communities exercise-people with sign

Community Development Field

Prioritizing Inclusion and Equity in the Next Generation of Mixed-Income Communities

An introduction to a new series of essays on mixed income communities that will comprise the fifth volume in the San Francisco Fed's 'What Works' series.

Photo credit: New Communities Initiative

communities exercise-people with sign

A mixed-income communities exercise-people with sign

Photo courtesy of New Communities Initiative

We are facing an existential challenge in America. Major shifts in demographic change, housing affordability, and race and class inequality threaten our already tenuous social fabric. As the country becomes even more diverse, it is also becoming more polarized. As our cities and some neighborhoods become more attractive places to live, work, and spend leisure time to larger segments of the population, they also are becoming less accessible and less welcoming to people of various economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. In contrast, many neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs are experiencing economic decline and depopulation, leading to increased segregation as only low-income households remain. What America are we creating for future generations?

As professionals in the community development space, we aspire to shape an inclusive, equitable America, where neighborhoods are places where differences are affirmed and valued, not ignored or scorned; and where communities are strengthened by a sense of mutual prosperity rather than zero-sum competition.

Based on our fifteen years evaluating, advising and implementing mixed-income community transformations, we believe that the next generation of mixed-income, racially diverse communities could offer a path toward this America through greater intentionality about promoting inclusion and equity.

The next generation of mixed-income communities is incredibly consequential because it offers unique geographic potential for healing and connection across differences as well as a path to mobility out of poverty. Cultivating more equitable and inclusive mixed-income communities will require a vigilant focus on broadening access to economic, political, and social opportunities, while bridging divisions of class, race, gender, and other identities. It will require new practices at the micro level within neighborhood associations, school classrooms, community policing meetings, neighborhood businesses, and local libraries as well as operational changes within public and private institutions and organizations. It will also require macro level efforts required to disrupt systemic racism and classism through government policies, philanthropic strategies, and market processes.

More Harm than Good?

There are mounting concerns that the mixed-income approach does more harm than good for low-income households of color, promotes displacement and exclusion, and thus should be abandoned as an antipoverty approach. We share these concerns, but have not lost hope in the potential of mixed-income communities to alleviate poverty and racial segregation, to spur equitable economic development opportunities, and to generate positive benefits for households and for cities.

Neighborhood revitalization efforts can clearly produce a complete physical transformation, accompanied by improvements in local amenities, safety, and residential stability; however the benefits of mixed-income neighborhood transformations are not enjoyed by all residents. Rather, low-income households of color often experience high levels of displacement, enduring social distance and exclusion, and minimal changes in economic opportunity.

After more than two decades of planned efforts to design, build, and sustain mixed-income communities, much remains to be learned about how this approach can better advance inclusion and equity. We are thrilled to announce a new, fifth volume in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s What Works series, What Works to Promote Inclusive, Equitable Mixed-Income Communities.

The volume includes 50 essays to be released over the next 18 months and is funded by the Kresge Foundation. Foundation president and CEO Rip Rapson penned the welcome. The essays will equip policymakers, practitioners, investors, and community members with the latest thinking and tools needed to achieve more inclusive and equitable mixed-income communities. The authors and essays represent a diverse range of perspectives and topics while exploring the central theme of urban equity and inclusion through place-based strategies.

What do we Mean by Mixed-Income Communities?

To start, we need to define what we mean when we say “promoting inclusive, equitable mixed-income communities.” The mixed-income development approach has been typically defined as a means to address concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation by building housing and other amenities, such as parks, schools, and community centers, that intentionally integrate households of different income groups as part of a whole operating plan. Since the mid-1990s, the mixed-income development approach has engaged private real-estate developers to take on roles that historically were expected of the public sector, such as designing and building public housing and other amenities, serving as operators and property managers, and providing resident services and other community-based supports.

Our definition of mixed-income communities is broad, but at its core is a place-based approach to poverty deconcentration, in contrast to the residential mobility approach. To complement robust policy on moving individual households to safer, healthier, and more opportunity-rich environments, we focus on how places themselves can be made more cohesive, accessible, and opportunity-producing for low-income households, particularly those that are of color.

We are also interested in broadening the focus from mixed-income housing to mixed-income communities. This more comprehensive, holistic focus means that in addition to housing, the other elements that help a community thrive—schools, parks, community gardens, recreation centers, arts and culture hubs, networks of neighbors, transit, and retail districts—are in place and supported as intentionally inclusive amenities.   

There are three major place-based approaches to promoting mixed-income communities that we promote. The first approach is place-based: mixed-income developments in high-poverty neighborhoods, such as those created through the transformation of public and assisted housing redevelopments. Federal policies, such as those driving the HOPE VI Program and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, promote the creation of new housing developments that intentionally create a mix of residents across incomes and housing tenures. This approach has received the most focused attention and scrutiny. About 260 HOPE VI grants were made, and there are now over 100 Choice Neighborhoods implementation and planning grantees. Some well-known examples of local multi-site, mixed-income public housing transformation are the Atlanta Model, Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, HOPE SF in San Francisco (read more here), and the New Communities Initiative in Washington, D.C.

