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Affordable Housing Is Never the Only Problem – Or the Only Solution

Poverty doesn’t cause social breakdown, nor is social breakdown confined to areas with high levels of poverty, Seth Kaplan writes in “Fragile Neighborhoods.”

Story by Seth Kaplan

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The following is an excerpt adapted from “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time” (Hachette 2023) by Seth D. Kaplan, an expert in fragile states.

Eva Belle Favors Davis was one of the first residents of East Lake Meadows, a public housing project in East Lake, having moved in with her children shortly after the buildings opened in 1971. The project soon deteriorated, quickly becoming one of Atlanta’s most neglected and crime-ridden areas.

With her activist background, she became president of the tenants’ association and one of the area’s most prominent spokespeople. As early as 1972, she was requesting police protection for the area after drug dealers turned the housing project into a war zone. She organized rent strikes against the city housing authority, winning improved outdoor lighting, more sidewalks, and a new daycare center.

Despite these patchwork improvements, things continued to deteriorate. By 1995, overall crime rates were 18 times the national average — the highest in the city. Nearly three-fifths of adults depended on some form of public welfare. One in every eight people was formally employed. One of every 20 fifth graders was meeting state education goals. The lack of hope was palpable — even politicians stayed away.

Although we tend to attribute these problems to poverty, there are broader factors at work. Poverty doesn’t cause social breakdown; nor is social breakdown confined to areas with high levels of poverty. Rather, it’s the product of unhealthy social environments that typically accompany concentrated, intergenerational poverty in America today. The byproducts of these poor social environments, in other words, tend to multiply in areas where poverty is highly concentrated, making it harder for someone who is poor and living in an unhealthy neighborhood to achieve upward mobility, compared to someone who is poor but living in a healthy neighborhood.

While myriad programs attempt to cater to the needs of impoverished families and individuals, “the effects of the concentration of poverty on the social, health, educational, and environmental outcomes of communities go seemingly unaddressed by the very systems sworn to impact it,” urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter writes.

Whether in an urban or suburban neighborhood, a suitable habitat should include a commercial center — an avenue, cluster of shops, or plaza — as well as parks, libraries, and houses of worship, which provide everyday facilities and services as well as places for people to gather and interact. And it should include transit points, connecting residents to people and opportunities outside the neighborhood, as well as contiguous sidewalks affording residents walkable access to other areas within the neighborhood.

Yet many “neighborhoods in the US are overwhelmingly not well serviced,” writes sociologist and author Emily Talen, who found that 91.5% of America’s 174,186 block group neighborhoods are not walkable. Those who have the option to flee a neighborhood such as East Lake do so, leaving those neighborhoods more distressed than ever. Left with fewer leaders, role models, working families, and economic resources in their midst, these places’ social dynamics deteriorate further, producing new social problems that obstruct change and reinforce harmful patterns.

***

For the residents of East Lake, the problems extended well beyond the dearth of opportunities for upward mobility. The real problem wasn’t the high unemployment rate, the gun violence, or even the poverty; it was the underlying structural factors and social institutions that created these conditions in the first place.

The housing infrastructure concentrated low-income citizens in the neighborhood (with many of the homes abandoned or dilapidated). While there was a well-known golf club next door, it had fallen into despair (the public housing project was built on its second golf course), dragging the area down with it. Commerce was limited (storefronts were boarded up), and employment opportunities were few. The poor access to public transit disconnected the residents from the best parts of the urban area. And with the local schools being managed as part of the larger school system, local leaders had little influence over the schools’ direction, and no mechanism for improving their grim performance.

Meanwhile, residential volatility, one of the key indicators of an unhealthy neighborhood, was high, with one-fifth of the public housing residents and a full three-fifths of local schools’ students turning over every year. The constant turnover in such places means that few residents are invested in making them better.

These problems did not exist in isolation; they fed on each other. The poor quality of schools and lack of employment opportunities were contributing to the high crime rates, the prevalence of crime was contributing to the dearth of retailers and potential employers, and the isolation and lack of employment opportunities were in turn producing an exodus of the more capable members of the community. To successfully address one of these issues meant also addressing the others simultaneously.

Angela Blanchard, former CEO of the community development nonprofit BakerRipley, calls such an approach an “artful arrangement,” writing, “We see many failed attempts to revitalize and transform neighborhoods on the back of just one element—the siloed school, heroic housing, a transformational clinic. These attempts fall short. If we imagine we are ‘setting the community development table,’ we must imagine it as a giant potluck where the dishes, plates, and morsels are contributed from many sources. It becomes the job of a community development organization to create an artful arrangement that feeds the hunger of the community.”

Without healthy neighborhoods, school systems cannot improve educational results, health care agencies cannot improve health outcomes, and police cannot make streets safe. Yet the great majority of public and private interventions are not structured to address the underlying social dynamics that produced these problems in the first place. This must change.

***

In East Lake, it was clear that the social conditions wouldn’t improve until the physical conditions improved — until the streets were safe, the affordable housing options were livable, and the commercial strip was attractive enough to open a store or business.

In 1995, Atlanta businessman Tom Cousins and his new East Lake Foundation decided to start there. The rough trial and error, and with community input, they pieced together a plan to stop the vicious cycle.

