Policy Blog


Residential Mobility and Narratives of Neighborhood Violence

By Eva Rosen

Poor families experience high residential instability, yet, by and large, residents of low income, high-crime neighborhoods stay put much of the time. And when they do move, they are likely to move laterally to a similarly disadvantaged place. Why do people experience this “horizontal immobility,” moving to, churning between, or staying within disadvantaged environments? While recent scholarship highlights the perils of involuntary displacement and residential instability, not all moves experienced by low-income families are involuntary. Despite tremendous constraints on residential choice—including financial resources, discrimination, and low-quality housing stock—poor residents perceive themselves as making active decisions about when and where to move. In a recent article in the American Sociological Review, I consider the way in which violent neighborhood contexts shape how residents think about where to live.

The concept of “narratives”—the stories people tell about safety in their neighborhoods—helps explain why families remain and move within disadvantaged areas.

In order to understand how high crime neighborhoods affect residential outcomes, I argue that we must look to the residents themselves. The concept of “narratives”—the stories people tell about safety in their neighborhoods—helps explain why families remain and move within disadvantaged areas. Previous research suggests that residential decisions are motivated by a perpetual desire to move “up” to the “best” homes and neighborhoods families can afford. In the ASR article, I show that while poor families in crime-ridden neighborhoods strongly value neighborhood amenities such as good schools and job opportunities, they face a set of challenges preventing them from accessing the kinds of neighborhoods that can offer these amenities. For these families, the residential striving narrative of moving “up” to a bigger house or a better neighborhood is less pertinent than the more immediate need to establish a sense of safety and belonging.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with 50 renters in a low-income, high-crime Baltimore neighborhood, I focus on the cases of four families in depth. Here, as in other poor and violent neighborhoods, residents craft narratives to make sense of how to live and survive in their communities despite the perils they face. These stories are critical to making their living situation sustainable, enabling families to make sense of staying put when they don’t have other options.Buthcer's Hill, Baltimore

These malleable narratives adapt and expand to accommodate new information and experiences, but at times, encounters with crime and violent events strain their coherence. The renters I observed encountered moments where their narratives stopped working and revealed themselves for the stories they were—both to me as an observer and to the individuals themselves. This breakdown is what I call narrative rupture. For example, Raven, who believed her social safety net would protect her, learned the limits of this approach when her home was invaded by a stranger and her neighbors did nothing to stop it. Tina, who withdrew from social interaction to protect herself and her daughter, found that when a fight broke out in her hallway, she did not have the means to escape without literally shutting herself within the confines of her apartment. And Vivian, who believed that violence in the neighborhood was rare if she played her cards right, was confronted with an undeniable moment of truth when her husband was shot during a mugging.

In these instants, families were faced with irrefutable evidence contradicting the stories that had helped them manage their daily existence in the neighborhood until then. In light of these contradictions, residents were motivated to action when they had previously been inert. However, the resulting moves are often horizontal, in part because past residential experiences shape how residents imagine what is possible in ways that preclude more ambitious moves. The act of moving after a narrative rupture—even when residents do not move far—allows them to restore a narrative of safety. A new address—though not always a “better” one—can solve problems that some do not have the resources to solve by any other means.

These findings have implications for the way we understand the reproduction of poverty. While urban scholarship has typically conceived of residential preferences as rooted in the individual, there is reason to believe that the way residents think about these choices may be shaped by the neighborhood contexts in which they already reside. In this way, the reasons people stay and churn within disadvantaged neighborhoods are themselves a product of living and learning to survive in such environments. Thus, neighborhood traits such as violence can shape narratives that lead to cycling into, out of, and between disadvantaged areas. This is one explanation for why growing up in a poor environment would make it more likely for a person to end up in a similar one as an adult.

The power of narrative should in no way diminish our appreciation for the potency of structural forces in shaping where and when families move. Real and significant constraints—including financial limitations, the logistics of moving, housing discrimination, and landlord practices—perpetuate instability by inhibiting poor households’ ability to move to a suitable home. But structural constraints do more than just physically force people to move. They can temporarily change how people think and make decisions—not just constraining, but also defining the range of residential possibilities.

While narratives show how years of learning to live in a disadvantaged neighborhood context shapes the way people think about the choices they have, there is also evidence that narratives are dynamic, malleable, and capable of changing quickly with new information and experiences. It is therefore crucial for housing policies to focus on providing residents the information and resources they need to make informed decisions.

