Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don’t Move – Improve: An End to the Urban Cop Out?

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there was a concerted effort to help the poor relocate to the suburbs. Subprime mortgages allowed the poor to pursue a mirage of safety and good schools. HUD and state agencies prioritized the construction of low-income housing in the suburbs. This was a reaction to studies on ‘concentrated poverty’ from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. These studies found that people who live in areas with ‘concentrated poverty’ suffer high rates of joblessness, poor education, and high crime. They even suffer high mortality rates, due to the lack of adequate health care in their neighborhoods. The belief was that people who live in socio-economically diverse neighborhoods, are less likely to have these problems.

Unfortunately, we’re now seeing mixed results from our efforts to address ‘concentrated poverty’. The suburbs are more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. But the economic downfall has created areas of ‘concentrated poverty’ in the suburbs. Suburban Baytown has the highest poverty rate in Harris County. And even in suburbs that did not undergo demographic shifts, the benefits to the poor were not as pronounced as expected. HUD’s Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program” found that, while the poor are healthier in the suburbs, they do not have better rates of educational achievement and economic self-sufficiency. Worse, moving to the suburbs does not seem to curb risky and criminal behavior among the poor.

This stands to reason. Suburban schools were not necessarily prepared for the emotional and social baggage of children from broken homes and communities. The problem of educational achievement prevented the very poor from finding employment, which in turn fueled risky and criminal behavior. These problems are also present in impoverished neighborhoods, but instead of studying the problems and using our resources to address them, we simply helped people move away.

It’s understandable that we took this cop out. It’s very difficult to improve the quality of life in a poor neighborhood. Isolation needs to be overcome with better transit. Commercial space needs to be constructed to attract employers. Schools need to be carefully tailored to the needs of the community. Medical clinics need to open. Grocery stores and other retailers need to be lured back. Police officers need to be hired. Parks need to be built. Neighborhoods might even need to be rebranded. And all of this is in addition to the rehabilitation and replacement of substandard housing. It’s a huge endeavor, but well worth it. Just look at neighborhoods where this kind of holistic reinvestment has already happened – The South Bronx in New York City for example.

Some might ask: “if we concentrate on poor neighborhoods in cities, aren’t we turning our backs on fair housing and diversity in the suburbs?” The answer is ‘no.’ The suburbs will naturally become more diverse, as attitudes change, and as more minorities reach the middle class. As long as the free market keeps providing us with new suburban housing, there will be no shortage of older housing for the poor. (Taxpayer funding can be used to prevent this older housing becoming slums.)

There’s a saying in the South Bronx: “Don’t Move – Improve.” We owe it to our cities to follow that lead. We must concentrate on identifying the problems in poor neighborhoods and addressing those problems; instead of simply helping people move to the suburbs.

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