The False Dichotomy – Housing Choice and Revitalization

Choice road sign

A lot has been written the past couple weeks about where lower-income families should live and where affordable housing should be produced. In the New York Times last week, Thomas Edsall decried affordable housing development in high-poverty neighborhoods and stated that all subsidies should go toward moving poor households into higher cost areas that offer better school and job options; this is only answer to helping families move up and out of poverty. He also went a step further to lay blame for concentrated poverty on the many organizations that help finance and build affordable housing across the country, dubbing them the poverty housing industry.

Since his article, there has been a firestorm of responses:

Enterprise writes that “uprooting low-income families and moving them to affluent neighborhoods” is not a panacea to socioeconomic mobility and all the other issues faced by families in poverty. If we abandon communities that have experienced divestment for years, we take away those residents’ choices and condemn those communities to a dismal future.

Similarly, The Atlantic explores how efforts to combat segregation, when that is the only focus, may end up in divestment from communities that need it most. The article highlights a woman named Kellee Coleman, a 34 year old African American single mother from East Austin. Coleman knows the studies on how families like hers would flourish if they moved to “the wealthy suburbs”, but she doesn’t want to move to an area far from public transportation and neighbors that know and support her. She’s also concerned about her children going to school in a predominantly white suburb with few African Americans in leadership to look up to.

The Urban Institute emphasizes that all families, including those who are lower-income, should have the choice to live where they choose. As Edsall points out, these families face constrained choices due to lack of affordable housing in high-cost neighborhoods and discrimination, among other things. However, like Kellee Coleman says, there are many factors that lower-income families weigh when thinking about home. For Edsall to blame the constrained choices of lower-income families on the affordable housing industry is to ignore the effects of redlining and disinvestment targeted towards people and communities of color in this country, disinvestment that many community-led organizations were founded to combat. He is also ignoring where revitalization has occurred and how community-led affordable housing and community development groups have played a part and worked with their lower-income neighbors to stay and benefit.

Ultimately, this is about a both-and public policy approach and sustained investment from private and public partners…policy that promotes expanded choices for lower-income families and that also focuses on revitalizing neighborhoods. In thinking about Manna’s history, this both-and approach has been absolutely key. If Manna and others had only focused on high-income areas of DC (which were almost impossible to build in), then there would not be affordable housing in areas like Shaw and Adams Morgan today – there would be even less diversity in those neighborhoods today. For Manna’s first homeownership development, we had to go to 33 banks before finding one who would provide a construction loan – sacrifices were made and it was done with the community. And affordable housing is not just one type of housing – it’s an entire continuum that people can move along over time, from supportive housing up through homeownership. Finally, it’s not just about affordable housing but combining that with community and economic development, being strategic about partnerships and investments and an advocacy approach centered on the needs of people and neighborhood.


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