After reflection and conversation, I realized the need to clarify a term used in last week’s post. In listing the benefits of traditional neighborhoods, I recommended their ability to support a mix of family incomes. Urban sociologists and poverty researchers mean something very specific when they use the term mixed-income. I actually meant something different and, this week, will clarify and elaborate on the similarities and differences between mixed-income housing and traditional neighborhoods with a variety of housing types.
What Did I Say Last Week?
The relevant section began: “Traditional neighborhoods offer other benefits that strengthen the local economy. This helps households and local government financial stability. These benefits include supporting: competitive industry clusters, mixed-income populations and local businesses.” Later I elaborated with: “Traditional neighborhoods provide a variety of housing types: rental units of all sizes, town houses and single-family homes. This lets a neighborhood accommodate residents at every stage of their life cycle as their incomes and space needs change.”
What Does Mixed-Income Really Mean?
The Mixed Income Research Design Group, a nonprofit of academic researchers, defines mixed-income housing as a deliberate effort to create socioeconomic diversity in a given area. It may apply to a single building, a larger development or an entire neighborhood. Mixed-income housing is a deliberate policy to improve the circumstances of low-income households through economic integration. This is an important objective, but was not the primary focus of the policies I advocated last week.
The benefits of traditional neighborhoods I referenced come exclusively from their physical form. There is nothing incompatible in the two concepts. Indeed, traditional neighborhoods may be the best way to pursue the goals of mixed-income housing policy. My emphasis, however, was on the superiority of traditional neighborhoods in improving the fiscal and economic health of cities compared to alternatives. By offering a variety of housing types and sizes, such neighborhoods should be more sustainable by attracting a healthy mix of households at every stage of life. This contrasts to a subdivision with a single housing type of interest to a narrower range of households. The benefits so far from mixed income housing are perfectly obtainable from a traditional neighborhood form.
Mixed Income Motives and Outcomes
Mixed-income housing improves the lives of poor families, but has not achieved all the intended goals. Mixed-income housing has been delivered by demolishing high-density public housing projects or tenements and replacing them with lower-density structures. The new developments emphasize small apartment buildings or row-houses with open space. There may also be a percentage of units set aside to sell or lease at market rates. These units can attract higher income households to the community and improve the development’s financial performance. The federal Hope VI program has been extensively implemented and studied, as an example.
According to scholars with the Urban Institute, there three main goals for mixed-income housing policy:
- Racial, ethnic and income integration
- Improving employment and income for poor families
- Improving environmental conditions of poor families (housing, neighborhood safety, etc.)
The Urban Institute has also summarized the research on the results of these initiatives. The greatest success has been with improving environmental conditions. Poor families enjoy better housing stock and have access to more retail and other services. They also show improved mental health, probably from a greater sense of safety in the newly designed communities.
Unfortunately, there has been little improvement in integration or building more diverse social networks across income levels. Research shows class remains a powerful barrier. Families at significantly different income levels do not interact in meaningful ways even when living near each other. This probably explains why there are some improvements in employment but no significant increases in income. The assumption was that low-income residents would grow their social networks and therefor improve access to better jobs. Researchers also note that without deliberate skills and education improvements, changing housing does not improve income prospects.
Housing Mix and Traditional Neighborhoods
Traditional neighborhoods are defined by their physical form: street grids, a variety of parcel sizes and a variety of housing unit sizes. Intentional mixed-income communities can meet the definitions of a traditional neighborhood. Given the research on mixed-income housing, a traditional neighborhood will probably attract households that are similar in socioeconomic terms. Since a traditional neighborhood has a variety of housing size units, those units should be accessible at a variety of price points. Smaller units should cost less than larger units. This may allow the entry of relatively lower income families. The range of incomes in a traditional neighborhood will likely be greater than in a typical subdivision. Regardless, traditional neighborhoods can support households throughout their life cycle as their incomes change and their spending changes.
Restoring and building more traditional neighborhoods can improve the overall financial and economic health of a city, which is our primary focus at Axianomics. Traditional neighborhoods are better for families at any income level. A neighborhood that can help families stay in place, but efficiently transition through stages of life will create a great deal of loyalty and stability. It will be a neighborhood of people who pay close attention to local government decisions and who are active in their cities because they feel they have a stake. These are all great things and should be applauded.
Our cities will need something more to help communities increase social connections between income groups. A renewed civic capital seems critical for building more sustainable cities. Later this year we will look closer at that. Next week, however, we will continue our examination of the costs and benefits of different neighborhood forms.