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Practitioner VoiceHousing

Low-Income Residents of Inclusionary Housing Report Facing More Bias

A survey of Cambridge, Massachusetts, residents found that residents of affordable units in inclusionary housing properties reported frequently experiencing bias, especially from management. Here's how we can change that.

Photo by bymuratdeniz via iStockphoto


One Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident has lived with her children in an affordable rental unit in an inclusive housing property for three years. While she’s grateful to have affordable housing, she does not feel like she belongs. She says that other residents have blocked her from using the elevator, even though there was space, and told her to take the next one. Residents have left the property’s patio area and pool when she arrived with her children to enjoy them. We found that her experience—which we have kept anonymous to preserve survey respondents’ privacy—is a common one for residents of inclusionary housing.

The goal of inclusionary housing laws is to create mixed-income housing, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that lower-income families moving into mixed-income housing will be welcomed and treated kindly. Our research finds that residents of affordable units in inclusionary housing properties reported experiencing more bias than residents in market-rate units. They also reported experiencing more bias than residents of all-affordable developments.

Inclusionary housing and inclusionary zoning are long-standing housing programs. They were initially developed to right the wrongs of exclusionary housing policies and practices, like redlining and racial covenants, that led to racial and economic segregation throughout the country. Inclusionary housing and zoning ordinances require developers of new private-market housing to include a percentage of affordable units for low- and moderate-income households. With over 1,000 programs in cities and towns across the nation, these policies prompt developers to build high quality affordable housing that is integrated with market-rate housing.

[RELATED ARTICLE: Inclusionary Housing: Secrets to Success]

Residents of inclusionary housing developments, however, have a range of opinions about how successful the programs have been at creating spaces where everyone feels like they belong. One resident of an inclusionary housing development in Cambridge told us in our survey that “inclusionary housing residents are invisible in building communities,” and recommended “an effort to educate owners and other market-rate residents about this community” to create tolerance and improve resident relationships.

On a more positive note, a resident of another development in Cambridge said that the “program is great and gives you a diverse group of people to live around. It can create a lot of educational moments and tolerance for all its residents.” Still another Cambridge resident said that “The housing is nice, but the community is really lacking.”

At the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities (NIMC), we conduct research and partner with entities engaged in affordable housing strategies—particularly those focused on creating inclusive communities that are mixed-income and mixed-race. One of our priorities is learning directly from residents about their experiences living in different types of communities.

In a recent study, we surveyed residents living in inclusionary housing developments in Cambridge, a well-resourced community with strong schools, health care, and public services and facilities. Cambridge is recognized nationally for its dedication to high-quality affordable housing and its commitment to being a diverse, inclusive city where residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds can thrive. The inclusionary housing program in Cambridge dates back to 1998 and includes over 1,000 affordable units. New developments of 10 or more units are required to allocate 20 percent of the residential floor area for low- and moderate-income households (those earning up to 80 percent of the area median income).

The Cambridge City Council heard about several instances of bias from residents of affordable units in inclusionary housing properties. In response, the city selected NIMC to study the social climate in inclusionary housing buildings and complexes, including resident perceptions of and experiences with inclusion, belonging, and bias. The core of the study was a survey of 430 Cambridge residents, including 300 living in affordable units in inclusionary housing buildings (across 61 different buildings and complexes), 66 living in market-rate units in inclusionary housing buildings, and 64 living in all-affordable (not inclusionary) housing developments.

Here is what we learned:

Residents in affordable inclusionary housing units are happy with where they live.

Most residents are highly satisfied with the quality of their units, and many have attachments to the broader city of Cambridge. Some of the survey respondents commented that they are appreciative of the housing they have.

Residents report that much of the bias they experience is from building management and staff.

While residents are generally happy with their housing quality, many report experiencing social exclusion and bias from staff and other building residents. Forty percent of those surveyed from affordable inclusionary housing units reported experiencing bias in their buildings from “a few times a year” to “almost every day,” based on the Everyday Discrimination Scale. They described being treated differently from others, disrespected, and made to feel unwelcome in their buildings.

Some of these experiences involved encounters with other residents, most commonly residents of market-rate units. When renters of affordable units in inclusionary housing developments reported experiencing bias from fellow residents, 72 percent said that the perpetrators were residents of market-rate units.

But property management and building staff were most often identified as the perpetrators. Almost 60 percent of renters in affordable inclusionary housing units who reported experiencing bias identified property management as the source. These incidents varied, and included residents of affordable units and residents of color feeling ignored or being asked to leave public spaces; neighbors in market-rate units filing repeated, seemingly unwarranted complaints against lower-income residents and residents of color; and the same housing problem being remediated for a white market-rate resident but not for a resident of color in an affordable unit.

