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Research Round Up: Mixed-Income But Not Mixing

Robert J. Chaskin and Mark L. Joseph, “Social Interaction in Mixed-Income Developments: Relational Expectations and Emerging Reality.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 33:2, May 2011.

The desirability of creating mixed-income developments and neighborhoods has become received wisdom in the community development industry. Hope VI, inclusionary zoning, Section 8, Moving to Opportunity—all are policies which begin with the idea that geographic segregation of poor people is itself one of the drivers of poverty.

But as we put this idea into practice and work towards building neighborhoods where people of varying income levels will choose to make their homes, we should pay attention to research on how neighborhoods play a role in bettering their residents’ lives—and whether those mechanisms are actually working.

Neighborhood effects theory, as recapped in Robert Chaskin and Mark Joseph’s “Social Interaction in Mixed-Income Developments: Relational Expectations and Emerging Reality,” relies heavily on the assumption that geographical proximity will enable interactions and relationships between residents of different income levels who otherwise would not cross paths. These interactions can lead to the building of social capital, particularly the “weak ties” that connect people to larger networks that can informally relay information about employment and other opportunities. In a more fraught proposition, sociologists also posit that mixed-income communities can combat the so-called “culture of poverty” by providing more “mainstream” role models for poor residents and by creating shared behavioral norms around crime and other negative behaviors.

Chaskin and Joseph point out, reasonably, that if these effects depend on interaction between neighbors, it is worth examining how residents of newly-created mixed-income neighborhoods actually do interact with each other. They’ve studied two Chicago developments created by the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, which has included replacing single-purpose public housing complexes with mixed-income, mixed-ownership developments. Oakwood Shores and Westhaven Park differ in their histories, physical characteristics and proportions of resident types, but both include a mix of public housing units, other income-restricted rental and homeowner units, and market rate rental and homeowner units.

Chaskin and Joseph interviewed residents about different types of interactions in the development: how many neighbors they knew well enough to converse with, how many they knew well enough to ask a favor or invite into their home, what proportion of their interactions were negative. They find that the numbers of casual connections among neighbors vary by type of residents, with former public housing residents having the highest numbers of connections and market-rate renters having the lowest.

“Instrumental” connections—interactions involving a favor or exchange of information—were more evenly spread among resident types but tended to occur primarily between residents of the same type; instrumental exchanges between residents of different income or tenure groups were rare. When meaningful exchanges did occur, a significant proportion of them were negative, with the incidence differing by site. About 25 percent of interviewees described negative disputes they had been involved in or seen, things like contention over noise levels or the use of public spaces.

The authors draw a fairly pessimistic picture of the state of interaction in these mixed-income developments and its prospects for positive neighborhood effects. They wonder whether the developments are too starkly heterogeneous and worry that the tensions they observe are in the process of becoming permanent divisions that would preclude social connections that could improve the life chances of the poorest residents of the neighborhood. They note the absence of any kind of institutional membership body that included all residents—there were tenant groups that generally consisted of public housing residents and condominium board meetings for owners, but no all-inclusive resident meeting opportunities. The built environment is also critiqued for how income groups are physically integrated in the developments and the absence of any parks or significant communal space in the developments.

There are caveats to these conclusions; the developments are relatively new, and building relationships takes time. Still, Chaskin and Joseph’s research is an important reminder that mixed-income development is not an end in itself or a silver bullet. Neighborhoods and their residents still need resources, investment and structural opportunities to build social capital.

Chaskin and Joseph mention another factor that theory suggests would bring benefits to mixed-income neighborhoods. Higher income residents are presumed to have greater political power and greater ability to advocate for resource flows to the neighborhood, including investments in safety, education, infrastructure and code enforcement. The authors exclude this effect from consideration in this paper, noting that its mechanism depends on higher income residents’ ties outside the neighborhood rather than interactions between residents.

But relationships are meaningful here as well: By living near and getting to know neighbors in different income groups, residents learn more about each others’ lives, perhaps prompting them to advocate for policies which benefit all income groups. This isn’t just about making sure that neighborhoods get their streets cleaned or their trash picked up. There will always be programs and supports needed by lower-income residents that are less relevant for their more affluent counterparts. Proximity—if it generates meaningful connections between neighbors—may build support for those policies as well. All the more reason to pay attention to the relationships that develop when we try to deconcentrate poverty.

Sarah Rankin is a senior research associate at LISC.

Posted in Journal Volume 2, Number 1 -- July, 2011, Chicago, Education & Early Learning

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