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The Housing Gap That Won't Die

For black children in subsidized housing, their neighborhoods remain starkly separate and unequal.

Children play at the opening of a food bank at a public housing project in Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Between the 1970s and the 2000s, disparities between black and white children living in subsidized housing disappeared. Well, mostly.

With respect to neighborhood quality—a key determinant of economic mobility and longevity—things haven’t changed much. Black children are still relegated to separate and unequal areas: They’re nine times more likely than their white counterparts to live in segregated, low-opportunity neighborhoods, a new study by Sandra J. Newman and Scott Holupka at Johns Hopkins University, finds.

In the study, researchers matched government records on black and white families in three living situations—public housing, government-subsidized units in privately owned multifamily buildings, and market rate units paid for by Section 8 vouchers—with information from a long-running household survey. The good news from their findings: In the 2000s, black and white households were equally likely to receive each type of housing assistance. That’s a huge change from 1970s and 1980s, when black families were around twice as likely to live in shoddily-maintained, warehouse-like public housing. The physical standards and management quality of the HUD-funded properties both groups lived in was also comparable in the 2000s.

“Where we once saw sharp disparities between blacks and whites … we see that those disparities have been wiped out—they don’t exist anymore,” Newman says. That parity has been reached, in part, because of the decreased reliance on public housing and the increased emphasis on housing vouchers, the researchers note.

But neighborhood quality remains a major issue. In the 2000s, a striking 34 percent of black families who moved into subsidized housing lived in neighborhoods that had high poverty, low property values, and large concentration of minority residents. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of white households lived in such areas.

This disparity has been hard to stamp out for a number of reasons. First, Section 8 vouchers cover “moderately priced” apartments, and there are not nearly enough of those in most parts of the country. The ones that exist are often concentrated in areas that aren’t safe and don’t have great jobs, good schools, or green spaces nearby. Proposals to construct cheaper rentals in nicer neighborhoods are usually met with vehement oppositioneven from renters in liberal cities who stand to gain from a greater supply.

“[The problem] intersects with much broader questions,” Holupka says. “How do our housing markets and zoning rules work? Where do we allow rental housing to be built? Where do we allow lower-cost housing to be built?”

Second, an increasing dependence on vouchers means that households seeking housing have to interact more and more with landlords in the private market, who continue to discriminate against minority renters. And finally, black households in inner-city neighborhoods usually apply for housing assistance at the nearest Public Housing Agency (PHA), and these organizations usually set them up within their area of operation. That means the applicants don’t end up very far from where they lived before. “These jurisdictions are very fragmented; There’s no particular incentive for the authorities to cooperate to each other,” Newman says. “And for the suburban housing authorities, there’s pressure to not enter into these kinds of arrangements.”

Over half of the kids in assisted housing in the 2000s were black, so the study’s finding is particularly concerning. To test the effect of the neighborhood on these kids, the researchers looked into their education levels, employment a few years later—when they were between the ages of 20 and 26.  

Among the black children, those who lived in nicer areas fared better than their peers in the bad neighborhoods. And when the researchers compared the black and white kids, too, they observed a stark difference. But it vanished when family background—the education levels, incomes, and marital status of the parents—was taken into account. “Family characteristics really overwhelm everything else, so once we control for that, we don’t see any statistically significant differences anymore,” Holupka says.

But while it may seem like it, that second finding doesn’t nullify the importance of living in a good neighborhood—it actually supports it. Research has affirmed how important the socioeconomic status of the parents is to a child’s academic and economic prospects. And the areas that African Americans have been forced to live in through generations of discriminatory policies and practices have played a huge role in perpetuating intergenerational poverty within this group. “Our struggle over decades [to] provide greater equality of education, access to employment … so that we’re leveling the playing field,” Newman says. “The issue of neighborhood quality is important as a potential lever to smooth those differences between the family background of blacks and whites.”

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.