Interview by Tasha Neumeister
Access and choice are key factors in where Americans live. But race, education, and income have a powerful influence as well. These are issues Peter Rosenblatt, assistant professor of Sociology, considers within his research on housing policy and urban inequality. The sociologist has taught at Loyola since 2012 and is the director of the Urban Studies program. In that time, not only has he taught students about the inequalities in housing and housing policies, he has published and presented numerous papers on the topic along with an op-ed piece about restrictive housing policies in Baltimore neighborhoods.
Recently, Rosenblatt and a team of students completed a review of Milwaukee County’s
Security Deposit Assistance program, a unique incentive in the housing choice voucher program aimed at helping low-income families and children gain access to high-achieving schools and better-off neighborhoods. Here, Rosenblatt talks about this study, the constraints families confront in securing stable housing, and where urban housing is heading.
What are some of the trends you’re finding in affordable housing?
Public housing policy has changed a lot in the last two decades. We’ve moved from having large housing projects to tearing those down in lots of cities, including Chicago, and moving more toward housing vouchers—which is now the biggest rental housing subsidy for low-income people. So we’ve been trying to understand how the voucher program works for families. In studying that, it overlaps with studying the conditions of life for poor people: What shapes how they move? What influences where they move?
One of things about the shift to vouchers is it brings a sort of potential, because the voucher moves with the family. You could have families moving to neighborhoods that are less poor, less segregated, or neighborhoods with strong amenities such as good schools. But in practice, the voucher program doesn’t meet that potential. You have a lot of families that cycle between poor and segregated neighborhoods.
The work we’ve done on housing vouchers starting up in Chicago—and more in depth in Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Alabama—has been to try to understand why that is. Why doesn’t the voucher program do a better job of helping families move against the grain of segregation and poverty?
With your 2015 report on the Milwaukee County’s security deposit program as a basis, can you talk about some of the kinds of issues lower income families face in both getting stable housing and staying in these homes?
One of the things we’ve found in talking to low-income families is how much these moves aren’t planned. The moves are shaped outside of people’s control. Sometimes they live in really poor quality units, and are forced to move when their housing falls apart or fails the housing inspection that is part of the voucher program. In one instance, a woman told us about how the roof over her daughter’s bed would sag when it rained and it was about to collapse. Or people would show us really poor wiring in their houses that landlords hadn’t really attended. There was a lot of this unit failure or instability but there was also neighborhood instability—literally violence at their front door steps.
Another factor is the limited amount of time to search for a new place to live if you have a voucher. The national standard is 60 days from the time you get notice to vacate. So there’s a feeling of a time crunch when you don’t have the time to plan. And because of the different ways the programs are structured, it can make it harder to find what limited affordable housing there is in better-off neighborhoods. All of this doesn’t give families enough time to plan.
You talked about the factors that influence an affordable housing search. Do you think people are being driven out of cities to the suburbs?
One thing that is driving people “out” is the wide-spread demolition of public housing projects and the movement to vouchers. Often that means not everyone gets to return to their neighborhood of origin. In our study of Milwaukee’s systems, we looked at a new policy—the security deposit assistance—that provides incentives to low-income families to consider a move to suburban jurisdictions. But generally speaking, the moves families make are between poor and segregated neighborhoods, not to the suburbs. For instance, the majority of African American families in Chicago who use the voucher program are living in poor neighborhoods—over 30 percent of the population are below the federal poverty line. So there isn’t a lot of breaking out to live in more affluent neighborhoods. There are many factors that shape this, including discrimination and limits to how much the voucher can pay. But the search process itself also plays a significant role, especially the forced expediency for the search—where can I find a place to live right away?
What, if anything, are cities doing to break down inequality and create more opportunities for fair housing?
There’s a lot of research on the impact of where you live, especially children’s life chances. There’s strong research that says if you were to take a child from a high-poverty neighborhood and put them in a low-poverty neighborhood, that child is more likely to go to college, more likely to have a higher earning as an adult. Despite all of those challenges growing up poor, if you just change the neighborhood, it can really change the lives of kids.
One of the policy pushes is asking how we can assist families in moving to lower poverty neighborhoods. Milwaukee’s security deposit assistance program was a sort of natural experiment to see if families could be incentivized to move to more affluent suburbs. Can we see what kind of influence that this would have? Behavioral economists say nudges like a security deposit can help families make more optimal choices.
We found that there is some suggestion that this nudge does help but in some sense it’s not enough. Folks were swayed to move but it was actually really hard to lease in the suburbs: What we found is that many landlords in Milwaukee suburbs didn’t want to rent to them, and there is no legal protection against this “source of income” discrimination. There’s that tension around incentivizing these mobility efforts and overcoming the constraints to make them happen.
In looking at urban housing, what does the future hold?
At the end of the Obama administration, there were some changes in the voucher program that would have made better-off neighborhoods more accessible to families. This would have increased access to affordable housing and combated segregation in the voucher program. There was also a proposal to change the pay structure to make the voucher go farther—monetarily—in more affluent areas. At the same time, they proposed reducing landlords’ ability in poor neighborhoods to charge more. And both of those things have been rolled back with the current administration. So in the immediate term it feels like we’re taking a step back from the direction we were heading.
Where do you see transformations in urban housing?
What I have seen is efforts to transform those high rise towers into more mixed-income units. There’s a suggestion that this has reduced poverty in neighborhoods but many people have also been forced to move away. With CURL (Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning) we’re partnering with fair housing agencies, local housing authorities, social services agencies, and other organizations to see if providing more counseling support for families can help impact long-term moves to low-poverty neighborhoods and if that makes a differences in children’s educational outcomes, and adults’ job prospects.