A second approach to promoting mixed-income communities is through inclusionary housing and zoning strategies in low-poverty neighborhoods. This approach makes it possible for low- and middle-income households to live in areas, such as suburbs and some city districts, which would be generally unaffordable. While tens of thousands of units have been developed nationwide, 80 percent of inclusionary zoning programs are located in just three states: California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. The majority of local inclusionary zoning programs are mandatory (per state or local law), while some allow developers to “buy out” of requirements by contributing to a local affordable housing fund. Some inclusionary housing and zoning approaches offer incentives, such as cost offsets to developers, in order to create a mix of market-rate and affordable units.           

A third approach aims to achieve mixed-income communities through affordable housing preservation and other strategies for preventing displacement in gentrifying areas. Gentrification occurs when an influx of more affluent households generates an increase in rents, property taxes, and general cost of living. In these communities, an influx of capital—from real estate developers and investors, for instance—results in social, economic, cultural, political, and physical transformations that change the community’s social dynamics. This intense level of private market activity can lead to the physical and cultural displacement of the original residents and businesses; thus, there is a need for strategies that preserve affordable housing, locally owned businesses, traditional and historic social venues, and other local assets and ensure that longtime residents can benefit from the new market activity (e.g., through access to capital and stable jobs).

What do we Mean by Inclusion and Equity?

Racial and socioeconomic integration of residents is necessary but not sufficient to create social inclusion in a community. We define inclusion as the active, intentional, and sustained engagement of traditionally excluded individuals and groups through informal activities and formal decision-making processes in ways that build connections and share power. We believe that inclusion occurs when a social context enables people of diverse backgrounds to interact in mutually respectful ways that reveal their similarities and common ground, honor their social and cultural differences and uniqueness, and value what each individual and group can contribute to the shared environment. Through this inclusion and interaction, people can shift narratives and perceptions about “the other.” Inclusion requires sustained intentionality and action.

Equity is the process of ensuring a fair opportunity for individuals and their families to thrive socially and economically. An equity focus can be motivated not just by a sense of morality and justice but also by pragmatism: inequity hurts all of us by preventing some individuals and subgroups from realizing their full potential and value in service of the greater societal good. Equity requires that people receive a fairer share of resources, opportunities, social supports, and power, given their differential needs and circumstances based on different life experiences. Equity therefore entails addressing structural disparities that exist between people of different backgrounds.           

But equity is not the same as equality. After centuries of discrimination, the needs of those from historically marginalized populations may be higher than those of groups that have held opportunity and power. Thus, getting a “fair share” does not mean that everyone receives the same amount of resources; rather, it means that resources are allocated in a way that promotes the attainment of a person’s full potential. Movement toward equity would be indicated by the decrease in social and economic disparity among people of different racial and economic backgrounds.           

In a quest to treat everyone equally, mixed-income planners, developers, and practitioners may fail to appreciate how historical imbalances may require resources to be balanced in favor of traditionally marginalized populations. Without a focus on equity, stakeholders may miss an opportunity to meaningfully generate greater access and opportunity for low-income households and people of color.

So, What do we Mean by Racial Equity and Inclusion?

Although it is not explicit in how the term “mixed-income communities” is usually framed, we are very interested in strategies to promote racial equity along with inclusion across income and class. Racial equity places priority on ensuring that people of color, particularly Black people/African Americans, are afforded opportunities that they have historically been denied and from which they continue to be excluded.

Much of our current debate about racial equity and inclusion focuses on a fairness argument about the prevalence and durable nature of concentrated and hoarded white wealth, and the inequality and harm to people of color that it causes. The debate about greater racial equity largely remains in a zero-sum frame that stifles most policy discussions on the topic: What would white people have to give up in order for marginalized groups to receive more?

This plays directly into the prevailing “us versus them” dynamics that are constraining the potential of America as it diversifies. These efforts remain within a deficit-oriented, “charity” frame of what white people should do for people of color without posing the more asset-oriented question of what the economic, social, and cultural benefits to a society are as a whole when everyone is afforded rightful opportunity and inclusion. White people do not just exclude people of color because they are afraid or uncaring. Often, white people do not value people of color because of presumed inferiority as a result of centuries of highly effective white supremacist narratives baked into policies, practices, and conventional notions. And so, in addition to the fairness argument, we seek to elevate the economic and social case for greater inclusion and equity, whereby greater opportunity for people who have been marginalized generates increased, sustained opportunities for all.

The volume, What Works to Promote Inclusive, Equitable Mixed-Income Communities, addresses the challenge of achieving stable communities that welcome and nurture a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse population. The following questions framed our shared inquiry:

  • How can the benefits of mixed-income community revitalization be shared more equitably?
  • How can mixed-income communities be leveraged to produce a broader range of positive—indeed, transformative—individual, household, community, and societal outcomes?
  • What are the most promising innovations to be expanded in the next generation of mixed-income community efforts?
  • What are the greatest threats to efforts to promote more inclusion and equity through mixed-income communities, and what steps should be taken to counter them?
  • What are the practical, actionable implications of current experiences and findings?

We have urged authors to be aspirational but pragmatic about the deep challenges of our era’s political, economic, cultural, and demographic realities. We hope these essays will inspire serious reflection and creative action in your own work and communities.

Toward the Next Generation of Mixed-Income Communities

While mixed-income interventions have evolved considerably over the past 30 years, we have yet to realize the potential of these place-based interventions to play a much greater part in helping to address racism, classism, and other forms of societal isolation and marginalization. In this era of increasing social disconnection and distrust, we are excited to be presenting this new information and ideas to advance social change through greater urban inclusion and equity, and we hope you’ll follow along and engage with them.

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