4 Groups That Need to Change to Make Mixed-Income Communities Work

As long time affordable housing developers and community builders now working in the area of public housing transformation, we appreciate the discussion of mixed-income housing in the new issue of […]

As long time affordable housing developers and community builders now working in the area of public housing transformation, we appreciate the discussion of mixed-income housing in the new issue of Shelterforce. For many years we have believed in the ideal of mixed-income communities, and have experienced genuine success in our work, as well as authentic moments of personal gain, growth, and fun in our personal lives by living side by side with diverse neighbors. The truth is, however, that these moments have been hard won and few and far between.

Putting people in spatial proximity to each other and genuinely “activating the mix” as our colleague Dr. Mark Joseph of the National Initiative of Mixed-Income Communities says, are two very different things. It turns out that our movement (or industry, depending on how you view it) of professionals: private housing developers, advocates, and public housing authorities who are seeking to transform public housing projects into mixed income housing, has pretty much nailed “spatial proximity,” but has a long way to go toward “activating the mix.” Meanwhile, this great experiment—one of the few anti-poverty public policies that can be claimed by a country that has a hard time even gulping up the word “poverty”—is at risk.

This may be no wonder given the huge human and financial resources that have been committed to bricks and mortar, contrasted with the limited ingenuity and investment in sorting out the complex human aspects of community building in this context.

There is no doubt that this is the hardest part of this work to figure out. But we must.  And as we strive to convince a complex array of partners to wake up and pay more attention to the elusiveness of their stated goal of having a thriving mixed-income community, we turn to Wendell Berry, essayist, novelist, poet, social critic and Kentucky farmer who writes about “community,” to help us with a few thoughts. He writes:

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives.”

There are two ideas here that we believe are powerful and helpful to those of us involved in “transforming public housing”: 

First, when he says, “the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities in each other’s lives … ,” he is saying that interconnectedness it is not an idea, it is a fact. We are hopefully, or hopelessly, intertwined. The only question is whether we feed each other’s aspirations and hopefulness, or our distrust and diminishment of each other and in the process, our mutual delusion that we are separate and different.

Secondly, he is saying that even though our interconnectedness is a fact, that fact is not “community.” Community is “the mental and spiritual condition of knowing” that we are interconnected. In other words, we don’t have community unless and until we come to the realization that our fortunes are intertwined.

In community life, we have the choice to understand and embrace that our place is a shared place, and with that realization, the chance of forging a positive future together.  We would assert that the principle difference between communities and neighborhoods that work and those that languish is that in the former there is a group of people—a network—who make the choice to overcome, overlook, or embrace difference, cultivating and acting on interconnectedness.

But this is not easy. To make communities functional and competitive—to tackle tough challenges, plan for an uncertain future, support, and cultivate quality of life—requires that community members develop the personal capacity needed to form mutually beneficial relationships with each other.

In the context of our public housing transformation work, and in an environment layered with professionals and driven largely by regulations and compliance, the emergent new network needed to forge genuine community must include, and even be catalyzed by, those professionals in concert with residents. The truth is that the public housing residents, the market-rate residents, the owner-manager agents, and the service providers really are in the same boat when it comes to the relative success of their “transformed” community. They are interconnected. Whether they have community or not depends on whether they know it.

If there is a new network of mutual respect, reciprocity, and shared decision-making, it will need to come from members of these four groups. Each will need to change how it operates relative to its boat-mates. We see the core of the challenge this way:

  • Will long time, publically assisted residents who now live in a transformed community—but one where most biases still remain—trust a new invitation to reach out and connect across lines of difference?
  • Will new “market-rate” residents—who may feel that they are taking a risk to move into a transitional neighborhood—suspend judgment and fear long enough to lean into genuine “neighboring” relationships of mutual benefit?
  • Will the owner-manager agents; the property managers, asset managers, and maintenance staff step out of their compliance-centric professional roles and adopt human-centered practices and protocols that support genuine relationships across race, age and income for collective placemaking?
  • Will supportive service staff, in the words of Peter Block, “stop helping” long enough to listen and learn to trust that most, if not all, residents have the capacity and wherewithal to not only help themselves but help others and contribute to community life?

These are the shifts, we believe, that start to change an operating culture that is still rooted in fear and isolation into one rooted in aspiration, striving, and reciprocity. Each of these groups, in their own world, needs support, ingenuity, and investment to make this shift. In real-time/real-place worlds like these new mixed-income communities, there is no shortcut to people actually talking with each other: on the doorstep, in social, and other kinds of gatherings. To return to the wisdom of Wendell Berry, the initial task at hand is to support enough people from each of these four groups to be willing to take that risk, to strengthen their trust and ties, and to get more intimately acquainted with the reality that they “define and limit the possibilities of each others lives.”

A community works or doesn’t work precisely because of the thousands of aggregate choices that all the people in community make every single day. Even with all the regulations and helpful programs in the world, we will never be able to control the thousands of choices that are made every day within a community. But with a growing awareness of just how powerfully our fortunes are linked—with growing accountability to each other—we can make the impact of different choices real and visible, and those choices can lead to habits, and those habits can redefine how we see ourselves and how we inhabit our community.

We have lots of ideas (and some small successes) on sparking new networks among these four groups. But they won’t produce results unless the public housing transformation machine, both public and private, wakes up to the challenge and the possibilities of becoming as invested in the people we are inviting to occupy these streets as we have been about the buildings that line them.

(Photo credit: Davide Taviani, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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