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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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Based on previous research on the mobility experiences of very low-income families, we expect patterns of mobility among low-income families that emphasize the role of personal safety nets in searching for and securing housing, instability (that is, frequent moves), and a prevalence of informal housing solutions. These factors produce mobility dynamics that are mostly independent of neighborhood concerns.

Methods We explore the long-term housing experiences of a group of very low-income families living in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The sequence of housing an individual occupies during a long period is known as a housing career (Clark, Deurloo, and Dieleman, 2003; Kendig, 1990). Our long-view study of family residential mobility patterns reveals how very low-income families secure housing over time, reveals how that varies during the life cycle, and provides a better understanding of where people live, why they live there, and what they accomplish by moving. Overall, 48 participants took part in interviews in 2009. The data for one participant were removed because of that participant’s inability to provide complete and accurate information. This study uses original data collected from 47 participants, including 35 women and 12 men. These 47 participants comprised two study groups, 33 participants who were living in subsidized housing and 14 who were on the waiting list. A smaller subset of 15 participants, 10 from the subsidized group and 5 from the waitlisted group, were selected to take part in five additional interviews during the course of a year.

Participants living in subsidized housing were recruited with the assistance of a nonprofit organization that manages more than 900 subsidized rental units with and without services in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The participants on the waiting list were recruited with the assistance of a metropolitanwide housing authority that administers a Housing Choice Voucher Program and refers families on its waiting list to owners of project-based assisted properties. Prospective participants were considered eligible for the study if they were living in subsidized housing or were on a waiting list, had children living in the household, were fluent in English, and had the ability to recall past information with relative accuracy. The housing organizations applied these criteria when developing their samples. Recruitment letters were mailed to prospective participants, who were then selected on a first-come, first-served basis.

All participants took part in an initial interview to gather information about their housing careers.

The study used a modified life-history calendar approach, which is used specifically for the collection of retrospective data, using residence as the organizing timeline. During the interviews, participants provided a detailed account of the housing accommodations in which they had lived from the time they first lived independently to the time of the interview. The interview procedure included a series of questions about each residence designed to gather detailed information on the participants’ current and past housing accommodations and their life circumstances and employment while living

Cityscape 159Skobba and Goetz

in each place. Throughout the interview process, the researcher and participant worked together to construct a visual timeline of residences. The interviewer used prompts to help the participant link their housing to other landmark events, such as the birth of a child, marriage, or a job change to help participants recall an accurate timeline. Life-history calendars improve the quality of retrospective data by (1) helping the respondents visually and mentally reconstruct their historical timeline and (2) using readily remembered events as a reference point for remembering less salient events (Belli, 1998; Freedman et al., 1988).

Sample Characteristics As a collective, the participants whom we interviewed had extremely low incomes and irregular work histories. The respondents were frequently unemployed; during the course of their housing careers, they reported not having a job at least 31 percent of the time.1 They supplemented their wage earnings with income from other sources. They reported income from public assistance programs one-third of the time, from significant others or their parents 27.5 percent of the time, from food stamps 13.0 percent of the time, from child support 10.0 percent of the time, and then from a smattering of other sources including social security, disability, and unemployment insurance. The incomes reported by the respondents were quite low. If we include those times when respondents reported being unemployed and do not include income other than from public or private safety net sources, the respondents had incomes of less than 30 percent of the Median Family Income (MFI) in the region 91 percent of the time throughout their housing careers. Respondents had incomes of less than 50 percent of MFI more than 97 percent of the time. Thus, for virtually all the time since adulthood and the formation of their own households, our participants have had very low or extremely low incomes.

Two-thirds of the respondents were single parents, 81 percent were people of color, 36 percent had any education beyond high school, and only 8 percent had a post-high-school degree (see exhibit 1).

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This percentage likely underrepresents the true extent of unemployment, because if participants were employed for part of the time that they spent in a housing situation, we counted them as employed for the entire duration of their accommodation.

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The data collected in this study offer the ability to track the paths of very low-income households through neighborhoods and to analyze their mobility decisions. By geocoding the location of each residence, we are also able to track the path taken through and across the urban neighborhoods inhabited by our interviewees. We look at neighborhood conditions as a component of the housing experience; we asked questions about neighborhood quality, neighborhood satisfaction, and the role of neighborhood in housing mobility decisions. We are also able to look at objective, censusbased indicators of neighborhood quality to help characterize the residential experience of people at all stages of the housing careers.

In this article, we examine the role of neighborhood in the housing decisions and outcomes of this group. The use of this small and nonrandom sample precludes generalization to a larger group of lower income households. The data we analyze do, however, provide significant insight into the factors that influence mobility choices among very low-income households.

