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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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The research here also causes some question for the third assumption, the idea that people who are poor or live in assisted housing all think about moves in the same way. The motivation for dispersal programs’ intervening in the move process is that if households are not moving to neighborhoods with better opportunities, then something in the process must be preventing higher opportunity moves—a lack of information, a lack of resources, or a lack of transportation. Deirdre Oakley, Erin Ruel, and Lesley Reid suggest that the relocation process is about not only information but also the challenges families and individuals face depending on their personal situations.

For people with differing challenges—disabilities, financial strain, or being elderly—relocation can have varied meanings and different outcomes. The differential results along a series of factors bear this reality out. Those who lived in family projects compared with senior projects said they had an easier time with relocation. The longer respondents lived in public housing, the more difficult it was to relocate, but they still had an easier time than those who lived in senior projects—and these differences are large. If a respondent lived in family housing, she was 1.6 times more likely to have easy relocation. For a family housing resident, each additional year in public housing was associated with being 2.4 times more likely to say she had an easy move. If the respondent lived in family housing and had no friends in public housing, she was 3.3 times more likely to have an easy time compared with those who reside in senior housing.

Underlying these observations is that seniors are among the hardest individuals to house, which is not unusual for assisted housing. Furthermore, these results may understate the stress for seniors because the 24 deaths between surveys are not reflected in the results—there is no real way to account for an increased death rate among seniors because of relocation. Nonetheless, the third assumption—that people in assisted housing all behave the same way—is clearly refuted.

In some ways, setting up these assumptions and refuting them is a red herring. It is not unknown in policy circles that the world does not work according to these four assumptions. Nonetheless, the policy continues with the underlying assumption that somehow moving will address problems of structural inequality. Providing choice or opportunities to move will not reduce poverty without concerted attention to overcoming the forces that reproduce inequality; without such supports, policy is putting the burden of changing the very structure of inequality in our society on the backs of the very poor. In a world where inequality is growing, those at the bottom can have very little power to stop structural inequality from perpetuating itself. The lack of positive outcomes suggests that the real issues are structural: the quality of schools that poor children attend, the quality of work, the quality of neighborhoods poor people live in, and the central city-to-outer suburban divide.

What is the purpose of assisted housing policy? A more proximate outcome might be the provision of stable, safe, and affordable housing. Recent thinking considers housing as a platform for other services (see, for example, the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunity and Services Together demonstration program [Popkin et al., 2012]); MDRC’s Jobs Plus evaluation, dating from 1999,

Cityscape 207Kleit

included service saturation focused on employment within public housing communities (MDRC, n.d.). If the goal is to improve the schools that poor children attend, then service programs that focus on either schools or getting children connected to good schools would be more effective.

Better jobs occur not by relocating but rather by using wraparound services to connect adults with sustainable education programs integrated with the workforce system. With the economy not producing many moderate-paying jobs, targeted efforts are necessary.

Since the 1960s, U.S. housing policy concerning poverty dispersal has been central to creating a diverse and equitable society (Goetz, 2003). The most recent vintage, dating from the early 1990s, has failed to actually reduce family poverty because it is based on a set of false assumptions, thereby producing a lack of attention to the factors that will produce the outcomes desired. Even with appropriate attention (and resources), one could argue that the sorts of skills needed to make these efforts work are not usually found among public housing agencies, which are traditionally dedicated to providing housing rather than human and social services (Kleit & Page, 2012). Although place does matter, attention to place alone is not enough. To make the dream of addressing family poverty a reality, we need to invest in policies based on theories of change, first, that recognize the diversity and fragility of the population concerned; second, wherein the outcomes desired actually can directly result from the program’s efforts; and third, that directly and simultaneously deter the reproduction of structural inequality.

Author Rachel Garshick Kleit is a professor in the City and Regional Planning Section of the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University.


Briggs, Xavier de Souza, Susan J. Popkin, and John Goering. 2010. Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment To Fight Ghetto Poverty. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Buerkle, Karla, and Sandra L. Christenson. 1999. “A Family View of Mobility Among Low-Income Children,” CURA Reporter: 7–12.

Goetz, Edward G. 2003. “Housing Dispersal Programs,” Journal of Planning Literature 18 (1): 3–16.

Kearns, Robin A., and Christopher J. Smith. 1994. “The Residential Mobility of Marginalized Populations,” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 85: 114–129.

Kleit, Rachel Garshick, and Stephen B. Page. 2012. “The Changing Role of Public Housing Authorities in the Affordable Housing Delivery System.” Paper presented at After the Crisis: Housing Policy and Finance in the US and UK, New York.

MDRC. n.d. “Jobs-Plus Community Revitalization Initiative for Public Housing Families.” Available at http://www.mdrc.org/project/jobs-plus-community-revitalization-initiative-public-housing-families# featured_content (accessed June 3, 2013).

208 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes False Assumptions About Poverty Dispersal Policies National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. 1992. The Final Report of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing: Report to Congress and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Pettit, Kathryn, Jennifer Comey, and Michel Grosz. 2011. “The Costs of the Foreclosure Crisis for Children: What Education and Housing Policy Makers Can Do To Minimize the Harm.” Paper presented at the Urban Affairs Association 41st Annual Meeting, New Orleans.

