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«Mixed Messages on Mixed incoMes Volume 15, Number 2 • 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and ...»

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Abstract Policies that support mixed-income housing and neighborhoods are based on the assumption that most lower income families would both choose and benefit from moving to opportunity neighborhoods. Opponents of housing dispersal policies have challenged this assumption as unrealistic, oversimplistic, or incorrect. Both sides of this debate, however, share a fundamental assumption about the mobility of very low-income households that may be problematic. Each perspective assumes a degree of agency on the part of very low-income households in which housing outcomes are the result of considered choices among a set of alternatives. In this article, we examine the role of neighborhood environment in the mobility decisions of a group of very low-income families. We find that the assumption of choice among alternatives does not hold widely for the very low-income families in our study. Relationships, rather than neighborhoods, appear to be the driving factor in residential mobility and decisionmaking. As a result, neighborhood environment often plays a marginal role in the families’ assessment of their own housing and in their mobility decisions. We discuss the implications of housing policies that, although seeking to improve the conditions for very low-income families, disrupt vital social support systems that help families meet basic needs.

Introduction Much public policy attention during the past 20 years has been directed toward the neighborhood environment of very low-income families. In particular, housing-policy strategies have been driven by the ways in which the community environments of very low-income families can limit life chances and increase the likelihood of a range of negative outcomes. Concerns ranging from exposure to environmental toxins to crime victimization have influenced housing policies. The limited Cityscape 155 Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research • Volume 15, Number 2 • 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development • Office of Policy Development and Research Skobba and Goetz economic opportunities and low-quality public services (such as education) of highly distressed neighborhoods are also seen reinforcing patterns of poverty (see, for example, Ellen and Turner, 1997; Jencks and Mayer, 1990). Informed by a range of studies demonstrating the importance of neighborhood environment for individual outcomes, policymakers have stressed either the geographic dispersal of assisted households out of high-poverty neighborhoods and into neighborhoods of opportunity or the redevelopment of assisted housing into mixed-income developments (see Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010; Cisneros and Engdahl, 2009). Strategies for dealing with the housing needs of very low-income households have thus increasingly addressed the question of neighborhood and the access of such households to neighborhoods with greater opportunities and fewer constraints.

The shifting of housing assistance to mixed-income developments or the dispersal of subsidized units assumes that all or by far most lower income families would benefit from and be willing to make the move if given the chance. Some, however, have challenged the assumption that very low-income families will invariably choose to move to opportunity neighborhoods as unrealistic, oversimplistic, or simply incorrect. Citing the importance of social support networks, place identification, and the advantages of centrally located neighborhoods, many have argued that mobility preferences among low-income residents are not so monolithic with respect to neighborhood (see Goetz, 2013a; Manzo, Kleit, and Couch, 2008).

Both sides of this debate, however, share a fundamental assumption about the mobility of very lowincome households that may be problematic. Each perspective assumes a degree of agency on the part of very low-income households, in the sense that housing outcomes are seen as the result of considered choices among a set of alternatives that are understood, at least implicitly, by the households in question. In this article, we examine the role of neighborhood environment in the mobility decisions of a group of very low-income families. We find that the assumption of choice alternatives does not hold widely for very low-income families. As a result, neighborhood environment often plays a marginal role in such families’ assessment of their own housing and in their mobility decisions.

The Nature of Mobility for Very Low-Income Households For very low-income people, reliance on informal (nonmarket) strategies is vital for meeting basic

needs. Social scientists have understood this fact for decades. In 1945 Drake and Cayton (1945:

581) wrote of African-American families in disadvantaged neighborhoods as “mutual aid societies, originated and maintained by economic necessity.” More recent studies of low-income single parents have continued to document the extensive degree to which they supplement income from paid work or welfare with income earned in informal markets or with cash or noncash benefits from a “private safety net” (Dominguez and Watkins, 2003; Kalil and Ryan, 2010; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan, 2002; Edin and Lein, 1997; Stack, 1974). When affordable housing is unavailable and a household lacks the financial resources to secure housing in the private market, family, friends, and partners are a frequent source of support (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003; Cook et al., 2002; Skobba, 2008).

Lacking the financial resources to secure a place to live, low-income families often resort to housing that is both precarious and unsatisfactory. Clampet-Lundquist (2003) argued that low-income single mothers must be creative in seeking housing security. Securing informal housing assistance 156 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households by doubling up with family, friends, and unrelated roommates is one of the few options available to low-income families who face problems of housing affordability and availability (Cook et al., 2002;

Fitchen, 1992). Leopold (2012), for example, found that 40 percent of surveyed very low-income households on waiting lists for housing assistance were living doubled up with family or friends.

More than one-half of the households that were living with friends reported that they had gone without their own place to stay at some point during the previous 12-month period. Without a place to live, many reported turning to shelters and living on the streets. Although it often results in crowded and undesirable housing conditions, doubling up with mothers, boyfriends, or others is a common method of securing housing, particularly for low-income single mothers (ClampetLundquist, 2003). All the women in Clampet-Lundquist’s (2003) study of public housing residents had lived with their mothers at one point or another after the birth of their children. Dominguez and Watkins (2003) found the same for a sample of very low-income mothers younger than age 30.