Policies targeting barriers to housing mobility—for example, through housing counseling, security deposit assistance, and transportation to visit available homes—would help families learn about and access a wider array of options. This could have an important and successful impact on the residential outcomes of the urban poor. This is especially relevant in the context of U.S. housing policy, which relies predominantly on a mobility model to provide poor families with vouchers to move out of poor neighborhoods into homes of their choosing.

While understanding how neighborhood narratives affect residential outcomes highlights some of the subtler ways in which violence affects residents, policy should not solely be focused on removing barriers to mobility. Simply emptying out disadvantaged neighborhoods is neither feasible, nor does it actually solve the problems of crime, discrimination, entrenched poverty, and poor-quality housing. In an era when housing subsidies and social aid are under increasing threat, this research is a reminder of the importance of not neglecting our cities’ poorest neighborhoods and the people who live within them.

Eva Rosen is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University

Understanding Landlord Behaviors: A Student’s Perspective on Research in Baltimore

by Christina Selby

Dr. Meredith Greif received an award from the 21st Century Cities Initiative’s inaugural seed grants to collaborate with Project PLASE, an organization in Baltimore City that provides housing for stigmatized homeless individuals, on a project entitled How Landlords House the Homeless. Project PLASE is one of many organizations in Baltimore and across the country that provides housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program, Shelter Plus Care, which is now part of the Continuum of Care programs. This program is important because it connects homeless individuals with physical or mental disabilities to private market housing and pays either a portion or the entirety of their rent. The program also pairs each participant with a case manager, who checks up on them, connects them with any support they need, and ensures they are taking care of themselves and their unit. According to the HUD, the stock of Shelter Plus Care housing in Baltimore City primarily shelters those with chronic substance abuse issues and those who are severely mentally ill. These individuals are traditionally discriminated against in the private market and have a particularly hard time finding housing. They also are more likely to be low-income. Thus, this particular Continuum of Care program is helping tackle problems of homelessness and housing insecurity for many vulnerable populations.

Landlords who owned more properties, had perceived greater financial security, and were satisfied with case management reported that they were more likely to continue with the program and invest further in it

Shelter Plus Care has been around for several decades, but most research on subsidized housing has focused on Section 8, a larger program implemented in the 1970s that subsidizes housing for lower income residents. In addition, other research has centered on the experiences of tenants in these programs. Thus, this research project provides a unique perspective, in that it focuses primarily on the experiences of the private market landlords who provide the housing in this understudied program, as opposed to program participants (tenants). Dr. Greif has recognized that these landlords play an essential role in this government program and without them the program would not be sustainable. They are the ones actually providing the housing and thus it is essential to understand their perspectives and practices, including why they choose to participate in the program, the quality and location of housing they are providing, and how they interact with their tenants. I have had the amazing opportunity to be her research assistant and conduct the research alongside her. We uncovered that landlords varied greatly in their approach to housing their formerly homeless tenants. Many expressed good intentions to provide decent housing, but some were more likely than others to provide housing in safe, resource-rich neighborhoods. Further, landlords who owned more properties, had perceived greater financial security, and were satisfied with case management reported that they were more likely to continue with the program and invest further in it. These findings have implications for how to recruit and maintain landlords who provide stable, supportive housing to some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable residents.

The research process consists of in-depth interviews, in which we ask landlords who provide supportive housing about a wide variety of topics through open-ended questions. These questions range in topic, from their background and how they first became landlords, to their actual business practices and views of the Shelter Plus Care program, and their future plans for working with it. We meet these landlords where it is most convenient for them, whether it be in their homes, properties, or a coffee shop they frequent. They have given us significant insight into the world of Shelter Plus Care – both the great parts of the program and areas for improvements. We learned what attracts landlords to this program in the first place, what kind of housing they are providing their tenants, and how they handle any problems or concerns. Information gleaned from our analysis of this data will culminate in a paper and report on recommendations about how to best deliver stable, supportive housing for Baltimore residents who have been homeless and face serious obstacles to housing security.

