Housing Mobility as a "Durable Urban Policy"

By Polikoff, Alex | Poverty & Race, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

Housing Mobility as a "Durable Urban Policy"


Polikoff, Alex, Poverty & Race


Stuck in Place, Patrick Sharkey's recent book on the relationship between urban neighborhoods and racial inequality, should end the longrunning "neighborhood effects" debate. The evidence Sharkey marshals ought to persuade any fair-minded reader that-independent of personal characteristics-the neighborhood in which you grow up causally affects your life trajectory.

Against the background of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) from the CDC and Kaiser HMO, and medical research explaining why and how bad outcomes happen, it now seems beyond dispute that growing up in a severely distressed, disinvested neighborhood puts adults at risk, not only of emotional and cognitive problems, but also of diabetes, lung cancer, heart disease, and the like. Moreover-another important Sharkey point-the bad outcomes are not confined to the current generation; they are likely to be passed on inter-generationally.

These are potentially enormous contributions to urban policy; hopefully they will put us on the road to a clearer-eyed focus on what to do about these neighborhoods before too many more generations of children amass high ACE scores in them. Kudos to Patrick Sharkey!

On the what-to-do question there is less to praise, although here too Sharkey desirably emphasizes an important truth. Whatever we do, he says, point-in-time investments are likely to be pointless. We need what he calls "durable" urban policies. The black ghetto is a construct deliberately created and maintained over generations; it is hubris to imagine that it can be dismantled quickly or easily. Sharkey rightly urges that to be effective, anything we do must have staying power, not be subject, for example, to the uncertainties of annual Congressional appropriations.

In an audio interview, Sharkey called the Gautreaux Residential Mobility Program an example of durable urban policy. And he has referred approvingly to mobility programs in Baltimore and Dallas that "are giving families the chance to make moves that improve their lives and lead to a permanent change in their neighborhood environments." (Quoted in Richard Florida, July 25, 2013, The Atlantic Cities Place Matters.) In his book, however, Sharkey does not give residential mobility high marks. While acknowledging its benefits, especially for children, he suggests as a "tentative conclusion" that residential mobility programs work well only with families moving out of the very worst neighborhoods, not if they come from a "wider range of poor neighborhoods."

This erroneous, if tentative, conclusion stems from two mistakes. The first is that Gautreaux families came from public housing-that is, the very worst neighborhoods-whereas in fact they came mostly from a "wider range" of neighborhoods, for they were mostly applicants for public housing, living in private housing in various parts of Chicago. …

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