How to make mixed-income housing work for the poor

Mixed-income housing is not a failure, the researchers note. But housing is only one piece of the puzzle. (Credit: Mauricio Balvanera/Flickr)

Mixed-income neighborhoods can help improve safety and well-being for low-income residents, but they fail to offer true upward mobility, a new paper suggests.

Simply housing struggling residents near more successful ones is not enough to help public housing residents move out of poverty, says James Fraser, associate professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University.


The policy of integrating subsidized housing units with market-rate units gained popularity in the 1990s in the US. It derived from the idea that the problems of poverty become exacerbated when poverty affects the whole neighborhood, depriving entire communities of meaningful connections to employers and social institutions.

Mixed-income housing was implemented with the intention that middle-class residents would bring those connections to communities that lacked them.

The idea was that an unemployed person would have a better chance of finding a job if he or she knew someone else who had one. Or a middle-class homeowner might feel more empowered than a poorer renter to press the police or local government about a quality-of-life issue that affects the whole neighborhood.

 Four key areas

Fraser and postdoctoral fellow Joshua Bazuin identified four key areas that could make mixed-income housing more useful to low-income residents:

  • Neighborhood life: Low-income and middle-income neighbors usually don’t interact enough for the poor to benefit from their more affluent neighbors’ social clout, Fraser says. In fact, there are often clashes of culture and class. Incorporating shared amenities like a community garden or café into these communities can bring people together in a positive way. An inclusive, well-supported neighborhood association could promote greater solidarity.
  • Housing: Critics of mixed-income housing note that while middle-income newcomers reap the benefits of investing in an up-and-coming neighborhood, low-income residents are rarely able to earn enough to participate in the real estate market, even if they are employed. “While homeownership tends to be the primary source people have for gaining wealth,” Fraser says, “it is oftentimes simply out of reach without targeted efforts to get people prepared.” Mixed-income housing plans should include enough affordable housing units and implement a variety of financial policies to help low-income residents become homeowners, too.
  • Social services: Low-income residents often face basic logistical barriers to employment like lack of childcare or transportation. Though it is difficult to address transportation issues with a housing plan, the researchers note that childcare could be accommodated simply by establishing a neighborhood childcare co-op.
  • Employment: Mixed-income housing alone does not connect low-income residents to the kind of well-paying jobs that would help them move out of poverty. Future public housing schemes need more than just a job center. “There are a wide range of challenges people have to maintaining employment that need to be addressed over time,” Fraser says. An intensive, long-term job employment program in Chicago is an example of the level of support required to be effective. The program does not simply train job seekers and place them, it provides ongoing contact and follow-up after placement to help its clients succeed at their jobs.

Mixed-income housing is not a failure, the researchers note. Low-income residents of these neighborhoods do benefit from living in buildings that are better maintained and more energy efficient than older housing units, and mixed-income neighborhoods do tend to be safer. But housing is only one piece of the puzzle.

The paper was prepared for Cityscape, the primary publication of the US Department of Human and Urban Development.

Source: Vanderbilt University