Fifty years after the Civil Rights Era, the United States remains a residentially segregated society. Although some progress toward racial integration has been made in recent decades, the largest declines in black-white segregation have occurred in small, newer metropolitan areas where relatively few blacks live. In the large, dense, older metropolitan areas that house most African Americans, progress has been slow—and in some cases, nonexistent— and a majority of urban blacks still live under conditions of hypersegregation, an intense form of segregation that isolates African Americans on multiple dimensions simultaneously.
As for Hispanics, their segregation from whites has slowly but steadily risen while levels of spatial isolation have increased sharply, producing conditions of hypersegregation in the two largest Hispanic urban concentrations in New York and Los Angeles.
Overlaying these persistent and often rising levels of racial-ethnic segregation is a pattern of increasing class segregation on the basis of income. In many ways, spatial inequalities by race and class are as wide as they’ve ever been.
Research indicates that spatial inequalities in the United States are generated by three principal factors:
- Ongoing prejudice and discrimination
- Increasingly restrictive zoning regulations
- Rising levels of inequality
A variety of strategies has been offered to combat segregation in American society, but among the most effective tried so far are housing mobility programs that promote the dispersal of affordable housing units throughout middle- and upper-class communities. The dispersed construction of affordable housing can be achieved in two ways: encouraging set-asides of affordable units within larger market rate developments, or by scattering new, 100 percent affordable housing complexes across affluent areas.
The former strategy has been implemented in a variety of locations with considerable success, including the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland. These studies show that set-aside programs constitute an effective means not only of enhancing the social welfare and economic mobility of low-income minority families, but a powerful tool for the promotion of racial and class integration.
Set-aside programs also have the advantage of making affordable housing less visible because it is embedded within market rate developments, and thus less likely to become the target of political resistance by community residents and local officials. Proposals to construct a free-standing affordable housing complex are typically met with strong local opposition, delaying and at times preventing construction and often reducing the number of units finally allowed.
My research on the opening of Ethel Lawrence Homes, a 140-unit development of fully affordable housing in the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Mount Laurel, New Jersey suggests, however, that community fears surrounding affordable housing are unfounded when the development is well-designed and well-run. When we compared tax burdens, crime rates, and property values in Mount Laurel to those in nearby communities that did not experience the opening of affordable housing developments, we found no detectable effects on trends before and after the project’s opening .
For the low-income families who moved into the development, however, the benefits were great: dramatic reductions in exposure to social disorder and violence, far fewer negative life events, significantly improved mental health, higher rates of employment, greater earnings from work, lower levels of welfare receipt, and higher family incomes. At the same time, children benefited from huge improvements in school quality, large reductions in exposure to social disorder within schools, greater parental involvement in education, far greater study times, and greater access to a quiet place to study. And although students moved from very uncompetitive to very competitive schools, their grades did not suffer.
Thus, the construction of a properly designed and well-executed affordable housing development in a middle- or upper-class community constitutes a potentially important and powerful tool in promoting the twin goals of desegregation and poverty reduction, one that complements the construction of market-rate projects with affordable set-asides. Research in Mount Laurel suggests that such projects are a win for all concerned: motivated low-income families get a pathway out of poverty; communities get new solid citizens who impose no negative externalities with respect to tax burdens, property values, or crime rates; and citizens of the state get a successful anti-poverty program that turns dependents into taxpayers at very low marginal cost.
Rather than opposing such developments, community residents and officials are better advised to assure their proper design and implementation, looking to the Ethel Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, New Jersey as a model for how it should be done.
Mack Reddick walks back inside his home in the Mechanicsville neighborhood surrounding the Atlanta Braves stadium, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Atlanta. For the Braves, abandoning downtown Atlanta for the suburbs means moving closer to the team’s fan base and developing money-making restaurants and amenities. Photo by David Goldman/AP