Housing, Desegregation, and Opportunity
IPR briefing examines legacy of housing policies and outcomes
The policy briefing panel takes questions from the audience (left to right: Dorothy Roberts, Lincoln Quillian, Susan Popkin, Wesley G. Skogan, and Stefanie DeLuca).
At an April 30 IPR policy research briefing, four national experts weighed in on the persistence of segregation and the effects of housing policies that can be traced back to a series of court orders stemming from the 1966 Gautreaux lawsuit, including the 1976 Supreme Court decision mandating an end to racially discriminatory housing policies in Chicago.
“So how has it all panned out? How have these families fared? Have these programs really reduced segregation? Is concentrated poverty lower now than when the policies began?” asked IPR legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, who moderated the event.
Why Segregation Still Matters
“People sometimes think that racial segregation has plummeted or disappeared,” said IPR sociologist Lincoln Quillian, pointing to the gradual decline of racial segregation since the civil rights era. Most Americans, however, still live next to neighbors who look the same, racially and ethnically, as they do—especially whites.
“Black and Hispanic families earning over $75,000 a year actually live in poorer neighborhoods than whites earning less than $40,000 a year,” Quillian said.
This explains why segregation is still a grave concern today. It “exacerbates inequality” on the basis of race, he explained, almost “automatically concentrating poverty” in African American and Latino neighborhoods, which are four times more likely to be high poverty than white ones.
Reviewing a wide variety of findings on segregation’s effects, Quillian distilled the most robust: Higher rates of violent crime in areas of concentrated poverty are linked to poor health and depression for adults and lower test scores for children. These outcomes then ripple out over time across a variety of social contexts, compounding disparities in economic opportunities, access to resources, and schools.
Take schools, for instance. Those in high-poverty areas are often cited as low performing—frequently blamed as the source of the nation’s dropout problem. But you have to look beyond the schools to the larger environment, Quillian said. These schools are overwhelmed with poor students who have problems that extend beyond the classroom, who lack the advantages of their middle-class peers, and who, in turn, overwhelm the school’s capacity to function effectively.
Quillian cautioned that policies to end segregation are no “silver bullet” for tackling racial inequality or other social problems. “It might be one contributing factor certainly—but not the only one,” he emphasized.
He advised policymakers to pay attention to how they combat racial segregation, as some evidence suggests that a higher level of economic segregation is replacing declining racial segregation.
“Segregation really still matters…because it generates this kind of financial inequality and inability to access major resources, which is significantly linked to socioeconomic and attainment outcomes later in life,” Quillian ended.
Are Housing Policies Linked to Crime?
Wesley G. Skogan
Following publication of a 2008 Atlantic article, in which the journalist fingered the relocation of public housing tenants to Memphis’ mostly white suburbs as the source of a violent crime wave, researcher Susan Popkin recalled the ensuing media “brouhaha.”
“I would get calls from places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, telling me that their one homicide is due to the fact that Chicago tore down its public housing,” said Popkin, now a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute and a former IPR research associate.
Much to its credit, Popkin said, the Chicago Housing Authority asked her to conduct a reputable study on a tough question: “Do public housing relocatees have a significant impact on crime in the neighborhoods they move to when using vouchers?”
“The idea was to compare what actually happened in the city of Chicago against a counterfactual, a kind of ‘what-if world’ where there had been no Plan for Transformation and places like the Robert Taylor Homes were still standing,” Skogan said.
The researchers collected 25,000 data points from 813 different census tracts—tracking those who moved in or out of a census tract on a quarterly basis and then looking at crime in the same tract in the ensuing quarter—and plugged this information into a regression model.
In Chicago, like Atlanta, they found citywide decreases in violent, gun, and property crime. Crime in neighborhoods where the public housing projects once stood dropped dramatically—a 60 percent drop in violent crime, 70 percent in gun crime, and 49 percent in property crime.
Crime also decreased in the areas where voucher residents resettled; however, not as much as predicted had these voucher families stayed where they were.
“So while in the Transformation tract crime was 60 percent below—in the destination tract, it’s 5.5 percent above—what we would have anticipated,” Skogan said. “Still down, but the decrease was less than anticipated.” This was especially true for tracts with high concentrations of voucher movers.
The researchers cited possible reasons for this, including higher victimization of relocated young men, disrupted social controls, and displacement.
Overall, the city experienced a crime decline of 1 percent. While this might look like a “tiny number,” the take-home point is that “crime on Chicago Housing Authority property has never played a huge role in citywide crime rates,” Skogan said.
Concluded Popkin, “Nowhere in the city is crime as high or as dangerous now as it was when the public housing projects were standing.”
Lessons from Mobility Programs
In addressing “how we house the poor,” sociologist Stefanie DeLuca presented an unbalanced financial portrait, where for every $4 in federal money spent on a homeowner, just $1 is spent on a renter. And the most significant change over the past decade has been a shift from building public housing units to providing housing vouchers.
“This means that a large chunk of our public housing is moving to the private rental market,” she pointed out. Currently at Johns Hopkins University, DeLuca got her start studying such issues as an IPR graduate research assistant.
In theory, housing choice voucher programs should allow low-income renters to move to better areas because they are not tied to specific developments or neighborhoods. In reality, however, many voucher families experience the opposite.
In Chicago, more than 75 percent of black voucher holders live in areas with poverty rates above 20 percent, with almost two-thirds of them in areas that are 90 percent African American.
“We know that there are more neighborhoods of opportunity in the suburbs, but African American families have trouble accessing these neighborhoods,” DeLuca said.
She ticked off several reasons why voucher families tend to wind up in such blighted areas: discrimination by landlords; unexpected moves in dire circumstances; little information about better neighborhoods; prioritizing a bigger, less expensive unit over a smaller, more expensive one in a better neighborhood; and finally, an “I can handle this” attitude, born of decades without assistance.
“It’s difficult for them to leave without a lot of help,” she said.
Better assistance is what the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program is trying to provide. To date, some 1,800 families have received pre- and post-move counseling, which includes tours of neighborhoods and information about better opportunities, including schools.
Some housing mobility programs have “shown more promise” than public housing in moving families to lower poverty areas, DeLuca said. But structural and organizational barriers have prevented them from breaking the ongoing cycle of segregation and concentrated poverty.
She called on researchers to address the “vacuum of research on landlords,” and “to support families in efforts to desegregate and deconcentrate poverty.”