality of life for people in distressed places, while allowing families to choose other long denied opportunities for their children.

  11. Yes, I would agree that voluntary mobility programs are not causing displacement!

    And also that a meaningful option to move elsewhere if desired should be part of a public housing redevelopment plan, or any other redevelopment that displaces people, and that higher opportunity communities should all be forced to offer their fair share of affordable units.

    In return, perhaps we can acknowledge that place-based work is necessary and is not actually overfunded or even sufficiently funded?(That does not follow from mobility programs being way underfunded—as I said before, that’s a matter of large crumbs and small crumbs, while the tsunami goes to the mortgage interest deduction—and the military and corporate subsidies.)

    And, I think, can we agree that choice and access to opportunity are fact the end goals, not deconcentration? Those concepts have very different tones in terms of who has the agency (I choose to move to opportunity. Other people decide people like me need to be deconcentrated.) and in terms of what our understanding of the problem is (groups of poor people or people of color living near each other is NOT the problem. People forced into staying in a limited geographic area that is then disinvested from and treated in a disparate manner is the problem. See

  12. Quoting Barbara Samuels:

    “in light of recent events here in Baltimore, and the national media’s “discovery” of entrenched poverty and abandonment, I had hoped we could finally get beyond the frame of gentrification displacing poor people from city neighborhoods as a national phenomenon. Yes, its a big issue in DC, NYC, SF and a relative few other places where the “experts” and pundits tend to live.”

    Besides DC, NYC, SF, gentrification and displacement are big issues in places like Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, the Twin Cities, Portland, parts of Chicago… I think it warrants being labeled a national phenomenon.

    Gentrification can be a national phenomenon and an important frame AND abandonment and entrenched poverty can be a national phenomenon and an important frame. Across the country, we have “hot markets” and we have “cold markets.” In both places poor people (especially poor people of color) are being screwed.

    We don’t have to “move beyond” one frame in favor of the other. Can’t we all just get along?

  13. Quoting Barbara Samuels again:

    “So can we be candid and acknowledge the truth that historically (and currently) it is urban renewal/revitalization that has been causing the hardship of displacement and forced relocation–- not voluntary mobility programs that allow people a choice that revitalization programs have never offered? Once we do that, I am more hopeful that we can work together toward a new and powerful “both/and” paradigm to improve the quality of life for people in distressed places, while allowing families to choose other long denied opportunities for their children.”

    I will second Miriam and agree here.

    Voluntary mobility programs have not been and are not now the cause of gentrification or displacement.

    I will also agree that a majority of displacement over the past many decades (50+ years) was caused by urban revitalization and urban renewal programs.

    But this form of urban revitalization is NOT community development. There is some unfortunate overlap to be sure. And those of us on the community development side need to own the ways in which aspects of our movement have been co-opted. But the CDC where I spent most of my adult professional life working (LTSC CDC in Los Angeles) was formed in direct response to the forced displacement of low-income people due to urban renewal and revitalization projects and I think remains committed to a progressive, equitable, democratic (with a small “d”) vision of community development. There are many other CDCs that I know where people are committed to a more comprehensive, collaborative, and empowerment-oriented form of community development.

    Likewise, the “tsunami of resources” that have gone towards place-based revitalization projects includes many things that are an anathema to progressive community development. Just as it is unfair and disingenuous to put HOPE VI at the feet of moving to opportunity, community development should not be held responsible for nor has it benefited from all that has been done in the name of place-based revitalization (or affordable housing development, for that matter).

    Further, the current wave of gentrification and displacement is largely private market driven (and assisted/subsidized by a suite of different public investments and policies). It is not caused by community development. Nor, like you say, is it caused by housing mobility nor anything related to fair housing advocacy. Neither of us is the enemy here. But, as Prof. Squire points out, we share a common set of values which can hopefully be translated into a common set of goals.

  14. So I’m starting to see a concrete place where mobility advocates and community development advocates could collaborate–united, they could pressure redevelopment programs, like Choice Neighborhoods, to have BOTH meaningful right to return and meaningful ability to relocate somewhere better. Currently, without one-for-one replacement, and often with a sharp decrease in the number of affordable units, and with a huge number of procedural obstacles and punitive standards put in the way, right of return not a reality for most people.

    But also currently, with only the current vouchers offered that have all sorts of technical obstacles to being used in higher-income areas, as many of our writers have detailed, and with no real mobility counseling, as Barbara notes, the promise to be able to choose where else you would want to go instead is also not being realized.

    What if a joint task force could hammer out a set of principles for how this should be done that satisfies both objectives and then everyone insisted in be applied in all cases?

    At the least the cooperation would make a lot of people rub their eyes and take notice! As we are a group that is not committed to either approach over the other, I’d be happy to host the calls.

  15. For a good example of a “both/and” statement of principles, check out the “Civil Rights Statement of Fair Housing And Civil Rights Advocates on HOPE VI Reauthorization” on the PRRAC website. This 2008 statement originated with civil rights advocates who had been active on HOPE VI issues —- standing up for both the residents right to return and for replacement housing and mobility counseling to create opportunities for desegregation and access to opportunity areas. .


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