We Must Not Give in to Economic Segregation

Since a low in 2000, the number of people living in concentrated poverty has grown by 91 percent in the U.S.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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My first night in Boston, I was picked up at the South End train station by Judy, a gray-haired woman with deep brown eyes and wire-frame glasses. My new neighborhood was swathed in darkness. But the ivy-covered brick buildings still struck me with awe as we walked down Dartmouth Street, my wheeled suitcase bumping over the brick sidewalk like an eager puppy. Nothing looked like what I knew back home in Michigan.

Judy was part of the live-in community at Haley House, which I was moving into. Since 1966, this intentional community has taken inspiration from the Catholic Worker Movement and found creative ways to intervene in pervasive inequality. When Haley House opened, Judy told me, the South End built for the 19th century’s nouveau riche had simmered for decades as a tenement district, scarred by absentee landlords and poverty. “Skid row,” she called it. The first guest at Haley House was a homeless man who passed out on the steps.

But the urban renewal era sparked the South End’s gentrification, making it over into the polished and pretty neighborhood it is today. And yet, half a century later, Haley House is still there. Homeless people crowd the corner every morning, sometimes leaving cereal bowls on the steps of its wealthy neighbors. Chinese women chatter and laugh at the Wednesday food pantry. Haley House also owns several other buildings in the neighborhood; it runs 109 affordable housing apartments designed so that residents can “live securely in their own homes, without fear of being displaced.”

“But why,” I asked Judy that first night, “hasn’t Haley House sold the South End buildings? They’d make an enormous profit, and could re-open over in Roxbury. Many of the people it serves are there anyway, and Haley House would never have to worry about raising money or applying for grants.”

“We’d be giving into it, then, the economic segregation,” Judy said bluntly, “and we won’t do it.” Haley House, she said, was a “prophetic presence” — making inequality visible where it otherwise might be invisible.

Over the years I lived and worked in Haley House, I mulled Judy’s words. They’re on my mind again as I follow the public conversation about where poor people should live, the destructive consequences of “separate but equal” schooling, and why the tools to defy housing segregation have instead codified it. As one recent study put it, segregation between places — like city and suburb, or suburb and suburb — appears to be increasing, canceling out gains made by declining segregation on the neighborhood level. Today, we have the highest-ever number of Americans living in concentrated poverty. While inequality diminished over the 1990s, buoyed by a robust economy, it nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, rising from 7.2 million to 13.8 million — a pattern in place even before the Great Recession broke open.

This trend is baldly racial in practice: More than a quarter of poor African-Americans and nearly one in six poor Hispanics live in a neighborhood of extreme poverty, while only one in 13 of poor whites do. Even as cities dismantled their high-rise housing projects, those iconic pillars of economic segregation, and racial minorities began moving into suburbs that once excluded them, white families are moving still farther from the core city. Mid-size cities, like Syracuse and Wilmington and Lubbock, have seen the fastest rise in concentrated African-American poverty.

None of this is coincidental. Zoning ordinances restricting the building of affordable housing units, plus the refusal to accept Section 8 vouchers in communities of higher opportunity, have effectively built a Berlin Wall between the haves and the have-nots. Some well-off communities have almost no rental properties at all. Since a low in 2000, the number of people living in concentrated poverty has grown by 91 percent, according to research by Paul A. Jargowsky, and poor children are actually more likely than poor adults to live in these areas. Schools in these disinvested communities tend to be severely challenged and ill equipped to provide students with a meaningful and safe education. (A much-publicized Harvard study recently showed that children who moved to better neighborhoods via housing vouchers were more likely to attend college and find economic stability than those who didn’t.)

We have built an “architecture of segregation.” Policies that were ostensibly universal have in fact had a disparate and terrible impact on lower-income Americans, especially racial and ethnic minorities. But we are now at a tipping point. The Supreme Court ruled in June that when it comes to fair housing, good intentions don’t matter. Impact is what counts. And HUD announced a new rule last month that requires municipalities receiving federal housing funds to show exactly how their projects contribute to racial and economic inclusivity.

Fifty years after the most significant legal and legislative triumphs of the civil rights era along with the Kerner Commission’s warning about moving toward “two Americas,” it is still not effective to wait around for people to choose integration of their own free will. That’s why we need to set up structures that push the momentum in the other direction.

Landlords should not be permitted to refuse tenants solely because they have a Section 8 voucher, a practice that severely reduces the available housing for those who need it. A survey in Austin found that only 6 percent of thousands of surveyed units were available for voucher recipients at rents within the program’s eligibility requirements and without landlord-imposed minimum income requirements. Twelve states and six cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, have passed measures to combat this by making source of income a protected class. That is, the landlord can’t discriminate against you because you pay your rent money out of your child support, government subsidies or earned income. Many more municipalities should do the same — and be prepared to defend and enforce the policy against the inevitable backlash.