“I felt like the other neighbor was treated better and taken care of first because she was a market-rate resident,” one resident said. “I heard [property management] deal with another resident in a better manner than me because she was market-rate and I was Black and low-income.” Another resident said that they were “very upset that there is no accountability for the actions of property management.”

“We need some type of action to happen with the property manager for this building,” the resident said. “The property manager is extremely discriminatory and accusatory to inclusionary housing residents.”

Another reported that “a lot of the inclusionary residents are afraid to speak up [about] mistreatment for fear of getting evicted.”

Black residents and residents with children reported experiencing the most bias. Residents in the inclusionary housing affordable units were more likely to report experiencing bias than those in the market-rate units in their buildings or residents living in all-affordable developments. Twenty-eight percent of renters in affordable inclusionary housing units reported they were “treated with less courtesy than others in the building,” compared to 12 percent of those renting market-rate units in the same buildings, and 12 percent of those living in all-affordable developments in the city.

Market-rate residents did not know they were moving into a mixed-income building.

Eighty-eight percent of the market-rate residents we surveyed indicated they did not know their building had units designated as affordable until after they moved in—or even until they were contacted about the survey. Not having this knowledge up front may mean that some market-rate renters who have no interest in living in a mixed-income environment move into inclusionary housing developments. Learning that a building is mixed-income and inclusionary after moving in could create resentment and contribute to an unfriendly environment and bias against residents of the affordable units. These dynamics may also contribute to property managers’ treatment of residents in affordable units.

consequences of bias in inclusionary housing

Though social exclusion may not always lead to social isolation, it is likely that feeling unwelcome in inclusionary housing buildings contributes to social isolation for some residents. The U.S. Surgeon General recently reported that social isolation and loneliness pose greater risks to health than obesity and comparable risks to smoking.

Although inclusionary housing can provide stability for those who were precariously (un)housed, residents who do not feel they belong and experience bias from staff and neighbors may become socially isolated and less likely to participate in the broader community, including the local services, facilities, and educational resources crucial for quality of life and upward mobility. Social exclusion, alongside geographic isolation, is an old and still-used tactic to keep people of color marginalized. Given this context, investing time and resources into social cohesion during the design, building, management, and maintenance of inclusionary housing is critical to its success as a strategy for repairing, rather than replicating or reinforcing, historic harms.

implications for inclusionary housing

Inclusionary housing programs should be alarmed that property management was found to be the primary source of bias against residents in this study. Property management companies wield significant influence over building environments and can foster, or discourage, a sense of community and belonging. Addressing and rectifying biases within property management practices is pivotal for creating truly inclusive environments in inclusionary housing properties.

To combat bias, inclusionary housing programs should:

  • Develop mechanisms for residents to report problems and concerns, report bias incidents, provide feedback, and make suggestions for their housing and buildings.
  • Require routine trainings for management in inclusion, racial equity, and inclusive practices.
  • Create an inclusionary housing equity task force with representation from residents of affordable and market-rate units, as well as city staff and property managers, to focus on social inclusion and racial equity.
  • Increase awareness among property owners, management staff, and residents about the goals and collective benefits of inclusionary housing.
  • Elevate expectations for property management companies. Building and maintaining positive living environments requires proactive promotion and cultivation through deliberate policies and practices. Property owners should consider whether large, profit-driven property management corporations are the best choice for inclusionary housing properties. Nonprofit and mission-driven management companies with proven success in managing mixed-income communities and fostering positive environments may be the best choice for inclusionary housing. Property management companies must commit to fostering welcoming and inclusive environments, which would necessitate a significant shift in operational principles and practices for many.

Likewise, management of inclusionary housing properties should:

  • Provide a range of opportunities for residents of affordable and market-rate units to engage and connect with one another in their buildings. Increasing interaction can strengthen social inclusion, promote a sense of community and belonging, and improve perceptions of residents.
  • Actively promote inclusionary housing buildings as vibrant, mixed-income communities. Transparent marketing and open communication about the diverse nature of the community can attract tenants who are genuinely interested in living in a diverse environment and eager to engage with individuals from various backgrounds.

Cities and jurisdictions that manage inclusionary housing programs should also be aware of the social environments in their properties. Conducting social climate surveys on a regular basis can help programs gauge residents’ experiences with social inclusion and bias.

Inclusionary housing planning, design, and implementation practices should explicitly prioritize the goals of rectifying historical harm caused by discriminatory policies. Inclusionary housing offers an opportunity—and has an obligation—to address the historical and ongoing exclusion of certain groups, particularly Black families, from many neighborhoods. By acknowledging and actively working to repair these past injustices, inclusionary housing initiatives can contribute to the creation of more equitable and inclusive living spaces.

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