'Add Market-Rate Housing and Stir'

Discussing the effectiveness of housing as a tool to end poverty

Mar 11, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Reduce crime, preserve architecturally significant buildings, support social diversity and create a beautiful community in which everyone is welcome — these appear to be the goals of development efforts in dilapidated urban neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine.

When concerns are raised about displacing existing poor residents, developers argue that these people will be raised out of poverty as a result of neighborhood revitalization. More businesses will mean more employment opportunities, better housing choices will mean more homeownership and less crime will mean a more diverse population of residents, a beneficial influence for underprivileged children.

It sounds as though everyone is included in and benefits from these projects. Still, Tom Dutton, director of the Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, went looking for proof of the supposition that mixed-income housing can help alleviate poverty.

“In Cincinnati, there have been these terms like ‘economic mix’ and ‘mixed-income development’ as the goals and objectives for development,” he says. “People in Over-the-Rhine have been thinking about … how do you actually do this?”

The search for an answer yielded a paper by college professors James Fraser and Michael H. Nelson, “Can Mixed Income Development Ameliorate Concentrated Poverty?” The paper was published in Geography Compass, an online reference journal, on Feb. 6, 2008.

“I went, ‘That’s the million dollar question,’ ” Dutton says. “Let’s bring into the Center for Community Engagement a lot of different constituencies … and let’s have a conversation about this (paper).”

That conversation took place Feb. 26, but the end result wasn’t what Dutton expected. In addition to inviting Fraser and his Vanderbilt University colleague, Edward Kick, Dutton brought together social service providers, developers and others with a stake in the success of Over-the-Rhine. But he says he made a key mistake when he assumed everyone who was in attendance would be “on the same page” about mixed-income housing, namely that it was a good idea and the conversation would be about successful implementation.

“We did not get to that point,” Dutton says. “What happened was … honesty, mostly around questions about respect, people on the side of lower-income citizens saying, ‘We’ve been here a long time and the attitude and the language and the discourse of development doesn’t incorporate us. Can we design a new discourse about development that understands us as whole human beings? Even our most disadvantaged — the people at the Drop Inn Center, the people who are homeless, people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol — can we understand them for the gifts that they bring to the human condition to Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine?’ If we can’t, it’s kind of hard to start a conversation.”

Fraser’s paper underscores the importance of this very point, drawing a distinction between neighborhood revitalization and poverty amelioration because they don’t automatically occur in a simultaneous manner.

“The empirical research on mixed-income redevelopment of distressed urban neighborhoods suggests that the majority of benefits have been realized by private-sector developers, local government and other stakeholders who are in the position to benefit from place-based revitalization,” Fraser writes. “Low-income households, on the other hand, do not share in many of these benefits. The failure to improve outcomes for poor residents has raised questions about the mechanisms by which mixed-income housing could lead to the reduction of poverty for resident families.”

With this proof in hand, paper co-authors Fraser and Nelson suggest that a new definition of community be changed to include everyone who comes “together to create effects in particular locales.”

“It is a hybrid notion that does not necessarily base inclusion by living in place but rather recognizing that, for place-making to be ethical, all parties must acknowledge their stake and negotiate what they want from a mixed-income housing development,” the paper says.

What Dutton heard from conversation participants was that development planning in Over-the-Rhine has yet to include people and organizations that provide sustainable efforts designed to reduce poverty.

“The bias was around housing development… and how do you build off of the gains of housing development to think about gains for all citizens,” Dutton says.

He says the conversation made it clear that key factors are missing.

“The answer seems to be, ‘It’s not an anti-market-rate housing thing.’ It’s not about bringing in new people, as even the comprehensive plan in 2002 talks about trying to get up to 20,000 people,” Dutton says. “It’s ‘How do we think about building community through understanding more deeply how healthcare and nutrition and well-being are being pursued? How do we think about education?’ ”

This kind of comprehensive approach is also supported by current research.

“Birmingham, Alabama’s Parc Place … development has included business incubators as well as training facilities and schooling onsite,” the paper says. “These are real institutional arrangements that have a chance of providing meaningful solutions for single parents who have to negotiate work, home and childcare, but the backbone of these types of initiatives must include the actual community members that will not only live in the mixed-income environment initially but also for populations down the road that may come to reside in these locales.”

Kick is hesitant to offer an assessment of the Feb. 26 conversation, citing his lack of knowledge about the history of Over-the-Rhine development and the various participants.

“We were impressed by the new, physical infrastructural improvements we saw going on in the area,” he says. “We were uncertain, however, how all that was happening would reach the residents who were targeted as beneficiaries at the onset of the project. We hope these changes are meant to serve current residents, but we fear the new infrastructure may be for new residents instead.

“The successes and failures of mixed-income housing across the country are hard to judge at this point. … We should not abandon mixed-income housing as a viable approach to building the communities of the future, but we should avoid the sort of bandwagon effect that leads to an uncritical adoption of it as the panacea for all urban ills.”

An honest critique is what Dutton and all the participants want to pursue, with all perspectives included. To that end, the next community conversation is being planned to allow for an honest evaluation to lay the groundwork for what ought to happen next.

“One of the participants said, ‘The next conversation can be about vision. This one was about current reality,’ ” Dutton says. “It becomes, ‘How do you build community in which everybody benefits? How do you develop Over-the-Rhine equitably?’

“Everyone needs to take responsibility for Over-the-Rhine. It’s a public realm because, building off Jim Fraser’s article, there is a distinction that needs to be made that neighborhood revitalization and poverty amelioration are not the same thing. While everybody would like to see gains in both, most of the way in which city policies and city actions … might be more toward the revitalization side, there needs to be more work done on the poverty amelioration side. Just add market-rate housing and stir: It’s not gonna get it.”