In the fall of 2015, I took Dr. Greif’s class, Housing and Homelessness in the United States. I entered the class with an interest in housing policy and left with a vast knowledge of housing programs, problems facing the homeless, and innovations taking place across the country to meet housing needs. This class sparked a desire for me to learn even more and stay engaged in housing issues. Thus, it was a perfect fit when Dr. Greif mentioned that she was starting this project. This research has shown me what a housing program really looks like on the ground and how these policies rely on the private sector. More generally, I have developed a confidence in myself and a genuine interest in social policy research. I had never really considered doing research myself, but working on this project has shown me that research is really exciting, allows you to meet a lot of interesting people, and uncover the experiences of a whole group. It also has been a great experience for me to work in and around Baltimore. I have really gotten to know and understand the city in a new way by traveling to different neighborhoods and speaking to landlords who are often city residents themselves.
Overall, this research will contribute to the growing dialogue on how best to improve our nation’s housing programs and ensure that housing remains available, affordable, and beneficial for vulnerable tenants, especially in Baltimore City.

Christina Selby is a junior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Sociology and Political Science

Hearing Their Voices: Our Perspective

By Lydia Dubois and Maleka Walker

As students of social policy at Johns Hopkins, we often discuss what it means to live in a city like Baltimore. We read research reports, books, and current news articles about overlooked populations and the policies that affect them, but we rarely have opportunities to hear from community members firsthand. In planning and attending the 21st Century Cities Initiative’s “Hearing Their Voices” forum, we had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in helping convene an array of community stakeholders to discuss current events and policies. On April 20th, we heard from this diverse set of politicians (notably, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore City Council President), community organizers, professors, police officers, organization leaders, and young people.

Held near the two-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and ensuing civil unrest in Baltimore, the event’s conversations addressed the importance of listening to Baltimore’s young people and adolescents. The national, and mostly negative, media attention on Baltimore from two years ago is long gone (save for fly-in, anniversary coverage of the unrest), but one of the lasting legacies of the tragic events from April 2015 is a recognition of the role young people should play in creating policies that support their own development and desires for their own community.

Change-making conversations can be uncomfortable. Through the windows of the historic American Brewery building, where speakers discussed research and policy affecting the surrounding community, we could see the vacancies of East Baltimore we’d observed and documented through class fieldwork the day before. As Hopkins students studying the sociology of the city and learning about social policy, we often wonder how we can best study the root causes of inequality in the city and use this information to enact change. Seeking to gain education and credentials from a university that has a long and complicated relationship with Baltimore, we appreciate events such as “Hearing Their Voices” because they are honest, they welcome differing viewpoints, and they field questions and concerns. They’re starts, but not solutions in themselves.

We are students of Hopkins and students of Baltimore. Currently enrolled in a class titled “Baltimore as an Urban Laboratory,” we’ve performed fieldwork, used ArcGIS mapping software, read studies and firsthand accounts, and participated in class discussions on divestment and displacement in East Baltimore. The event presented us with a unique opportunity to expand our sources of information and to hear from Baltimore natives about their wishes for their city.

As Dr. Stefanie DeLuca shared her research findings that emphasized the resiliency of Baltimore youth, we were inspired by the personal narrative that Randall, a Baltimore native whose story was featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, shared to begin the evening. He spoke of his own difficulties growing up in Baltimore and continuing to provide for his family despite barriers such as lack of transportation and scheduling demands at work. Kirsten Allen, community organizer and lead visionary of Meraki Community Uplift, highlighted the unifying possibilities of grassroots community development. Kareem, another young person featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, offered a unique perspective on the city, and shared some common desires for the city’s development, such as recreational centers. All respondents shared a common thread: a strong identification and love for their city.

Their stories emphasized that we must ensure that we are not only hearing the voices of youth, but also acknowledging and supporting their visions. How do we ensure their visions for change are supported? How do we support youth to trust their own voices in enacting policies?

A current opportunity presents itself through Baltimore City Council’s new $12 million Children and Youth Fund, which will be one of the largest individual grant-makers for youth programming in the city. Co-chair of the Youth Fund’s community task force, Adam Jackson, spoke about the need for grant-makers to concentrate funding to smaller community organizations, allowing them to build their own capacities. This was one of the major themes of the evening: taking what we learn about Baltimore’s concerns and needs and empowering communities to facilitate their own growth and development.

Another speaker, Lieutenant Steve Olson of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), spoke of creating positive relationships between the police and youth of Baltimore. The BPD’s fraught relationship with the community and youth in particular was one of the enduring themes of April 2015. Lt. Olson emphasized that it starts with police officers recognizing those they protect and serve as people, as regular kids, instead of a type of offender, juveniles. Referencing his work with the Inner Harbor Project, which employs youth as leaders, ambassadors, and mediators to assess their community’s needs and assist in developing models of respect between youth and officers, Lt. Olson shared why he considers himself “the luckiest cop in the world.” Involvement with the organization assists Lt. Olson, and like-minded members of law enforcement, in forming meaningful relationships with youth and modeling effective community policing strategies.