Other research has shown that relatively few low-income single mothers fit the profile of living singly and raising their families. London’s (2000) analysis of the 1990 Survey of Income and Program Participation database revealed that more than one-third of such women lived with parents or family, with a partner, or in a group household. Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan (2002) found that roughly one-half of the households in the “Fragile Families” database lived in composite-household arrangements. Although one-third of those households lived in nuclear family arrangements and 17 percent were in single-adult households, another one-third lived in group situations and 15 percent lived in what the researchers called the “partner-plus” arrangement—with a partner and other adults as well. Joint living arrangements among single mothers are most prevalent, as might be expected, in more expensive or tighter housing markets (Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan, 2002).

Informal exchanges are dependent on interpersonal relationships. The primacy of relationships in informal modes of exchange is especially true in housing, where informality means shared living space. The maintenance of connections thus becomes important, and housing accommodations can become dependent on the condition and quality of key interpersonal relationships. Anderson and Imle (2001) found, for example, that connections to an extended family member are frequently all that distinguishes homeless from housed women of limited means. Venkatesh’s (2006) study of informal work in the Chicago ghetto points to the many ways in which informality strains relationships and the ways in which relationships can suffer. Often, conflicts are based on small disagreements, but such disagreements can be enlarged through repeated and prolonged exposure and because of the stress associated with living on the margin. Liebow (1967) and Rainwater (1970) noted decades ago that social relationships in conditions of extreme poverty can be characterized by ambivalence and mistrust. Nearly all studies of informal support have noted that private safety nets are unpredictable and inconsistent (Curley, 2009; Kalil and Ryan, 2010; Radey and Padilla, 2009; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan, 2002). As noted previously, home sharing amplifies issues of conflict that are always just below the surface in relationships of social support. Overcrowding and lack of privacy can erode mutually supportive relationships more quickly than private safety-net relationships that do not involve cohabitation. Thus, the informal agreements that represent the foundation of housing for many very low-income families are inherently unstable, especially when doubling up “occurs in stressful, overcrowded conditions where people struggle to make ends meet” (Rollins, Saris, and Johnston-Robledo, 2001: 283). The difficult conditions of home sharing can strain relationships, leading to further disruptions in household composition and to further residential instability as households split and some members move away.

Cityscape 157Skobba and Goetz

As a result of the foregoing reasons, not only do very low-income households frequently lack choice in their move into housing—needing to cobble together shared accommodations with others who are willing—but they often lack choice in their move out of housing. In a study of the residential mobility patterns of 256 low-income families living in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio, Clark (2010) found that most moves were because of push factors, with forced moves, union dissolution, household conflict, and overcrowding the most prevalent forces triggering moves. Lack of housing affordability and quality are also common precursors to involuntary moves for low-income families.

In a study of the housing careers of low-income families, participants described a high proportion of moves as being forced moves (Skobba, 2008). These moves typically came about through eviction, the sale of the unit, damage to the property, or being forced out by the friends or family with whom they were living. Instances of forced mobility continued to represent a relatively large portion of moves even after participants received a voucher, suggesting that low-income households are vulnerable even when affordability is not a factor. Mental health problems, domestic violence, cohabitation, and chemical dependency are also risk factors for involuntary moves (Phinney et al., 2007).

Mobility decisions made (or forced) under such circumstances are likely to be the result of quick improvisation rather than a careful search strategy. Clampet-Lundquist (2003) found, for example, that only one-third of the low-income public housing residents she studied conducted a formal housing search when they moved. Furthermore, searches under these conditions, to the extent that they occur, are likely to emphasize and use personal safety nets rather than considerations of neighborhood quality and geographies of opportunity.

Dominguez and Watkins (2003) noted the tendency of some households to move closer to family to have better access to the supports provided by family members. Thus, reliance on private safety nets and informality has implications for neighborhood choice and vice versa, although the relationship is complex. Furstenburg (1993) found that kin networks were more prone to disruption in “highly distressed” neighborhoods, which is similar to findings that, within low-income groups, the strength of social supports and income exhibit a negative relationship (Harknett, 2006; MillerCribbs and Farber, 2008). Equally, however, research has consistently found that physical proximity is important to maintaining social support networks and for accessing those supports (see Brown and Gary, 1987; Roschelle, 1997; Rossi and Rossi, 1990; Wellman and Gulia, 1999).

Residential instability can actually disrupt social networks and damage a household’s ability to maintain the cash and in-kind benefits gained from private safety nets (Harknett, 2006). Research on recent programs that focused on dispersing subsidized households has shown that the very lowincome families displaced from their communities suffer disruption in their social networks (see, for example, Clampet-Lundquist, 2004; Curley, 2009; Greenbaum et al., 2008; Keene and Geronimus, 2011), suggesting that whatever benefits may be produced by moving to other—presumably better—neighborhoods must be weighed against the potential disruption of private safety nets (Dawkins, 2006).

Indeed, evidence suggests that the presence of relatives nearby is associated with lower mobility rates among low-income people (for example, Myers, 2000). Dawkins (2006: 878) found that mobility among low-income residents “is impacted most by whether the household has received in-kind assistance from someone in the most recent month.” Being closer to relatives is, according to Long, Tucker, and Urton (1988), among the most frequently mentioned reasons for mobility decisions (see also Connerly, 1986).

158 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households Similarly, those dependent on income from informal work need to position themselves in neighborhoods where that type of work exists and where the informal market flourishes. Not all neighborhoods are equally receptive to or suitable for small-scale informal businesses such as beauty salons or food preparation. Venkatesh (2006) noted the nearly constant concern related to finding space where one engaged in the informal sector can set up shop and build and maintain a clientele.

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