Over the past 20 years, mixed-income communities have increasingly come to replace the public housing projects that were built in the aftermath of World War II with good intentions but by the 1980s had become high-rise traps for families seeking to escape poverty. The vision behind mixed-income development was that it led low-income people to better opportunities—through locations in stable and safe neighborhoods; access to jobs, transportation, amenities, better schools, and health care; and proximity to and social networks with middle-class neighbors.
But a generation of mixed-income development—funded mainly through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI program—has yielded mixed results: while the quality of life and physical environment of low-income families have dramatically improved, their economic prospects and social isolation have not. While experts agree that a mixed-income environment is still the best platform to lift people out of poverty, they also believe that new approaches and partnerships are needed to deliver on mixed income’s promise of economic mobility and racial and social integration, according to a panel discussion at the recent ULI Housing Opportunity 2016 conference in Boston.
As director of the National Initiative of Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University, panelist Mark Joseph has conducted in-depth field research on dozens of HOPE VI mixed-income developments. Where they have fallen short is in what Joseph calls “effective neighboring,” or residents relating to one another as peers instead of members of a different race or income bracket. Low-income residents continue to feel a sense of “incorporated exclusion”—a term Joseph coined in his book, cowritten with Robert J. Chaskin, Integrating the Inner City: The Promise and Perils of Mixed-Income Public Housing Transformation—in which they are physically integrated into a neighborhood or building but still feel marginalized, said Joseph, an associate professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western and director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities.
“Instead of people seeing an opportunity for people to get to know one another…. [I]n many cases, the way things have played out, the ‘us vs. them’ divide gets stronger,” he explained.
Mixed-income developments have also struggled with maintaining a truly mixed-income occupancy with the right balance of market-rate, workforce, affordable, and public housing residents. Market-rate rentals typically have a high turnover rate, even in properties that are 100 percent market-rate. In a mixed-income development—in which market-rate units often subsidize affordable and public housing units and whose tenants can provide the social capital and access to professional networks—securing a stable group of market-rate-paying tenants is essential. Other disappointments with HOPE VI mixed-income developments included the lack of a one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units and a low rate of return of public housing residents to a new mixed-income community.
So, whose responsibility is it to ensure that mixed-income communities have the right mix of tenants, are truly integrated, and do not restigmatize poor families? In Joseph’s view, property management is the linchpin of the mixed-income mission; in the context of mixed-income communities, property managers need to take on an additional role—that of a social worker or social engineer who can facilitate the relationship-building and effective neighboring among residents.
“Community-building needs to be intentional and proactive,” he said. “Property managers need to see themselves in this front-line role” that goes beyond the traditional duties of collecting rent and maintaining the building. Tenant governance and leadership boards also are opportunities for people of different income levels to find common ground and “feel like they have an equal voice,” Joseph said. Development teams, too, need to take on greater leadership roles, moving from a mind-set of “compliance, regulation, and rules” to one of “aspiration and co-investment,” he said.
In San Francisco, HOPE SF—a partnership focused on transforming legacy public housing sites into mixed-income neighborhoods—aims to right some of the missteps associated with mixed-income development. The partnership operates according to eight principles to ensure that the redevelopment of public housing sites is equitable and holistic, including the following: a one-for-one replacement of demolished public housing units, plans to involve public housing residents in all parts of the planning process, and job training and economic development opportunities for residents.
Panelist Amit Price Patel, principal at San Francisco firm David Baker Architects, spoke about four communities that are part of HOPE SF’s plan to build more than 2,000 new units of public housing in addition to thousands of new affordable and market-rate rental and for-sale units. Hunters View, Alice Griffith, Sunnydale, and Potrero are all located near former industrial sites in San Francisco’s southeast corner and will be rebuilt as mixed-income developments that reconnect the sites to existing neighborhoods and provide better access to transit, jobs, and neighborhood amenities. Design excellence in three areas—common spaces to foster connections between residents of all income levels, building exteriors and interiors, and at the individual unit level—will promote HOPE SF’s goal of equitable development, Price Patel said.
For public housing authorities, like the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), mixed-income development has become the only financially feasible method to rebuild public housing because federal funding of the HOPE VI program has dwindled to nearly nothing. “It became clear to us at BHA several years ago that federal funding for public housing as we knew it . . . was gone and was not going to come back,” said BHA administrator and panelist Bill McGonagle.
At one point, the BHA estimated it would require $650 million to $750 million to fund capital improvements on its existing housing stock, leading to “some sober thinking about how we deal with this huge funding gap,” he said. Partnering with market-rate and affordable housing developers on mixed-income communities became a way to ensure the city was meeting the needs of residents on fixed incomes. “I’ve come to this mixed-income concept . . . reluctantly and pragmatically. At the end of the day, I’m in the affordable housing business, not the mixed-income business. My business is to take care of poor people.”
Archana Pyati is a writer on ULI’s strategic communications team.