Creating opportunities for mixed-income housing developments


Mixed-income housing developments have proven to improve social and economic outcomes for low-income individuals, yet a quick assessment of available options – whether at the community or national level – reveals that such housing options are highly limited. So why are these mixed-income residences so restricted? Though the 2016 Housing and Opportunity through Modernization Act (HOTMA) offers a housing voucher program tied to units rather than households, it’s difficult to incentivize property owners to support such units.

One significant barrier to mixed-income housing comes in the form of property managers who are concerned about conflict between tenants of differing income levels and class backgrounds. In Massachusetts, for example, all housing-authority managed senior citizen housing must also earmark 13.5% of units for disabled people under age 60, with a financial support system similar to that provided through HOTMA. As such, the tenants in these buildings may be higher income older residents and low-income, young people. Because the two tenant groups don’t understand each other, they’re less likely to amicably resolve problems and instead seek outside remediation, creating more work for property managers.

Greater use of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) resources can help minimize conflict between groups by training property managers. The department offers valuable certifications, like Certified Manager of Housing, which train property management professionals in business, finance, and interpersonal skills and prepare them for the difficulties inherent in managing public housing units. Additionally, local workshops and trainings by nonprofits can help property managers learn more about the diverse communities residing in their units.

As a result of interpersonal conflict, many mixed-income housing managers complain about frequent tenant turnover, but one of the great benefits of employing property management support is that it can help ease tensions and reduce that turnover. In fact, according to property managers, 77% of landlords see an increase in rental periods when property managers interface with tenants. Additionally, research by Paul Brophy and Rhonda Smith determined that mixed-income housing can only succeed when, in addition to excellent design and value differentials between market-rate units and low-income units, there is excellent management in place who can provide opportunities and activities for all residents.

Obviously location plays a significant role in the success of mixed-income housing; you’ll only attract higher income tenants if the location is appealing enough that they can move beyond any concerns about class (and, often, race) mixing. This was the theory behind the mixed housing development Urby in New York. Heavily supported by government funding and containing mandated public housing units, the property is in a trendy, rapidly gentrifying area. That location helped draw young, upper-middle-class tenants to the property, but has also created so much conflict that the property is now facing a racial discrimination lawsuit.

The reality quickly revealed by any housing map is that the majority of Americans live in racially homogenous areas and, as such, individuals simply lack the skills to live alongside each other. This is a consequence of decades of redlining, segregation, and white flight, not of any individual housing complex, but tenants need to be prepared to understand and cooperate with neighbors who may not share their culture or history. Great property managers know how to do this through community building events and social justice work, but not all mixed-income properties have managers who are sufficiently prepared to help tenants bridge that gap.

If we hope to see an increase in the number of successful mixed-income, landlords and property owners need to look to the few existing, well-functioning communities. Ethnographic studies of mixed-income housing have shown that success is often determined by the ability to organize around non-class social identities. This works better in mixed-income communities, rather than isolated mixed-income buildings, but the ability of residents to organize around age, religious affiliation, family structure, or other social elements. Additionally, they’re often contingent on access to other shared community spaces, like parks and schools.

Ultimately, as researchers note, communities are malleable – they can be reshaped by the ongoing efforts of tenants and community leaders. Moreover, if the last several years have shown us anything, class is increasingly malleable as well. Recent economic changes have left behind many younger members of the middle class and the growth of the gig economy suggests this won’t change any time soon. Additionally, a more socially conscious younger generation may be better prepared to support and participate in mixed-income housing.

There is no simple solution to the challenges posed by mixed-income housing, and while it is ultimately a social good, that’s only the case when residents can find a way to peaceably co-exist. As it stands, the majority of such complexes offer only forced proximity. What new models need to embrace is mixed-income housing as intentional community. The desire to participate in such a residential model needs to be the primary motivation for participation, rather than an afterthought.


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