Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Benefits of living in mixed-income neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles.

Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Benefits of living in mixed-income neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles, by Elena Vesselinov, Mary Clare Lennon & Renaud Le Goix, appears in Volume 40, Issue 2 of the Jorunal of Urban Affairs and is currently available for free access.

By Elena Vesselinov

I am very enthusiastic about this article, because it is the first published article related to my latest project on organic mixed-income neighborhoods. In this article, we discuss the differences between “design-politics” and “organic” mixed-income neighborhoods. Design-politics neighborhoods are communities influenced by the federal housing policies in integrating former public housing residents with higher income groups. It is believed that such income integration will be beneficial to lower-income groups, where through better housing conditions and role-modeling they will create better lives. The question is do policy intentions correspond to reality, thus the title of the paper, “Is it all in the eye of the beholder?” Is this policy a wishful thinking or a reality?

The research evidence about design-politics communities, most notably established in Robert Chaskin and Mark Joseph’s book “Integrating the Inner City,” is rather controversial, or as the saying goes, the jury is still out on whether or not there is actual neighborhood integration. It seems that impenetrable social boundaries remain around issues both of class and race. Lower-income residents still tend to be more connected to each other, with little to no interactions with higher income group members.

Even though we at least have a growing body of work on outcomes in design-politics neighborhoods, not much is known about benefits of real-life mixed-income communities. In cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and many others, we can find hundreds of neighborhoods, where people from diverse economic backgrounds live. What I would like to do is find out more about the naturally occurring mixed-income communities, formed without explicit government intervention. Therefore, these naturally formed communities I called “organic mixed-income neighborhoods.”

In this paper we present evidence of the association between mixed-income communities and the mortgage foreclosure crisis for two metropolitan areas: New York and Los Angeles.  In both cities, mixed-income neighborhoods are characterized by a better socioeconomic context compared not only to lower-income neighborhoods but also to low-middle-income neighborhoods. This is reflected in a range of factors such as higher income, higher house prices, higher homeownership rates, higher educational levels, and lower levels of subprime loans. In addition, controlling for relevant neighborhood contextual factors, mixed-income neighborhoods are less likely to be found in foreclosure spatial clusters compared to lower-income and low-middle-income communities.

In our work, we applied two independently constructed neighborhood typologies, where mixed-income neighborhoods were identified, firstly, as a reflection of the metropolitan income composition and, secondly, based on the entropy score. Regardless of the method used, the selection of mixed-income tracts produced communities that also had a racial/ethnic composition comparable to the overall metropolitan racial/ethnic composition. Therefore, based on our findings as well as on prior research using various selection criteria, income diversity seems, at least to some degree, to correspond to racial/ethnic diversity.

I find that it is important to continue this line of research and study the specific context across metropolitan areas in the United States. If it is found that organic mixed-income communities are consistently associated with benefits and better socio-economic residential conditions, policies could be developed to incentivize already existing communities. It seems plausible to expect that creating incentives tailored to specific social, economic and political contexts should be more effective, efficient and less costly than engineering residential contexts with dubious results.

Elena Vesselinov is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College and The Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

2 thoughts on “Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Benefits of living in mixed-income neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles.

  1. Empirical evidence obtained from my 65 years in Chicago is that organically integrated neighborhoods had segregated buildings within it. An integrated building was rare. The 20% requirement within HUD insured buildings resulted in extended vacancies if the 20% moved in first and if handled properly had 20% and 80% communities, if one can say there are any communities in high rise buildings. The only truly cultural and community integration I have witnessed in a few housing cooperatives that were able to maintain their integrated status. Herb Fisher

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    1. Thank you for your comment, I agree with your observation. In Chaskin and Joseph’s work and in many other publications, empirical evidence show that there is very little actual integration. However, research also shows that some former public housing residents do benefit from better housing conditions in the redeveloped mixed-income neighborhoods.

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