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May 16, 2014

Affordable housing in safe neighborhoods: Four lessons for success

May 16, 2014

Last year, HUD issued new rules advancing its mandate to “affirmatively further fair housing.” These rules require cities and counties that receive HUD dollars to expand affordable housing in neighborhoods that now exclude low-income families and families of color.

Doug Massey’s terrific new book, Climbing Mount Laurel, offers four lessons about why that goal makes sense and how to achieve it.

  1. Neighborhood safety is the top priority for families and should be for policymakers. Two decades ago, residents of distressed public housing who signed up for a chance to move to low-poverty neighborhoods told us that their main goal was escaping from the violence plaguing their neighborhoods and victimizing their kids. Since then, evidence from brain sciences and child development research has shown that exposure to crime and violence inflicts lasting mental and physical damage on children. Publicly subsidized housing shouldn’t be trapping families in neighborhoods that do this kind of damage.
  2. Subsidized housing doesn’t bring crime or disinvestment if it’s well designed and managed and if the neighborhood is safe and stable to begin with. Many communities fight to exclude affordable housing developments because they fear rising crime and declining property values. Some research has found that an influx of subsidized households may affect crime rates, but only in communities that are already struggling with disinvestment and worsening crime. A much larger body of evidence confirms Massey’s new findings that crime and property values are unaffected by the construction of subsidized housing.
  3. Moving to safe neighborhoods with good schools can improve outcomes for low-income parents and their kids. But these benefits aren’t realized unless families can stay in their new neighborhoods for more than a year or two. The longer they stay, the greater the benefits. A lot of people have mistakenly concluded from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration that moving to a better neighborhood doesn’t pay off for poor families and may undermine the well-being of boys. But in fact, few MTO families stayed in low-poverty neighborhoods for more than a year or two, and my analysis (like Massey’s) finds that longer stays in low-poverty neighborhoods are associated with significant gains in employment, income, and school success.
  4. There’s more than one way to solve families’ transportation needs. When low-income families move from central cities to suburban neighborhoods, they sometimes feel trapped in their homes because public transit options are so limited. This was an early complaint among the families Massey interviewed. But most have since gotten cars, and analysis underway by my colleague Rolf Pendall suggests that access to a car increases families’ chances of economic advancement, other things being equal. So policymakers should focus on connectivity rather than public transit and explore ways to provide affordable car access in addition to ownership.

Apartment construction photo from Shutterstock.

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