Shirley Franklin and David Edwards — formerly the executive board chair and chief executive officer at the nonprofit Purpose Built Communities, respectively — describe what a complex challenge the East Lake Foundation (ELF) faced: “Replacing housing would not attract families if the schools were in poor shape. Schools could not be expected to perform well in neighborhoods where children feared for their safety and showed up hungry and unprepared. And it is hard to reduce crime in neighborhoods full of unemployed high school dropouts. All of these issues needed to be addressed simultaneously. The neighborhood basically needed to be reconstituted with functioning families, safe streets, and high-performing schools.”

From the start, the premise was to break up the concentration of disadvantage by integrating the neighborhood to include people from a wide range of income levels, from the very poor to the upper middle class. If a judicious mix could be created, everyone would benefit. The neighborhood would generate enough physical, commercial, and social assets to continuously attract the new investments it needed to sustain itself over time. Eventually, investments in the physical habitat and key social institutions would help to reverse the vicious cycles that had kept residents mired in social and economic disadvantage—creating a social habitat in which children and families could begin to thrive.

“Healthy neighborhoods produce healthy outcomes, because they contain the conditions out of which those outcomes can emerge independently,” Edwards explains. ELF’s plan became the model for Purpose Built Communities, established in 2009 to help local leaders across the country plan and implement similar efforts — customized to each locale. The social repair model starts with three pillars:

  1. Develop high-quality mixed-income housing to both attract the middle class to the area and enable existing residents to either move into better rental units or buy their homes. Build a variety of amenities—available to all residents—to increase the attractiveness of the area. Provide both the housing options and the amenities geared toward families and children to ensure that the youth population can become socioeconomically diversified.

  2. Establish a cradle-to-college education pipeline that seamlessly provides access to quality schools from nursery up to high school and a variety of outside learning opportunities, as well as the support needed to ensure successful entry into college and/or a career.

  3. Build the infrastructure to support a mix of institutions, facilities, and programs aimed at advancing community wellness. These should leverage neighborhood assets (e.g., potential tourist sites and commercial revitalization spots) while addressing key deficits (e.g., food deserts, recreation needs, health access points, and public infrastructure gaps). Form a wide variety of partnerships to finance and implement these programs on a local level.

These partnerships eventually yielded a 50% subsidized, 50% market-rate housing development to replace the public housing project, the Drew Charter School, two early-learning centers, an advanced health and fitness community center, and retail infrastructure sufficient to attract a bank, grocery store, and a number of restaurants.

In East Lake, the transformation also involved difficult — and at times contentious — negotiations with residents, some of whom were public housing residents who would not qualify for the new subsidized housing. Led by Davis, a group of local leaders won a number of modifications to the original plan. Trust came slowly at first, but residents’ involvement was eventually essential to the success of the project.

***

For East Lake, the results were dramatic.

By 2009, violent crime was down 90%. Seven out of every 10 people were employed. And although three-fourths of its students were poor enough to qualify for state-subsidized lunches, 98% of fifth graders were meeting or surpassing math standards, and 85% of students were graduating from high school in four years. The area’s population increased by 50%. Home prices increased by 3.8 times the city average. The income of families receiving public assistance more than quadrupled.

In all, more than $200 million of private money was invested in the neighborhood, bringing bank branches, a grocery store, restaurants, and other shops. In East Lake, improvements in educational outcomes were probably the most significant indicators of progress, showing that it is possible to transform the trajectories of children’s lives if the social habitat is significantly enhanced. Even though the community continues to have a significant number of low-income residents, today students outperform city and statewide averages at every grade level.

In East Lake, these educational gains took a decade to materialize. Other initiatives in the PBC network run a similar length of time. Only a long-term perspective can transform a local social system in this way.

Building on this success, Purpose Built Communities, backed by philanthropists Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson, has inspired similar revitalization projects following its model in dozens of neighborhoods across the country. In each case, local actors like Davis lead the efforts.

“There is a solution,” Cousins says. “It can be done. East Lake proves it. New Orleans and Indianapolis prove it. And if it can be done in these neighborhoods, it can be done anywhere.”

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Seth D. Kaplan is a leading expert on fragile states. He is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Senior Adviser for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), and consultant to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and OECD as well as developing country governments and NGOs. He is the author of “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time” (Hachette 2023).

Comment posted on February 27, 2024 at 5:17 p.m.

Great article.  Poverty is more than high housing costs and/or low wages.  It’s an ecosystem.  

As suggesteed, we might try to help a distressed community by improving education, transportation or public safety.  Yet, if we are successful in any of these endeavors, land prices (and rents) will rise.  Many of the people we hoped to help will be displaced.  And the money we spent to help the poor will simply enrich landowners (who tend not to be poor).

This “no good deed goes unpunished” scenario reflects a systemic driver of poverty and inequity that redistributes wealth from the general public to owners of prime sites.  I don’t remember the source of this saying:  “If you have all the money in the world, and I have all the land, within a short while I will have both!”

Fortunately, some communities are remedying this situation with a Tax Shift.  They reduce the property tax rate applied to building values while increasing the rate applied to land values.  The lower rate on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain.  Surprisingly, the higher rate applied to land values helps keep land more affordable by reducing the profits from land speculation.  Thus, without new spending or loss of revenue, this Tax Shift can make both buildings and land more affordable, while promiting infill development and increasing employment opportunities.

For more info, see https://www.shareable.net/land-value-return-and-building-a-more-equitable-economy/ .

Rick Rybeck Director at Just Economics LLC (Edit profile)

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