Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is neighborhood dispersal fading as policy?

A kind and maybe hopeful British housing news story landed in my running searches last night. The Wirral Globe, in the Liverpool area, notes local legislators are sympathetically indignant on behalf of public ("social") housing tenants who, in a government austerity effort, may be required to move to smaller quarters. The concern is,
"...If a tenant has one or two "spare" rooms, they could be forced to vacate their home and find accommodation elsewhere - even if they have lived in the property for decades. The move has been condemned by a Wirral MP who says the Government seems intent on "punishing" tenants. And a national housing group branded the measure "harsh", saying it will split families from their communities..."
In the U.S., the good news is less heartwarming, but still good news: that our officials may be slowly losing enthusiasm for "deconcentration" or "mixed-income redevelopment" as positive goals. "Deconcentration," treated as a goal, assumes that families who have lived in the same neighborhood all their lives -- people who know each other well, who look after each other on good days and at least know who to mistrust on bad days -- should, if they're poor, be separated from each other on purpose as a moral and economic hygiene measure.

It promotes the suburban, maybe distinctively American, idea that the sustaining human unit is the isolated household or family, not the community. Worse, it continues the painful old American tradition of dispersing unpopular communities for their alleged own good. (Just think about the double career of Dillon Myer in forced assimilation of American Indians and Japanese Americans.) Not to mention the delusion that wealth is contagious.

Upper-level housing officials promoted the breaking up of poor neighborhoods pretty uncritically through the HOPE VI years of the awful 'nineties and early 'oughts. They certainly broke up enough of them -- for example, James Tracy, a thoughtful, angry San Francisco writer and activist, describes how "deconcentration" policies like HOPE VI drove low-income residents of San Francisco and other core Bay Area towns to "rim cities".

Jane Jacobs, writing 50 years ago in The Death and Life of American Cities, explained that a neighborhood can best "un-slum" itself if individuals who begin to prosper are able to move up without moving out. "Deconcentration" theory says the opposite. As James Tracy puts it pithily,
"In other words, poverty is a result of poor people living in close proximity to each other—rather than of structural unemployment or the persistence of racism—and “economic integration,” or living close to employed people will set a good example for the poor."
For a while -- OK, not so much any more -- some "experts" were obliviously cheerful about rearranging families like paper dolls. HUD published an especially juicy specimen in a 2003 issue of its Cityscape publication titled, "Deconcentration: What Do We Mean? What Do We Want?" It said some questions worth asking were, "...what neighborhoods should we encourage families using vouchers to move to, and what do we actually mean by income diversity within a housing development?" (And not, for example, "Who Is This 'We' Who Get To Tell Perfect Strangers Where They Ought To Live"?)

I kid you not, on Page 7 of the article (Page 75 of the whole magazine), it says this:
"Are Some Neighborhoods Too Fragile? Some families—especially those moving from distressed public housing—may change the character of their neighborhood only modestly and still be much better off than they were before. Some families may succeed in moving out of concentrated poverty by incremental steps. But it is important to pay attention to the effect of such moves on the receiving neighborhood."
So families aren't fragile when you rip them out of their homes and replant them among richer strangers, but the richer strangers among whom they're replanted may be too fragile to endure the strain of having new neighbors....

Anyway, now, at least, there seem to be hesitations about the virtues of wrecking existing social networks on purpose. Notably, in the opening issue of HUD's new Evidence Matters journal, an article titled, "Understanding Neighborhood Effects of Concentrated Poverty" had the decency to mention, and among its principal points too, that "Collective efficacy, as represented by measures of informal social controls, social cohesion, and trust, can help buffer communities against the negative effects of concentrated poverty." By which they appeared to mean that a neighborhood where people are neighbors to each other should be left, geographically at least, the hell alone. They appeared, further, to be claiming that the successor to HOPE VI, now known as Choice Neighborhoods, won't be breaking up communities any more, or anyhow not in a bad way, so we shouldn't worry our little heads.

Hope they're right. Still seems worth worrying though.

1 comment:

  1. A Brit speaks

    Don't really know anything about Social Housing, not really. Never ever applied for it. When I've rented its always been from private-sector landlords. Ok, its been conducted via letting agencies but never through housing associations or anything like that.

    I had a look at that article. Basically, the people complaining, especially that MP, are just sounding off because that's about all they can do. They don't have the power to do anything whatsoever about it. Ironically, if the coalition government follow through with their noise about decentralisation then it would/should allow places like the Wirral to decide whether they implement such approaches or not.

    But the corollory of that would be to devolve the taxtaion powers that support it to the local level too and I can't see that the Treasury would be keen on giving that up.

    I remember when I claimed housing benefit years ago and you had to complete a form declaring how many rooms there were in the house and how many occupants. The implication being that they would only fund you to a reasonable level but I never had or heard of anyone having an issue with this, though that was more than twenty years ago.

    I'd find it difficult now to justify why somoene should be subsidised to live in a place thats bigger than they need but that hard-hearted approach doesn't account for extenuating circumstances such as family ties and the availability of the "correct" size housing in the place where they want/need to live.

    Unfortunately, for them anyway, the people who would be directly affected by this policy who might be forced to move or to pick up more of the tab for themsleves are not going to find many champions in the press nor in national politics, cos it isnt an issue that will appeal to the crucial middle ground.