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The Street Where You Live Leads to a Better Chance for Success

June 25, 2015

David Leonardt’s Upshot column last Thursday reported on several reports that underscored the importance of place.. and highlighted the shameful reality that black middle class families live in markedly poorer neighborhoods than white middle class families. This resonated with me based on my experiences as a young adult in Philadelphia where banks, realtors, and politicians conspired to “red-line” certain neighborhoods,  practice that led to the phenomenon called “block-busting”,  practice that took place subtly and explicitly in many northern cities.

I witnessed this block-busting first hand when I rented an apartment in West Philadelphia in the late 1960s in a neighborhood that was bordered on one side by a railroad line and on the other by the University of Pennsylvania. The homes on the “Penn Side” of the rail line were becoming gentrified as the University City neighborhood moved slowly and inexorably westward. The homes on the “other side” of the tracks, however, were slowly deteriorating. One of my many part-time jobs in college was working for Philadelphia Gas, doing door-to-door canvassing in the neighborhood on “the other side of the tracks”. That neighborhood was targeted by Philadelphia Gas because many “new residents” were moving in due to “turnover” in houses because “older people” were moving to the suburbs. After spending a week knocking on doors it became evident to me that every “new resident” was black. Some of the blacks were clearly middle class: their living rooms looked like the one in my suburban home and they were interested in doing everything they could to improve the new home they purchased. Other blacks, though, were clearly struggling. I recall one family in particular who had spent every dollar they had on their home. They had hardly any furniture and could barely afford their electricity let alone gas heat conversions. The man who answered the door was clearly exhausted from working, but he told me he was proud that he had put together enough money to buy the home and hoped someday he’d have the furniture to fill it and maybe someday he’d be able to get gas heat. The few white residents who answered the door did so cautiously: they looked through the curtains to see who I was and peered through a cracked door. They were not interested in any home improvements because like their former neighbors they were looking to move elsewhere.

Fast forward fifty years and you have the reality described in Leonardt’s article: “the typical middle-income black family lives in a neighborhood with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family.” And where you live matters greatly in terms of the schools you attend and the quality of your life. As Leonardt notes at the end of this piece, which is full of data from many carefully researched reports, improving the quality of housing is the best way to address poverty… but it is not a policy that is likely to be pursued any time soon:

Housing developments that allow low-income families to move into higher-income neighborhoods appear to be a cost-effective antipoverty strategy. Vouchers that help lower-income families move into better neighborhoods may be even more so.

Partly inspired by the new research, federal housing officials, including Julian Castro, the housing secretary, have recently shown more interest in varying the value of vouchers to encourage families to move to better neighborhoods. Current policy — both federal and local, on both vouchers and taxes — goes in the opposite direction, creating incentives to put up buildings in worse neighborhoods and for poor families to remain there.

The notion that your neighborhood matters is almost a cliché. But it’s also true — and yet much of the nation’s housing policy effectively pretends otherwise.

Let me conclude this post by concluding my anecdote about life in Philadelphia. Two years after knocking on doors in the neighborhood on “the other side of the tracks” I was teaching in a junior high school in that same neighborhood. The value of the houses had declined and many of the homes were rented. The school was overcrowded and among the worst in the city in terms of its standardized test scores (yes… even in the early 1970s they ranked schools by test scores). As I patrolled the halls and bathrooms to ensure that fights did not break out I often wondered how the homeowners I visited two years earlier felt about their neighborhood.

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