Does mixed income make for better people and communities?

When the American Planning Association met in Boston in 2011, one of the tours included a stop at the housing complex where I live.  It’s a fairly large development for Boston, almost 200 units on an entire city block with 1/3 of the units with Section 8 certificates (for low income families),  1/3 having deed restrictions making them affordable for moderate income households, and 1/3 being sold at market rate.  I came across the tour in the open space in the middle of the development.  I could tell from their badges they were with the APA,  and my curiosity led me to ask what they were doing there.  The nice person first patiently explained they  were with the APA, I counted with my APA conference badge.  Then I was told they were there to see examples of affordable housing.  When I told them I was both a planner and a resident, they peppered me with questions.

It is dangerous to talk about a book one hasn’t read, but Charles Murray’s new book, Falling Apart, has been getting a lot of press and I do intend to read it  His thesis is that higher income, college educated people are isolating themselves from the poor and less educated and as a result, social disorganization and risk behaviors are increasing.  Murray apparently carefully avoids any economic analysis or discussion of the loss of manufacturing jobs and blames this rise of disorganization on the lack of contact between the two groups.  He supposedly suggests that the upper income people move out of their enclaves and live in poorer communities.

This is not a new idea.  It has been a goal of US social policy at least since the 1930s when urban renewal was proposed as a way to break up poor (and often African American) communities.  It was also a goal of the 1990s HOPE VI program.  The idea is that the poor suffer from what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a culture of poverty.  The poor are impoverished because they adapt and pass on these bad behaviors to the children.  The solution is to have them live near non-poor families with healthy work and social habits.  They will learn to behave better. Some other suggest that they will also be able to benefit from informal networks of job seeking and improve their economic status as well.

Armed with the knowledge (not from the book – it didn’t come out until months later), the APA tour people wanted to know how much interaction there is between the various income groups in my complex. The units are mixed throughout the complex and our market unit is above a moderate income unit and between two Section 8 units, for example. The answer as to the degree of interaction is that there is some but not a lot.  We all pretty much know each other by first name, open doors for each other, hold children when they might get stuck in an elevator and smile at each other.  But there is not a lot of other sharing.  Most people live privately.

One interesting, if unstudied outcome is what contact with the poor might do for middle and upper income political beliefs.  I would think  that a review of voting records might show that the influence flows from the poor to the wealthy.  Upper income people who live in mixed income environments are more likely to vote for liberal social policies.  Mr. Murray may not like that.

One final question did bring everyone in the complex together, a uniformity of response when I told various neighbors about it.  I was asked if residents keep their doors opened and unlocked so that people might visit each other by just walking in, uninvited.  Everyone I told about the question, upper income, moderate income, and subsidized, couldn’t stop laughing at the naiveté of that question.  As one (Section 8) neighbor said as she was laughing so hard that her eyes teared up, don’t those people know we are in New England, no one is that friendly to anyone

2 Responses to “Does mixed income make for better people and communities?”

  1. T. Smalls says:

    What I find interesting is that you know exactly where the other types of units are. While I commend the developers for having the forethought to vary the locations of different types of units, it serves no purpose when people are able to point and say “This is a Section 8 unit, this is an affordable one, and this one is a market rate unit.” If there were some way to remove that classism from the equation there may be a more cohesive, community feel to your development (not that there isn’t already, it just doesn’t read that way from your post.)

  2. Administrator says:

    This is a good point. In my building, no one seems to care which units are Secton 8, but in some places, this knowledge might lead to problems.

    There is no list of Section 8 units publicly available in the complex. Mostly, I’ve found out about the subsidies from the tenants. One next door neighbor was complaining to me one day the the Housing Authority wanted him to move because they thought he would qualify for a bigger unit. But he didn’t want to move. My response was that the neighbor was friendly and we didn’t want him to move either.

    The other neighbor taped a note to her door that she was going to be Kate getting home and that the housing inspector should wait for her.