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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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When formally housed, the participants in our study were no more stable in terms of length of residence. The reasons for instability in the formal housing market, however, had to do with the inability to continue paying the contract rent and the desire to improve housing or neighborhood conditions. The very low incomes typically reported for the families in this study made contract rents difficult to afford for a long period. The number of moves prompted by a desire to improve housing conditions (and the fewer moves prompted by neighborhood conditions) suggests that these families made tradeoffs between affordability and housing quality that were also difficult to sustain over time.

High residential instability levels were common across all participants in the study. About one-half of the moves reported by households in the study were forced rather than discretionary. The emergent nature of forced moves typically produced a very truncated housing-search strategy that does not at all resemble the classic mobility model of information gathering and weighing of alternatives. The constraints faced by these families and the reliance on interpersonal sources of information and support meant that neighborhood concerns were mostly irrelevant, both in their search for housing and in their evaluation of that housing. When neighborhoods were important to the participants of this study, it was for the ways in which they did or did not enable the families to fulfill other basic needs. That is, the availability of transportation, affordable and accessible grocery shopping, and proximity to friends and family were listed as frequently as crime and safety as the important aspects of neighborhood.

The findings produced by this study of the housing careers of very low-income households provide some important context for current policy initiatives. No evidence from this study, for example, suggests that neighborhood conditions were a central consideration in mobility choices. Neighborhoods were rarely mentioned as a reason for moving or referenced when evaluating the quality of housing accommodations, and the self-evaluation of upward or downward mobility bore no relationship to improvements or declines in neighborhood conditions. These findings are not to say that policy should ignore neighborhood environment or livability issues for very low-income households. Very low-income households benefit from access to decent housing in a safe, livable neighborhood even if “neighborhood” is not often on their radar. An understanding of the housing patterns of very low-income households does, however, call into question whether neighborhood environment should be the driving force behind housing policy. Policies that presume that a change of neighborhood environment is enough to produce a change in the fortunes of very low-income families ignore the significant importance of informal support networks in the lives of the target households. Forced relocation out of communities and into opportunity neighborhoods is especially insensitive to the necessary social supports that low-income families construct and maintain. This insensitivity is especially true of programs in which displacement and relocation are typically the only intervention experienced by needy families, a fact that has been true of most public housing redevelopment efforts (Levy and Woolley, 2007).

Cityscape 167Skobba and Goetz

The introduction of more affluent families into mixed-income communities to achieve a diverse income mix provides little benefit for most very low-income households. This failure is especially true if introducing market-rate housing has the effect of reducing, rather than increasing, the amount of affordable housing immediately available to very low-income households, as has been demonstrated for so many public housing redevelopment efforts across the country (Goetz, 2013b).

Policies that focus on poverty deconcentration and mixed-income neighborhoods often set in motion secondary market effects that result in gentrification, which only exacerbates the housing problems of very low-income households. Redevelopment through mixed-income housing rarely includes a one-for-one replacement of low-cost housing; when it does, the replacement units are often in communities that lack access to public transportation and services on which low-income families rely, as Fraser, Oakley, and Bazuin (2011) pointed out. The experiences of families in this study point to a set of needs that are more proximate than a change in neighborhood environment.

Authors Kimberly Skobba is an assistant professor in the Department of Housing and Consumer Economics at the University of Georgia.

Edward G. Goetz is a professor of urban and regional planning in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

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