Academic journal article Cityscape

Addressing Residential Instability: Options for Cities and Community Initiatives

Academic journal article Cityscape

Addressing Residential Instability: Options for Cities and Community Initiatives

Article excerpt


Recent research based on surveys of low-income neighborhoods in 10 cities, part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Making Connections initiative, confirms that overall rates of residential mobility in such neighborhoods are high but also shows that the overall rate is made up of very different types of moves with dramatically different implications. Perhaps most important is the finding that a large share of all moves are churning moves-frequent, usually short-distance moves by vulnerable families. Research has shown this kind of mobility to be associated with negative education and health outcomes for young children.

After summarizing key findings from the Making Connections initiative, this article reviews policy and programmatic options that might address these outcomes. It finds considerable relevance at the citywide level in new approaches to homelessness prevention being considered. It also identifies actions that can be taken at the community level. The article focuses, in particular, on how the network organizing approach might be mobilized toward this end.


Researchers have known for some time that the rate of residential mobility among low-income families is high. In 2011, 17.5 percent of households in the lowest income quintile moved compared with only 11.5 percent of the nation's households, on average (Theodos, 2012).

Knowledge of high movement rates among low-income people, however, has not led to consensus regarding what, if anything, policymakers should try to do about mobility. Those who manage community-improvement initiatives typically find the subject disturbing. How are they to build strong social networks and social capital if many residents are likely to soon move away? Others, however, see opportunity in mobility: the possibility of devising policy approaches that result in more families escaping the effects of concentrated poverty.

Surveys conducted in low-income neighborhoods in 10 cities that were a part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Making Connections initiative, however, offer a fundamentally different understanding (Coulton, Theodos, and Turner, 2012; Coulton, Theodos, and Turner, 2009). Total mobility, in fact, comprises very different types of moves with dramatically different implications, some good and some bad.

The surveys confirm that the mobility rate in distressed neighborhoods is indeed high; 28 percent of families with children move each year. Surprisingly, however, most movers (20 of the 28 percent) do not actually "move away." Rather, they relocate in or near their original neighborhood, remaining "within reach" of the community. The number of cases in which residents actually leave the neighborhood is comparatively small - about 8 percent per year - and it is difficult to argue that either the scale or the nature of that mobility is problematic.

A large share of the shorter moves, however, do represent a problem. This share of moves appears to be a product of residential instability, a churning kind of mobility; in many cases, they are moves made by vulnerable families likely to be near the edge of homelessness. To be clear, families in this situation were by no means dominant in any of the Making Connections neighborhoods. Nonetheless, reducing this type of mobility seems to be a challenge that policymakers ought to consider how to address.

The opening sections of this article summarize the basic findings about residential mobility and explain why residential instability is a serious problem. The remainder of the article explores policy and programmatic options. After briefly framing possible policy responses related to positive mobility, the article focuses on how to address residential instability. One section looks at relevant citywide systems, emphasizing approaches that have evolved to deal with homelessness; in particular, it addresses the logic behind the shift from the initial shelter-dominated responses to the concept of homelessness prevention. …

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