Findings Instability The 47 people in our study had an average housing career of 22 years by the time we interviewed them. As a result, we have detailed housing and household information for 1,034 person years for this population. The 47 people we studied reported 682 different accommodations or living arrangements. As a whole, then, the participants in this study were extremely mobile, with a substantial number exhibiting what could be termed hypermobility. The average accommodation lasted only 16.8 months, although when weighted (accounting for the fact that some respondents had more accommodations than others) the average increases to 20.2 months. Housing stability had no overall tendency to increase over time for the participants of this study, as is typical of households with more resources. Separating the first five accommodations for these participants from the rest shows no statistically significant difference. Instability was common regardless of the type of accommodation. Formal rental arrangements lasted an average of 21 months, whereas informal housing and shared arrangements lasted slightly less than 15 moths. Homeless spells were an average of 8 months in length.

The Importance of Interpersonal Relationships Relationships, rather than neighborhoods, appear to be the driving factor in residential mobility and decisionmaking for the low-income families in our study. In the absence of financial resources, people are an essential source of capital. For very low-income households, support networks become an important way for families to meet basic needs. The use of informal support networks to meet housing needs is no exception.

The findings of our study are consistent with previous research on unassisted households. Doubling up with family and friends accounted for 206 (30.2 percent) of the 682 housing arrangements documented in the study, the second most common form of housing arrangement after rental housing (43.5 percent). Most participants used informal housing assistance at some point in their adult lives; 42 of the respondents (89 percent) reported doubling up at least once in their housing

Cityscape 161Skobba and Goetz

careers. Participants in the study spent an average of 27.6 percent of their adult housing careers living in informal housing arrangements; 11 participants spent more than one-half of their adult housing career living in doubled-up accommodations. During the course of their adult lives, the participants in the study spent an average of 64 months living in doubled up accommodations.

Two respondents had doubled up with family or friends 10 or more times in their careers. About one-half of the participants moved back in with a parent at least once. These accommodations tended to be shorter in duration, on average, than other forms of housing, suggesting the participants used living with their parents as a short-term form of housing assistance.

As the preceding figures suggest, the quality of the relationship often dictates the security and conditions of the housing. Sometimes, supportive relationships with parents and friends offered stability and security even when housing conditions were less than ideal. Kylie, a 28-year-old participant with five children, describes moving back in with her mother off lease after being evicted because of a noise violation from an apartment she rented with a boyfriend. Kylie and her two children moved into her mother’s three-bedroom apartment in public housing along with her two younger siblings. During the 5 years she lived with her mother, she had two more children. Although living with eight people in a three-bedroom apartment must have been crowded, she describes being satisfied living with her mother. Kylie liked the neighborhood and, although the apartment had some mold problems, she felt that living with her mother met the needs of her family. Living with family or friends sometimes provided additional support that was particularly helpful for single parents.

For example, Nancy, a 46-year-old female participant, moved in with another family while raising her first child alone. She met a couple with children while living with her first child in a rented apartment. They moved in with the other family in an off-lease arrangement. Nancy describes the move as providing benefits for both families beyond affordability.

The convenience of helping each other with kids, and, I mean, they’ve been in the city and they showed me the ropes. I helped her with her kids.

The two families subsequently moved together to a larger residence where everyone was on the lease. Living with this couple was a practical arrangement that also seemed to reduce the feeling of isolation that Nancy experienced when living alone with her daughter, but it was not perfect.

The other family’s housekeeping did not meet her standards. The arrangement ended when the husband in the other family lost his job and they were all evicted.

Participants were cohabitating with a partner in 40 percent of the informal arrangements. In these situations, the participant was living with a partner and often children, but the participant was not on the lease or mortgage. These arrangements often resulted in a tenuous situation wherein instability in the relationship created housing instability. When the relationship ended, something that happened frequently for the participants in our study, the participant (and often children) was forced to find another place to live. In some cases, participants (usually women) moved in with men because they had run out of other options. Tiffany, for example, was pressured by her mother to move out of the house after graduating from high school.

It was a house. It was a brand new area. My mom was pressuring me to move out. With resent and spite, I moved in with him. … It didn’t work because, like I say, he became possessive and a controlling dad. I didn’t have any say over anything. It was like every move I made, he wouldn’t like it. … I wasn’t on the lease, but I just paid him half of the rent for staying there.

162 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households Mobility Decisions Informal housing arrangements, as compared with formal lease accommodations, tended to generate mobility for reasons more frequently related to interpersonal relationships. Study participants reported that relationship issues prompted 25.2 percent of the subsequent moves from informal accommodations compared with only 12.0 percent of moves from formal lease accommodations.

Conversely, formal housing arrangements (defined as a lease or mortgage contract) were much more likely to result in moves that were prompted by cost or condition. Inability to pay was mentioned more than three times as often (13.5 to 4.1 percent) as a reason for moving away from a leased arrangement as from an informal accommodation, and conditions of the unit or neighborhood nearly twice as frequently (18.7 to 10.9 percent).

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