Cities and social service agencies can also look toward initiating programs modeled on Rental Partnerships’ unusual experiment in Cincinnati, which gives renters an opportunity to build equity by exchanging their time, energy and work for financial credits. After five years, they can withdraw these credits as cash, for a maximum of $10,000 over 10 years. This innovative program creates security and opportunity for residents; stability and improved property conditions for landlords; and a more engaged citizenship in city neighborhoods, especially those with high poverty rates.

The Section 8 program can also be markedly improved by re-calibrating its formula to account for the realities of segregation. That is, rather than calculate the voucher’s worth at the 40th or 50th percentile of all rents charged in a metropolitan area, as is the current practice, it should calculate them by zip code. This provides a more realistic picture of the variable market that voucher holders must navigate, effectively opening up more neighborhoods to them. HUD has already experimented with this new localized policy, and put it up for public comment. The change could be in place by 2017.

Other improvements would be to adjust the administrative fee system for subsidized housing, which, as Philip Tegeler at the Poverty & Race Research Action Council points out, currently sets up a disincentive for public housing agencies to put in the extra time and energy needed to move families into areas where Section 8 is not a familiar part of the landscape. Tegeler also wisely advises HUD to modify its housing quality standards to include not just the physical unit at hand, but also the surrounding neighborhood — a recognition that “home” is contextual: Residents, including children, do not live solely within the four walls of their house.

We should also, as Jargowsky suggests, institute smart federal and state policies that curb the seemingly limitless sprawl of suburban development that not only perpetuates the pattern of white flight, but also has damaging consequences for regional transportation, public schools and the environment. This needn’t be overly restrictive; it should simply permit only as much new construction as necessitated by metro population growth, and no more. Exclusionary zoning policies should also be eliminated; instead, local housing markets should be zoned in a way that reflects the economic diversity of the metro area.

None of this, though, should be taken as an excuse to cease investing in high-poverty neighborhoods — ones that may be dangerously lacking in economic opportunity, safety and good schooling, but also are often communities of close-knit family and cultural ties. Familiar bus routes run through these neighborhoods, and needed services, like food pantries and stores that accept food stamps, are located here. Moving into “opportunity neighborhoods” and towns can bring with it additional unforeseen expenses, like fuel, that can be difficult for voucher holders to bear. Many affordable housing advocates have also expressed concern that housing policies to encourage integration may end up leaving high-poverty neighborhoods even further behind than they already are, as many developers of Section 8 units are among the only investors in these communities. Those with vouchers who leave will shrink the neighborhood further, while there will be no plan to support those left behind.

These are serious concerns, and shouldn’t be dismissed as simply the self-interest of the “poverty housing industry.” Integration, after all, goes both ways. Strategies to encourage middle and high-income people to come to these high-poverty neighborhoods should come alongside strategies for how to help people to leave them.

Fifty years after it first opened in the South End, Haley House is still willfully interrupting the economic segregation in Boston — but over the years I was there, it also opened the nonprofit Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, a high-poverty area. It was designed as a radical business model, where there can only be so much difference between the highest- and lowest-paid employees, and it also serves as a job-training program for locals and a source of healthful food in a neighborhood with few similar options. It’s also become a destination spot, luring wealthier professionals and upwardly mobile students into Roxbury through its varied programming. The result is a kind of micro-model of economic integration: social enterprise as a tool to bring people together who would otherwise be separate.

In another case study, “This American Life” recently highlighted how top-quality magnet schools in Hartford are doing this, providing a rare model of integrated education. But to be sustained, they need more support and participation by their allies.

We should also take lessons from the 1990s-era decline in concentrated poverty. As detailed by Jargowsky, one of the reasons why high-poverty neighborhoods decreased by nearly 40 percent was because of the rising minimum wage — four increases in seven years. Today’s Congress should take up President Obama’s suggestion of raising the federal hourly wage to $10.10, and consider proposals to raise it to $12 by 2020, which would put the minimum wage on par with labor productivity for the first time since 1968. This would increase income for low-wage workers without reducing local jobs. By meaningfully increasing the federal minimum wage, we will make a meaningful investment in the mobility of people currently trapped in the bind of concentrated poverty. With women accounting for about half the workforce, and more likely to be living in poverty, the Department of Labor should also find more targeted ways to enforce compliance with equal pay laws. And finally, the Earned Income Tax Credit should be expanded to include childless workers and noncustodial parents. Obama has recommended doubling the maximum federal credit available to them to $1,000, raising the income eligibility standard to include more people, and dropping the minimum age requirement from 25 to 21. While the EITC is a politically touchy subject on Capitol Hill, states like California are finding ways to implement state EITC expansion in their fiscal budgets. As well, far fewer people claim the EITC than are eligible for it. Housing agencies and other providers should consider ways to help educate the people they serve on how to claim the tax credits that are their due.

Improvements in minimum wage and EITC policy will give workers more choices about where they live, whether it is in the neighborhoods that are poorer but rich in social supports, or in neighborhoods with better schools. The key here is affirming mobility and choice as a right, not a privilege.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.

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Tags: affordable housingjobspovertypublic schools

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