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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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We conceptualize forced moves as any move in which the participant did not have a choice; that is, the move was not planned. These situations included those in which the participant’s actions triggered a move, including evictions or lease terminations for behavior and starting or ending a period of incarceration or participation in a chemical-dependency program. Moves in which affordability problems resulted in eviction for nonpayment of rent or in a move back home with parents were also considered forced moves, as were moves brought on when housing was condemned, sold, or foreclosed. Discretionary moves were those in which the participant had some control over the move. Moving to establish an independent household, to improve housing and neighborhood conditions, to pursue a new relationship, and for employment opportunities were among the common types of discretionary moves. Some residential mobility patterns were neither completely forced nor completely discretionary. Cases in which a participant moved because they did not feel safe in the household or neighborhood because of poor housing conditions, or to take care of an elderly relative are examples of moves that were not entirely voluntary. About 11 percent of the moves were of this nature.

Overall, 547 of the moves documented in our study could be categorized as either forced or discretionary moves, of which 48 percent were forced moves. The most common reasons for forced moves were related to the inability to afford the housing, the end of time-limited accommodations (transitional housing, residential chemical dependency programs, and incarceration), relationship problems (typically in doubled-up housing), and entry into jail or mandatory treatment programs.

The nature of these unplanned moves highlights both the issue of housing affordability for very low-income families and the struggles that many face in their lives. Housing assistance appears to reduce but not eliminate the likelihood of a forced move. Among all the documented forced moves in our study, about 14 percent occurred when the participant had tenant or project-based housing assistance. Overall, formal housing arrangements led to forced moves 49.2 percent of the time, whereas informal arrangements resulted in forced mobility 38.9 percent of the time (χ2 significant at p.05).

Forced Moves Beget Quick and Haphazard Searches For very low-income households, residential mobility is more often an exercise in improvisation than planned. In a typical rental housing search, a household takes stock of its finances, identifies its housing and location needs and preferences, and then draws on a variety of tools, including advertisements, apartment search firms, housing authority lists, and networking to locate a home that

Cityscape 163Skobba and Goetz

meets its needs and preferences. This process appears to be in place when low-income households have access to tenant-based housing assistance, particularly when they receive housing-counseling assistance (Teater, 2009). The findings from our study suggest that very low-income households use different, often unconventional, strategies to find housing. The process prioritizes convenience and necessity rather than being a choice among housing units that match a predetermined set of criteria. The reason is probably twofold. First, forced moves often leave little time to conduct a thorough housing search. Second, the affordability problems that our study families faced put market rentals out of reach.

The experiences of the participants in our study suggest that very low-income households rely on personal relationships, rather than a formal housing search process, to find a place to live. Most of the time (61 percent), participants found their housing through family, a friend, or a previous landlord. Although networking is a common way in which people find housing, our participants’ housing searches differed in that they often found housing when the friend or family member offered them a place to stay. For example, Samuel, a 48-year-old man with four children, was without a place to stay when his girlfriend grew tired of having his children living in her home. After Samuel and the children spent the night in a shelter, his children’s grandfather took them in, giving the family of five a place to stay for a while. Situations like Samuel’s were common among the participants in our study. Looking at public sources of information about rents (that is, newspapers, real estate agents, and apartment rental services) was less common, used for only 12 percent of the moves. About 20 percent of the housing was found through a social service provider or housingauthority waiting list. Housing searches are thus frequently based on personal relationships, family connections, and the current social network of families.

Neighborhoods Residence in a low-poverty neighborhood was a rare event for the participants of this study. Only 21 percent of the accommodations that could be geocoded (112 out of 534) were in neighborhoods with poverty rates of less than 10 percent; another 25 percent were in neighborhoods with poverty rates of between 10 and 20 percent. More than one-half of the accommodations, therefore, were in neighborhoods with poverty rates of more than 20 percent, and 28 percent of the accommodations were in areas where more than 30 percent of the population was below the poverty line. Prolonged residence in a low-poverty neighborhood was rare as well. Only 14 of the participants (30 percent) lived in two or more low-poverty neighborhoods consecutively. The rest (33 participants, or 70 percent) would move into such a neighborhood occasionally, but their next move typically would be out again to a higher poverty destination. For some of the participants who did have consecutive accommodations in low-poverty neighborhoods, those accommodations came at the beginning of their housing careers. Conversely, 74 percent of the respondents had consecutive accommodations in high- or very high-poverty neighborhoods. Of the 47 participants, 26 were stuck in high-poverty neighborhoods for most of their housing careers and 9 were rarely out of high-poverty environments.

Whereas access to housing in low-poverty neighborhoods has been the focus of housing policies targeting low-income families, neighborhood conditions and the neighborhood social mix were not the primary concerns for the participants in our study. Despite the fact that most of them spent a considerable amount of their housing careers living in neighborhoods with moderate to high 164 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households poverty rates, participants’ views of their neighborhoods were mostly positive. When respondents were asked to describe the neighborhoods, 65 percent of the descriptions offered were positive.

Most commonly, respondents noted when they lived in a “quiet” neighborhood (11.0 percent), lived in a neighborhood in which they had good relationships with their neighbors (6.0 percent), or had a positive view of the mix of people more generally (5.0 percent). Safe neighborhoods (3.5 percent) and the presence of families (2.0 percent), whether their own or as a characteristic of the neighborhood, were also viewed favorably.

