How to Approach Mixed-Income Communities

Director Mark Joseph and Project Manager Taryn Gress of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities shared their research on the mixed-income housing strategy.
Mark Joseph, Director, NIMC
Mark Joseph, Director, NIMC

The public housing sector has seen almost 30 years of sustained mixed-income projects across the nation, spurred by a number of federal and local initiatives. Ever since the 1990s, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) founded and implemented the HOPE VI program, the aim has been to regenerate communities by reducing the concentration of low-income families and rehabilitating distressed housing sites. Starting with 2010, HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) has been trying to expand the impact of the mixed-income housing strategy by focusing on other community aspects such as employment, education and infrastructure.

The statistics available via HUD show that as of 2014, 261 neighborhood revitalization projects were awarded grants totaling $6 billion through the HOPE VI program. In other words, 75,896 households were relocated, 98,639 public housing units were demolished and 74,223 subsidized rental units were rehabilitated or constructed. Overall, the physical and economic transformation of the areas was considered to be a success. However, there were some aspects for which the program was criticized. The main complaint was that it rather pushed the communities on the path of gentrification instead of preserving the number of affordable housing units and helping all residents return to their rehabilitated homes.

The National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities (NIMC) launched in 2013 at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western University has been researching this neighborhood revitalization initiative for the past 12 years. The team behind it, coordinated by Director & Associate Professor Mark Joseph and Project Manager Taryn Gress, created an online database of more than 300 developments in 146 cities across the United States and gathered hundreds of resources aiming to provide technical assistance and consultation to all those involved in creating and sustaining mixed-income communities.

Multi-Housing News spoke with Gress and Joseph about the ups and downs of the mixed-income approach to public housing.

MHN: What are the benefits and the challenges of having mixed-income residents in the same development?

Taryn Gress, Project Manager, NIMC
Taryn Gress, Project Manager, NIMC

Gress: We’ve found that although the quality of life for residents improves through better housing and safer neighborhoods, this comes with the potential for displacement of existing residents. Sustaining the mixed-income occupancy of the new development can sometimes be challenging due to market conditions so there is mixed success there.

The two shortcomings that we say “keep us up at night” are promoting social cohesion among residents in the development and surrounding neighborhood and promoting economic mobility among the low-income households. The research shows that creating a mixed-income environment alone will not lead to economic mobility for low-income residents and there is a risk of negative social dynamics among residents of different incomes and races without intentionally planning around these issues. 

MHN: Does the majority of public housing residents get to return to a rehabilitated development?

Gress: The simple answer is no, the majority of public housing residents will not return to the rehabilitated development. In our analysis of the HOPE VI program, we found a median return rate of 18.2 percent across the 260 HOPE VI developments.

There are now city-wide initiatives in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that are working on ensuring higher return rates and even looking at 100 percent resident success rather than 100 percent resident return for their public housing transformation. These measures refer to success in the relocation process and the well-being of residents, in addition to where the resident chooses to live. 

MHN: How is the right mix of income and housing usually determined in mixed-income developments?

Gress: The right mix is different for each development and varies depending on the housing market in a city, the public housing authority, the developer, the neighborhood context and the number of public housing units that were occupied prior to redevelopment. There is no ideal ratio and our research on the 260 HOPE VI projects revealed the mix varies widely among projects. 

Joseph: The ratio depends not only on financing availability but also on the goals of those involved: the public housing authority, the developer and the other partners. It also depends on the capacity and grit of these players as well as the community’s capacity and grit. Why capacity? Because mixed-income is very complex for all partners involved. Why grit? Because mixed-income development will take endurance and resilience. The more that your goals are equity and inclusion over basic project completion, the greater the mix you should attempt. The more mix you attempt, the more capacity and grit needed.

A generic ratio that prioritizes equity and inclusion might be 50 percent public housing, 20 percent affordable and 30 percent market-rate, but then you have to adjust that for your neighborhood context and your goals, capacity and grit. We would advise not going below around 30 percent market-rate. If you do, then you’ll need additional intentionality around how to establish the economic and social benefits that can come from the market-rate units. The same goes for public housing. If you go over 30 percent, then you’ll need even more intentionality about how to make sure that the public housing residents have voice and influence and standing in the development.

MHN: What are the factors that can influence this ratio?

Joseph: The ideal ratio depends on several things. First, there is the dynamics and economic vitality of the surrounding neighborhood. The more economically vibrant the surrounding neighborhood, the lower the proportion of market-rate units needed on site and therefore the higher the proportion of public housing and affordable units there can be. The less economically vibrant the surrounding neighborhood, the higher the proportion of market-rate units that will be needed to stabilize the site and the neighborhood.

Then, there is the public housing authority and developer and partners’ willingness to be hands-on and innovative for a sustained (15+ years) period and to establish a strong mixed-income property management culture and capacity. Finally, but of paramount importance, is the financing. Ideally, the financiers should work to meet the community building goals, not the other way around.

MHN: What should developers consider before embarking on a mixed-income project?

Joseph: There are several things they should take into account. Is this community ready for this housing solution? What are the market conditions and drivers? How will my organization manage the creation of equity for all residents? What is my communication strategy for residents who have experienced trauma from the years of social and physical neglect? Am I willing to make a 10-year commitment to the community change process? Why is this work important? How am I measuring success?

MHN: Are there better alternatives to mixed-income housing? How can existing programs be improved?

Gress: There are certainly alternatives to mixed-income housing. We are now looking more closely at inclusionary housing and what we are calling inclusionary development and some would argue for just more affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods. We believe mixed-income housing is still a viable option for deconcentrating poverty and improving the lives of individuals and communities where mixed-income development is available. More intentionality and planning around key challenges are essential.

MHN: How has NIMC been involved in the mixed-income housing approach so far?

Gress: As an applied research center, NIMC has produced two state of the mixed-income field scans, one on social dynamics in mixed-income developments and one on resident services in mixed-income developments. We helped produce the national evaluation report on the first cohort of federal Choice Neighborhoods Initiative sites. We have just helped produce an interim report on the federal Jobs-Plus program to increase employment in public housing developments.

In addition to the Choice Neighborhoods cities, we have conducted mixed-income research and evaluation in Chicago, Akron and San Francisco. We have also provided technical assistance and strategic consultation to mixed-income policymakers and practitioners in a variety of cities including Cleveland, Austin, King County, Milwaukee, Nashville, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma and Tulsa.

Images courtesy of NIMC