Mixed-Income Housing and Preconditions for Success
December 2, 2019 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz
View of one of the Renaissance Square buildings with the park in front of it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Architect Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, is the Co-Founder & CEO of Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón. He is also part of the team that leads the resilient design guides for multifamily and single-family housing development for Puerto Rico.

This is the second and last part of “The Promise–and Reality–of Mixed-Income Housing”.

While most reports highlight the benefits of mixed-income housing, others point to its failures, citing research showing that these projects have not worked well.

Criticism of Mixed-Income Housing

Critics of mixed-income housing also contend that most of the research on its benefits focuses on Hope VI redevelopment projects and voucher schemes such as the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, while neglecting mixed-income communities that have developed in other ways.

Following are the most cited problems of mixed-income housing development.

It’s Not Enough

Housing is important and necessary but not enough to lift people out of poverty. Upward mobility requires a good education, job training, employment opportunities, reliable transportation, and other social services.

Not Proven to Help Individuals

Mixed-income housing has fallen short of expectations in improving outcomes for the poor (in terms of, for example, employment and public safety) while demonstrating more gains at the neighborhood level.

Poverty Relocated

Most mixed-income housing projects that are part of public housing revitalization efforts cause some public housing residents—usually those least likely to find alternate housing—to be displaced, thus not reducing poverty but simply relocating it. Projects also have strict regulations and background checks that further exclude those who are hardest to house.

Social Uncertainty

Empirical evidence for enhanced social networks and social capital in mixed-income housing projects is inconclusive, with more evidence showing that mixed-income living does not facilitate as much social interaction across race, ethnicity, and income as expected.

FURTHER READING: AFFORDABLE HOUSING DEVELOPMENT IS GOOD FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Too Costly

Building subsidized units is significantly more expensive—in dollars, time and effort—than building unsubsidized units. Critics of mixed-income housing thus argue it is too costly and not proven to reduce poverty, noting that tenant-based subsidies, such as housing vouchers, are more efficient and more likely to encourage social integration by moving people into better neighborhoods.

Diversity Segregation

Some mixed-income communities reportedly are experiencing “diversity segregation” in which people of different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and incomes live next to one another but do not engage in meaningful interactions, therefore failing to integrate communities and to offer better opportunities for the poor.

A Big Assumption

The potential benefits of mixed-income housing development rest on the assumption that physical proximity can close the social gap among lower- and higher-income people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds by facilitating meaningful social interactions that result in mentoring, employment opportunities and other benefits.

No Effect on Supply

Mixed-income housing development does nothing to address the constraints on housing supply at the state and local levels and the need for legislation to eliminate restrictions that contribute to the lack of affordable housing.

Preconditions for Success

To attract higher-income residents to inner-city neighborhoods, mixed-income housing developments must be well-designed, advantageously located, properly managed and maintained, and financially sustainable.

Preconditions and recommendations for mixed-income housing projects:

  • To assist the upward mobility of lower-income residents, support services, such as career counseling and a community coordinator, should be a part of mixed-income housing development.
  • Projects should integrate elements of healthy communities: good location, schools and transportation; employment opportunities; healthcare and other services; competent property management and maintenance; and neutral spaces where people of different backgrounds can feel comfortable.
  • Enough units need to be allocated for higher-income residents in order to sustain the project.
  • Community organizations should be established to reach across social boundaries and unite people through organized community-building activities, such as sports, concerts and festivals.
  • Shared political power via diverse, democratic governing boards enable lower-income residents to work on an equal footing with higher-income residents and ensures unified planning, negotiation and problem solving.
  • All units should offer the same in quality and amenities.
  • The mix of owners and renters is as important as the income mix.

Other factors can attract or dissuade higher-income residents. For example, a tight housing market will attract residents who could be choosier in a weaker market.

In the End…

Mixed-income housing is not a panacea or a universal remedy for the many ills of concentrated poverty. It does not immediately reduce social inequities or magically lift low-income residents out of poverty. It is a process that involves careful planning, design and implementation with the objective of promoting the kind of meaningful social interaction among diverse groups that lead to new opportunities, healthier neighborhoods and a higher quality of life.

With the right considerations and teams in place, mixed income housing can be a key contributor in stirring us in the right direction towards upward mobility.

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