Academic journal article Cityscape

Residential Mobility and the Reproduction of Unequal Neighborhoods

Academic journal article Cityscape

Residential Mobility and the Reproduction of Unequal Neighborhoods

Article excerpt

Abstract

Housing assistance policy has shifted away from project-based assistance toward tenant-based assistance. This shift in approach reflects a common assumption that, if families have the option to find homes on their own in the private market, they will seek out better quality homes in racially diverse neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty. This article presents evidence to qualify this assumption by highlighting the limits of residential mobility in reducing, in any substantive way, the degree of racial and ethnic inequality in urban America. Two empirical observations form the basis of the argument. The first observation is that residential mobility typically serves to reproduce urban inequality instead of disrupting it. The second is that urban inequality is resilient: even when individuals or families make moves that disrupt patterns of racial and ethnic inequality, the changes such moves induce are undermined by system-level processes that serve to reproduce inequality in the urban landscape. As a result, changes in families' neighborhood environments arising from residential mobility are often temporary and are diluted by subsequent changes occurring around families. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for housing assistance policy.

Introduction

During the past two decades, there have been several high-profile federal housing programs and policies that reflect a shift away from project-based assistance toward tenant-based assistance (Orlebeke, 2000). The number of families receiving vouchers for rental assistance through the Section 8 program has grown steadily, the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing demonstration launched with great fanfare to assess whether mobility out of public housing projects could transform families' lives, and the HOPE VI Program demolished some of the most notorious highrise public housing projects across the country (Cisneros and Engdahl, 2009; Goering and Feins, 2003). This shift in approach has been driven at least in part by the widespread sentiment that the deterioration of highrise public housing projects has contributed to the problems associated with concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation in America's cities. It may also be driven by an underlying assumption that, if families have the option to find homes on their own in the private market, they will seek out better quality homes in racially diverse neighborhoods with lower poverty levels.

This article does not challenge this assumption - in fact, a good deal of evidence indicates that families receiving housing vouchers live in neighborhoods with lower levels of concentrated poverty and crime than families receiving project-based assistance (Devine et al, 2003; Lens, Ellen, and O'Regan, 2011; McClure, 2008; Newman and Schnare, 1998). Rather, this article presents an argument about the limits of residential mobility in reducing, in any substantive way, the degree of racial and ethnic inequality in urban America. Two empirical observations form the basis of the argument. The first observation is that residential mobility typically serves to reproduce urban inequality instead of disrupting it. Residential moves are made within the highly stratified residential landscapes found in most American cities, and most moves lead families into aggregate flows of mobility that reinforce the larger structure of racial and ethnic inequality in the city or metropolitan area as a whole. Structural constraints, arising from the supply of affordable housing in an area and the resources that families bring to the housing market, are obvious explanations for this pattern. Although I acknowledge these structural constraints, in this article I focus attention on the less obvious cognitive constraints that help to explain why families rarely make moves that disrupt the larger patterns of racial and ethnic inequality. To be perfectly clear, the term cognitive constraints has nothing to do with the cognitive skills or abilities of individuals or groups; instead, the term, as used here, captures the constraints on residential mobility arising from individuals' perceptions and understandings of which communities are possible or realistic residential destinations. …

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