Do Mixed-Income Neighborhoods Benefit People? It's Complicated, Experts Say
Maria Torres loves the 10-year-old townhouse she rents in Cleveland’s Tremont Pointe neighborhood. It’s new and clean, she said, and the best part is she’s got enough space for a music room — a place she can practice singing and playing guitar for her church.
"I told my husband, you know what? The only way I move from this place is that somebody put in my hand a key of the house and tell me, 'I'm going to give you this house free. You don't have to pay rent,'" Torres said with a laugh. Torres’ townhouse is public housing. But it looks exactly the same as a row of townhouses next door that are not public housing. In fact, those other townhouses are kind of expensive, renting for $1,100 to $1,500 a month.
Maria Torres (left) can't imagine leaving her public housing unit in Cleveland's mixed-income Tremont Pointe neighborhood. [Maria Torres]
That’s actually one of the purposes of this development and dozens others like it around the country: to get people of different incomes living together with the hope of addressing a range of issues including concentrated poverty, racial disparities and disinvested communities, said Taryn Gress of the National Initiative on Mixed Income Communities, a research center at Case Western Reserve University.
People living in mostly low-income neighborhoods often don't have nearby access to many job options, decent grocery stores or high-performing schools, Gress said.
"The idea is that for the low-income residents, mixed income housing could be a platform to achieve upward mobility, financial independence, employment," she said.
Meanwhile, for higher-income people, she said, "someone's deciding, you know, 'I want to live someplace where it's diverse, where there are people who look different than me. And I'm part of a positive change in this community.'"
A Growing Practice
All of that sounds good on paper. Good enough that when it gives federal redevelopment funding to any public housing neighborhood, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now requires the new buildings have market-rate apartments alongside the subsidized ones. That’s the plan for Woodhill Homes, the public housing neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side scheduled to be rebuilt starting next year.
Woodhill Homes in Cleveland is scheduled to be redeveloped as mixed-income housing starting in 2021. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
But getting people to get along across traditional economic divides isn’t always easy, according to studies and reports from residents. A lot of it comes down to what people of different income levels expect, or are used to.
"It was kind of shocking for us," said Faraz Siddiqui, a software developer who now lives in San Antonio, Texas, but once lived in the same neighborhood as Maria Torres. "We really thought this was an upscale kind of an apartment, upscale neighborhood." Siddiqui paid market rent for his unit, and says he loved a lot of things about living there: nice townhouse, great location. But there were problems, he said.
"We had one neighbor right next to us," Siddiqui said. "These guys kept fighting and they're banging things, banging the doors at 3:00 in the morning. It was horrible."
Loud neighbors aren’t necessarily low-income neighbors. But Siddiqui’s experience shows how, in mixed-income neighborhoods, it can be even harder than usual for neighbors to work out problems because they’re not used to talking to people unlike themselves, said Frankie Blackburn, a consultant who helps private and public developers build diverse neighborhoods.
"The big lesson for me is, it requires a high degree of intentionality for people to connect and follow up," Blackburn said.
The model she’s seen work best is when property managers organize informal gatherings — and yes, they can happen online in the age of COVID-19 — with a moderator who invites people to talk about their lives and interests, with a minimum of complaining.
'Network nights,' including this one in the Boston area, encourage people to connect across traditional economic divides, according to Frankie Blackburn. [Trusted Space Partners]
As an example, she pointed to a series of networking nights she helped facilitate in a neighborhood outside Washington, D.C. Residents organized around common goals such as improving pedestrian safety on nearby streets, or canvassing nearby restaurants to add affordable entrees. Neighborhood Connections organizes similar events in Cleveland.
"What I believe happened in those rooms is that some of the fear melted away as [people] got to know someone who had a behavior that might have made them feel uncomfortable," Blackburn said. "They got to see them in a different light, through a different lens and in a different moment."
But maybe the biggest question remains, do mixed income neighborhoods really benefit people?
The answer seems to be: in some ways.
So far, there’s little proof that mixing incomes in itself leads to better jobs for low-income people or lifts people out of poverty.
But in one study of two former public housing neighborhoods in Chicago, low-income tenants said they felt their neighborhoods were safer after they became mixed-income. That, in turn, made them feel less stressed, and gave them more mental space to think about making improvements in their own lives.
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