It was quiet. Everybody got along with each other.

It was a good neighborhood, nice neighborhood. I wish I could raise my kids up in that neighborhood now. It was a neighborhood for families bringing up small children.

The homeowners that were around us, I think, were older and had older kids, and the neighborhood just wasn’t … because I know the bad parts and the good ones, you know. There wasn’t like a lot of crime or anything around our neighborhood.

Although respondents cited fewer negative descriptors overall, those that were given indicate that participants are unsatisfied living in neighborhoods that feel unsafe (9 percent), where drugs are present (8 percent), or with a loud or boisterous environment (7 percent). When respondents had something negative to say about their neighborhoods, they most frequently referred to the social environment; 82 percent of the negative descriptors were about the social environment.

Rough. You had to watch your back … you might get shot, or gangbanging, or, basically, you live day by day.

Just the neighborhood itself, it was just more people around doing drugs and whatever. Liquor store on the corner, the local hangout or whatever. Oh, and there was a bar next door. … A lot of people hung out at the bar and it was loud and stuff.... I didn’t feel as safe as the other neighborhoods I’ve been in.

Moving because of poor neighborhood conditions was rare, cited as the reason for moving in only 3 percent of the cases. Even when moves were not forced, neighborhood environment was very rarely a reason for moving out of or into a place.

Participants were able to identify elements of their neighborhoods that they liked and did not like.

When asked to assess whether the housing accommodation met their needs and the ways in which it did or did not meet their needs, participants identified location—particularly proximity to bus lines, shopping, and jobs—as ways in which the accommodations met their needs. Locational features ranked below the presence of supportive people and housing that was of good quality, however. Bryant, a 51-year-old divorced man with three children, reflected on a time in the 1980s when he lived off lease with his girlfriend in Chicago in the ABLA housing projects. Bryant had grown up in the neighborhood, and although the conditions had declined over time he was satisfied living there, because it was a place where he still knew many people.

Oh we were, we were all, it was like, you know how a neighborhood raises a family? That’s how we came up. The neighbors, any adult you know, worked, disciplined you, and it wasn’t as big a thing as today.

–  –  –

This finding supports the research by Coulton, Theodos, and Turner (2012), who found that lowincome families living in high-poverty neighborhoods are often attached to their neighborhoods and have a positive outlook on their futures; many fewer families are dissatisfied but stay in lowincome neighborhoods because they lacked viable alternatives.

Neighborhood conditions, measured through either subjective impressions or objective indicators, also did not play a prominent role in how respondents assessed the moves they made throughout their housing careers. Respondents’ assessments about whether moves were good or bad (upward or downward) were unrelated either to their own subjective impressions of the neighborhoods from which and to which they were moving or to objective census-based indicators of neighborhood poverty, racial segregation, or housing conditions. The respondents’ impressions of neighborhood conditions, for example, did not correlate with the upward or downward ranking of moves by respondents. Moving out of a neighborhood that they described in negative terms was statistically no more likely to be an upward move than a move out of a good neighborhood. Similarly, a move into a neighborhood they described in negative terms was no less likely to be positive than a move into a better neighborhood. Furthermore, moves that involved a reduction in neighborhood poverty were no more likely to be viewed positively than moves to higher poverty neighborhoods.

The changing racial makeup of the neighborhoods was also unrelated to respondents’ judgments of upward or downward mobility. Changes in median housing values and MFIs produced similar findings. In sum, neighborhood conditions, measured through either subjective impressions or objective indicators, did not play a prominent role in how respondents felt about the moves they made.

Having a choice about a move and receiving housing assistance did matter. Forced moves were marginally more likely to be downward than were discretionary moves (36 to 21 percent; χ2 = 5.49, p = 0.06). Moves into subsidized housing were seen as upward moves 77 percent of the time and lateral moves in 10 percent of the cases. Similarly, respondents characterized moves into housing with services as upward moves 85 percent of the time, and moves into transitional housing were positive moves in every case (100 percent). Affordability and control over mobility decisions are more proximate concerns than neighborhood characteristics for these very low-income households.

Conclusion Mirroring the findings of previous studies, our study found that very low-income participants relied heavily on informal housing arrangements and were often subject to moves that were not planned. The prevalence of informal housing arrangements for participants in the study highlights the importance of support networks in helping very low-income households make their way through the housing market. Most participants, by far, were subject to the generosity of family, friends, partners, and acquaintances several times in their adult lives; many relied on these informal arrangements as a consistent source of housing. Dependence on another person for housing, whether a parent, partner, friend, or acquaintance, may help families remain housed but provides very little in the way of housing security, however. When housed informally, the study participants still showed very unstable housing patterns. When doubled up or depending on extended family or friends for their accommodations, families were eager to change their housing to a place of their own. Even when families were not eager to leave to gain independence, informal arrangements were 166 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Mobility Decisions of Very Low-Income Households unstable because they required continued harmony between or among the households sharing the space. Thus, we found that when informally housed our participants left for two overriding reasons: (1) because they wished to move into a place of their own, and (2) because of reasons related to breakdowns or changes in interpersonal relationships.

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