Good Neighbors: Addressing Race in Public Housing Integration

Can new public housing initiatives deal with income inequality while ignoring the issue of race?

Amy T. Khare, Mark L. Joseph, and Robert J. Chaskin explore this question in their study, “The Enduring Significance of Race in Mixed-Income Developments.” Khare, et al., use extensive interviews to examine the friction created by racial conflict between residents of mixed-income developments and those living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The researchers were interested in exploring the impact of Chicago’s “Plan for Transformation,” which launched in 2000 and led to the demolition of several public housing sites (including the notorious Cabrini-Green Homes), and the construction of thousands of new, public housing units.

One result of this plan was the relocation of over 9,000 households, the members of which are now living either in units built by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) or in apartments subsidized by the CHA. Historically, housing remediation programs have focused on income and poverty threshold criteria rather than race, creating a gap in the literature. For example, the Moving to Opportunity demonstration project (MTO) involves giving subsidies and vouchers to public housing residents in order to expand their access to private rental housing in areas with lower levels of poverty. The authors note that ignoring race as an issue could lead to tension within communities that makes it difficult for public housing residents to effectively integrate into their new neighborhoods.

The researchers conducted interviews with 35 public housing residents selected randomly from developer occupancy lists over the span of three years, and then hosted focus groups with another random sample of 50 public housing residents and 21 renters of affordable units. Interviews and focus groups were also conducted with homeowners living near the new public housing units. These interviews and focus groups were digitally recorded and coded for analysis based on a set of thematic codes. Usually, this involved parsing an audio recording for key phrases or ideas and conducting qualitative analysis based on common threads that emerged from the data.

Interviewers avoided priming the interview subjects to discuss racial conflict when it would have otherwise not been considered. As such, the researchers did not exclusively seek to understand racial dynamics but instead included language about differences and similarities among residents based on a variety of attributes, such as income, family structure, and housing history, in addition to race.

The researchers document multiple instances in which African-American renters described being made to feel unwelcome in their new neighborhoods. Residents discussed being criticized and harassed for congregating on street corners and barbecuing on their lawns, and even for exhibiting the same behavior as their neighbors, such as playing loud music. Consistently, those living in public housing felt that they were being targeted and stigmatized because of a combination of their race and social status.

In contrast, homeowners blamed the public housing residents for having a different set of values and norms, believing that their behaviors represented a “ghetto mentality” that would make it impossible for them to integrate into a middle-class neighborhood. Several homeowners mentioned changing their routines to avoid interactions with their new neighbors.

Khare, et al., explore these conflicts in the context of critical race theory, identifying a belief among the homeowners that the minorities are “intruding” on the predominantly white neighborhoods, and that the public housing residents should adjust to fit the neighborhood’s already-established, behavioral norms. Yet, rather than blaming the conditions of poverty for the new residents’ behaviors, the homeowners consistently stated that the behaviors and values of the public housing residents were ingrained and unlikely to change. Notably, the homeowners were far less likely to mention race as a source of the conflict than the public housing residents did.

While Black homeowners who were interviewed were far more likely to have had positive experiences with the public housing residents, they had many of the same complaints as their white counterparts, frequently mentioning the “ghetto mentality” of the new residents as an issue. The range of responses was much broader, however, including mentions of sympathy and steps toward solidarity.

Though there are important insights to be gained from this qualitative research study, it is important to note the limitations of its findings. Although the residents who participated in interviews and focus groups were randomly selected, the overall sample size from which the researchers draw data is still quite small, totaling approximately 100 residents. For a more comprehensive look at changing attitudes over time in mixed income developments, a larger sampling frame, following more residents over a longer period of time, could be preferable.

Exploring these results in depth, Khare, et al., express serious concern about the fact that the Chicago government, in its attempts to economically and socially integrate public housing residents into their new neighborhoods, has ignored race as an issue.

Breaking up geographic clusters of poverty is a crucial tool for improving economic opportunities for the impoverished, but Khare, et al., argue that,  if housing policies are not also race-conscious, they will not do enough to overcome the history of racial discrimination that has plagued cities like Chicago. By initiating policies to address this racial tension, such as facilitating leadership boards comprised of public housing residents, the researchers believe that Chicago will begin making progress towards racial integration.

Article Source: Khare et. al, The Enduring Significance of Race in Mixed-Income Developments,” Urban Affairs Review,  July 2015 51: 474-503, first published on June 25, 2014

Featured Photo: cc/(Steve Cadman)

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Tom Houseman
Tom (MPP'17) is a staff writer with a focus on urban affairs. He is interested in urban policy and inequality.

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