Popkin, Susan J., Molly M. Scotte, Joe Parilla, Elsa Falkenburger, Marla McDaniel, and Shinwon Kyung. 2012. Planning the Housing Opportunity and Services Together Demonstration: Challenges and Lessons Learned. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Skelton, Ian. 2002. “Residential Mobility of Aboriginal Single Mothers in Winnipeg: An Exploratory Study of Chronic Moving,” Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 18 (2): 127–144.

Steele, Claude, and David A. Sherman. 1999. “The Psychological Predicament of Women on Welfare.” In Cultural Divide: Understanding and Overcoming Group Conflict, edited by Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation: 393–428.

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Acknowledging the Structural Features of Choice Sudhir Venkatesh Columbia University The orderly way in which we present research certainly belies the roundabout way in which insights are obtained. Some years back, in the middle of my study on Chicago public housing transformation, an elderly tenant withdrew from my study. She said that my interview was making her depressed.

She decided to stop the interview just as I had completed about 30 of the 60 questions in my hand.

She shook her head and said— I’ve had enough. You keep asking me about what I want, what my choice is, what’s going to happen. I don’t see how any of this will be helpful.

I explained (for the second time) what was written on my informed consent form—the form that I would read to ensure that respondents understood the purpose of my visit. I said slowly that we were interested in the decisions that poor families made as they entered the private market after years in public housing. If they had a choice, I said, would they choose to live in better off neighborhoods? It seemed like a reasonable question, until I heard her answer.

It’s not about what we choose to do. Any fool can make choices, but you want to know the difference between you and me? When you make a bad decision, it won’t matter. You’ll be fine.

See, when poor folk make choices, it can go terribly wrong. Terribly wrong. You want to help us?

Make it so it doesn’t matter if we make a bad choice.

In that instant, I understood how much my own scholarly approach was based on untested and unexamined assumptions about the social world: choice mattered to me because most of my choices were not life or death. If my basic choices carried great weight, I would feel burdened and anxious. Residential location is a perfect example: I am fortunate to be able to live in a variety of middle-class neighborhoods, with varying amenities. I have some choice. Then again, I am not considering gang turf boundaries, lack of hospitals and grocery stores, police neglect, or anything else that really affects my material welfare. Every neighborhood I choose comes with these amenities. In other words, not much choice exists at all.

Cityscape 211 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 Venkatesh For poor residents, choices are grave matters and the process can be tiresome after a point. Moving year after year, worrying about gun violence or the availability of decent public transportation, and getting children into a new school are all deeply anxiety-provoking, energy-consuming activities.

Our approach to housing policy should take into account this structural feature of choice. The articles by Victoria Basolo, by Deirdre Oakley, Erin Ruel, and Lesley Reid, and by Kimberly Skobba and Edward G. Goetz remind us just how important choices are for low-income families. These articles challenge us to consider the forces that propel families into stability or lurch them over the cliff further into impoverishment. They also point to novel ways to better equip families to organize their lives in efficacious ways.

In the articles, I found several lines of argument—all rooted in careful empirical analysis—that are worth pursuing as we reflect on the future of housing policy for low-income households seeking to live in more economically and socially mixed areas.

First, social networks are critical for the poor urban residents, but the networks also provide contradictory benefits. They can facilitate comfort and security, but they also anchor individuals and their families in ties that are difficult to leverage for material benefits—such as information about jobs, schools, and safe neighborhoods.

Oakley, Ruel, and Reid write, “being older and from housing for seniors, having a disability, experiencing financial strain, and living a longer time in public housing decreased the probability of experiencing an easy relocation process.” Their findings suggest that public housing residence has a temporal quality in which aspects of one’s lifestyle become difficult to overcome. The longer one stays in a housing development, the more likely that one’s personal connections affect the relocation and choice process. One will be influenced by others in a social network; or, more commonly, one may be in networks of monetary indebtedness that make it difficult not to follow those whom one has been relying on for support in dire times. Conversely, familiar faces can help ease the burden precisely for these reasons. Oakley, Ruel, and Reid find, “Those who experienced an easy relocation also were significantly more likely to move into neighborhoods where at least 12 others from our sample moved.”

Skobba and Goetz echo this point regarding relationships.

Relationships, rather than neighborhoods, appeared 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. … Sometimes, supportive relationships with parents and friends offered stability and security even when housing conditions were less than ideal (emphasis added).

The Skobba and Goetz article reminds us not to view social networks as a panacea—social ties are limited as catalysts for change. They present a careful, grounded portrait of the residents in their sample for whom social networks served as a resource (and possibly a constraint). Their work suggests that improving the ties of low-income households through mobility is important, but that it is never a direct outcome of residential relocation.

212 Mixed Messages on Mixed Incomes Acknowledging the Structural Features of Choice Basolo’s analysis of families who relocated in Orange County highlights an issue that is often underemphasized in mobility research: larger metropolitan areas typically receive the greatest scholarly attention, which can be a determinant to creating a nuanced understanding of how housing choice can affect household welfare across the country. Focusing on a complex region in which several midsize urban and suburban spaces are strung together, Basolo in her research reminds us of the importance of measured expectations in mobility research. Change neither comes right away, nor to the degree that policymakers would like to see happen.

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