The event was well-attended by young people, including high school students, from across the city. However, one concern addressed by an audience member was the lack of presence of young people from some of the city’s lower-performing high schools. How do we convene everyone effectively? Does hosting an event in East Baltimore fully engage the community? At the moment the question was raised, the American Brewery, located in the heart of East Baltimore, felt secluded. Inside its walls, as we heard discussions of the future of the Children and Youth Fund, and the efforts to secure successful grant partnerships through initiatives such as One Baltimore For Jobs, we wondered about the presence of youth voices in these original conversations.

The Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Task Force, comprised of 39 members including students, nonprofit leaders, and community advocates, gives youth the opportunity to be involved in these discussions. The task force meetings, open to the public, focus on grant-making criteria and methods to ensure that fund money is allocated to best fit the needs of the city. A main focus of the task force is to reach a consensus on how the money can best be used to “strengthen community-based organizations and intermediaries that reflect the city’s demographic makeup and have successful histories working and partnering with the communities they serve.”

As the task force is halfway through its planning process, we have high hopes for it to focus funding on community organizations and listen to youth voices in planning for fund allocation. The sixth meeting to discuss the future of the fund will convene on May 2nd, 2017. Students, community organizers, and anyone who wishes to lend a voice are urged to attend. Meeting details can be found here. We hope to see you there.

As interns with 21CC involved in the event planning process, we were able to see the original ideas for the discussions come to life, determined by speakers’ personal experiences and roles in the Baltimore community. Danielle Torain, Senior Consultant at Frontline Solutions, formerly the Program Coordinator for the One Baltimore for Jobs grant, highlighted that forums like these are a start, but not an end. We agree. In order to move forward, we must reach out to youth who lack institutional support to participate in these conversations. These conversations can be uncomfortable, forcing us to confront the times youth voices weren’t adequately heard or utilized to create change.

Among us and our peers are future policy analysts, changemakers, and activists. “Hearing Their Voices” urges us to continue to educate ourselves about Baltimore while learning how to listen to the needs of the community. Our hope for the new Children and Youth Fund is that the organizations it funds reflect youth’s wishes for their city, and that policymakers both hear, and listen to youth voices.

Lydia Dubois is a junior from New York City majoring in Sociology with a minor in Social Policy. Maleka Walker is a sophomore from Atlanta majoring in Public Health with a minor in Social Policy.

The True “American Carnage:” Trump’s HUD Budget

by Eva Rosen & Philip Garboden

President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 slashes up to $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For those of us who have spent years debating the pros and cons of HUD programs, the across-the-board cuts seem surprisingly non-ideological, save for the top-level goals of smaller government and a weaker safety net. The proposed cuts will affect both sides of one of the most passionate housing policy debates: public housing and voucher programs designed to replace public housing.

There is still uncertainty and even fewer details as to the size and scope of the proposed cuts as Congress has yet to weigh in. But taken at face value, the President’s proposal is likely to be devastating for the many Americans already struggling to afford housing. This moment of uncertainty provides an opportunity to step back from the sometimes-vitriolic debate over policy alternatives to consider a more fundamental issue: the dire and ever increasing need for subsidized housing of any kind.

The Affordability Crisis

Trump’s proposed cuts come at a time when cities are experiencing a crisis of affordability. Housing today is often simply too expensive for people to afford. In Baltimore for example, 57 percent of all renters are “rent burdened,” meaning that they pay over 30 percent of their income in rent. Sending so much of your earnings to your landlord means having less money to spend on essentials like food, transportation, and childcare.

This problem is not limited to the poor. While individuals below the poverty line have struggled for decades to afford their housing, more and more working and middle class renters are also becoming burdened. For example, in 1998, 44 percent of Baltimore renters earning between $20,000 and $40,000 per year were rent burdened. By 2013, this number had jumped to over 70 percent. While researchers disagree on whether rents have outpaced income or incomes have lagged behind rents, the reality is that Trump’s cuts are being proposed at a time when the need for housing assistance is the highest it’s been for decades.

Public Housing and Housing Vouchers

No matter what else they do or do not accomplish, two of the biggest housing assistance programs in the U.S.—public housing and vouchers—directly and tangibly address the affordability crisis for poor renters fortunate enough to receive them.

Public housing was created with the intent to alleviate slum conditions of overcrowding and hazardous housing. But by the 1990s, much of it was falling apart due to a lack of funding and poor maintenance. Troubled developments became notorious for concentrating poor families in segregated, disadvantaged neighborhoods with high unemployment, high crime, and failing schools.

In the 1990s, HUD began shifting away from the high-rise towers of public housing to housing vouchers, also known as Section 8, where families pay 30 percent of their income in rent and use their voucher in any affordable unit in the private market. While in the late 1980s Baltimore had 18,000 units of public housing, today there are just 10,000. During the same period, the number of vouchers has gone from 4,000 to 14,000.

Nonetheless, public housing is an essential component of the subsidized housing stock. Properly designed, appropriately sited, professionally managed, and adequately funded public housing can succeed, particularly for the elderly and those with disabilities for whom market-based solutions are few and far between. Even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the housing stability and income security provided by public housing can have incredibly positive effects when the alternative is a life of residential instability and eviction.

Vouchers can be an essential tool to help families move out of distressed neighborhoods and into those with good schools near higher paying jobs. We know that those who are lucky enough to receive aid see tremendous benefits. For one, vouchers decrease homelessness. One man who we got to know in the course of our research, a 55-year-old man with HIV, finally got off the voucher waiting list and now has a safe place to live instead of taking shelter under a bridge. A woman who we met got a voucher, moved into a stable home, and was able to regain custody of her children. Other families report simply being able to put food on the table and make healthier meals. And vouchers can help families move to better neighborhoods where there are good schools for their children, and increased job opportunities. We know that the neighborhood a person lives in has profound effects on their education, employment, and lifetime earnings.

But neither form of housing assistance comes close to meeting the demand – only about one in four qualified renters actually benefits from a housing subsidy nationwide. Analyses suggest that the proposed cuts in the Trump budget plan would slash funding for public housing by 30 percent, meaning huge reductions in maintenance budgets. Here in Baltimore, the legacy of previous budget cuts has resulted in a public housing stock plagued with maintenance backlogs, cockroach and bedbug infestations, rampant rodent problems, mold, lead paint, and broken elevators that leave elderly and disabled residents with long waits just to get down the stairs to go to the grocery store or the doctor. Cutting budgets for routine maintenance ends up costing more in the long run. But even more importantly, these problems pose real health dangers for residents. There is a certain cruelty in cutting maintenance funds for a program that houses some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Public housing is a program that experts agree is desperately in need of more money for maintenance, not less.

When it comes to cutting vouchers, estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 voucher households could lose their subsidies under Trump’s proposal. Recipients of housing vouchers are a vulnerable population too, facing severe adversity: 43 percent have children, 28 percent have a disability, and 87 percent have incomes under $20,000 a year.

We can’t keep doing more with less

Given these vulnerabilities, any cuts that reduce the number of subsidized units are likely to produce spikes in homelessness. We now have clear evidence that homelessness is above all a problem of affordability and that giving families housing vouchers successfully keeps them off the streets.

Homelessness has declined nationally about 15 percent in recent years, from around 650,000 homeless people on a given night in 2007 to 550,000 in 2016. This reduction is remarkable given the housing collapse during this time period. This positive trend is attributed in part to a rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing strategy adopted by the Obama Administration, which included increased funding for homelessness assistance for vulnerable populations.

Trump’s cuts risk reversing the trends. Baltimore—where in 2015 there were nearly 2,800 homeless people on a given night—is sure to be affected, as are cities like Los Angeles and New York, where one in five people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. live.

In the absence of federal funding, the burden will be shifted to states and local governments to fill in the gaps. In Baltimore, as in other cities, voters have approved the creation of an Affordable Housing Trust, although city action is still needed to identify a source of funding. In the past, states and local governments have shown remarkable resiliency in the face of federal cutbacks, nimbly preserving much of the subsidized stock during the Reagan years. But you can only make soup with the same bone so many times before you’re just eating hot water. With tightening budgets across the board, these programs will be unable to help the increasing number of citizens who desperately need them.

Public housing and vouchers have their strengths and weaknesses. But this budget proposal moves the conversation away from how to make these policies work better for poor Americans, and towards the more straightforward question: How can we keep poor Americans off the streets if we so drastically slash funding for subsidized housing?

Eva Rosen is a postdoctoral fellow with 21CC. Philip Garboden is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins.