To make cities inclusive for everyone, individual neighborhoods need to welcome people of many incomes. Unfortunately, that’s not always an easy task. A recent panel discussed some obstacles to this important goal, such as how mixing rich and poor can create unexpected conflict.

Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

The promise of mixed income

Mixed-income development aims to combine housing for low-income people with market rate units for higher earners. Part of the idea is that the wealthier neighbors create a higher tax base for an area, and their purchasing power attracts more retail and other services. That means more stores, parks, and jobs for everyone, including low-income neighbors. It’s an attractive idea, for sure.

Plus, recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life — 16%, in Chyn’s study — than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income could show a way out.

There are many examples of mixed-income buildings across DC. One, the Jefferson at Marketplace development, is near where I live in Shaw. Not too long ago, the Kelsey Gardens complex sat on the same block, offering 54 units of Section 8 affordable housing to low-income residents.

When redevelopment planning began, Kelsey Gardens residents were able to use their collective rights under DC’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) law to buy the building and negotiate to preserve their 54 units within the 281-unit final building.

A lot of people feel that this must be the model for how to ensure opportunity for everyone. A city can’t just be diverse in its mix of people across the city if individual neighborhoods are highly segregated.

Photo by the author.

But… combining two extremes can lead to problems

There are challenges, however. Having people who can afford $4,000 rents living in the same hallway as some of the poorest residents can lead to clashes, panelists pointed out at the Urban Land Institute’s recent Real Estate Trends conference.

For example, wealthy residents might call the police on teenage sons and daughters of low-income neighbors as they gather with friends. Adrianne Todman, executive director of the DC Housing Authority, said that she and her office too often have to deal with such conflicts, with both wealthy and low-income neighbors blaming and maneuvering against the other.

At one particular development Todman cited, it took years before the residents “finally accepted that no one was going anywhere,” she said.

Derek Hyra, a professor at American University, said that this is evidence of “micro-segregation.” He has researched how even seemingly diverse areas turn out to be entirely segregated on closer inspection, and have all of the conflicts that come with such segregation.

This also causes “political displacement,” Hyra said, where within buildings, decision-making power about amenities and services is often unbalanced toward higher-income tenants. Neighborhood-wide, newcomers get elected onto Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and through their influence begin to shift the makeup of the neighborhood towards their own interests and incomes.

The panelists don’t think the answer is to give up on mixed-income; rather, there are ways to make it work. Hyra said this kind of growth “must be done in a way that minimizes displacement and encourages meaningful social interactions among race and class.” Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic Development, added that developers need to think about how to “focus on integration and production in balance.”

After a while, people do get to know their neighbors and build relationships. They overcome these obstacles, as Todman pointed out has happened in her agency’s buildings. It’s just that this takes time, and as Hyra mentioned, the building managers can take steps to help this process along.

One possible solution: The middle class

One suggestion from the panel was to incorporate middle-income residents into mixed-income buildings. Rather than simply force two dramatically different income groups together, the interests and needs of the middle would form a bridge between the two. Davis also mentioned how younger and middle income people often place higher value on diversity and are more interested in inclusive communities.

The problem is this mix is just not showing up — at least not yet. The obstacle, the panelists said, is economic. The profit on luxury units makes it worthwhile to build a large building on expensive land, while there are tax subsidies and other government programs pushing low-income units. But that leaves out middle-income households.

Some “affordable housing,” such as that built under DC’s Inclusionary Zoning law, is “workforce” housing, such as for people making 80% of the Area Median Income. This is good and needed, but as many activists point out, IZ units are only useful for the middle class and leave the lowest-income households out entirely.

In the end, because of the our current policies and economics, we get luxury + deeply affordable, or luxury + middle income. Rarely if ever do we see luxury + middle income + deeply affordable.

Cities and counties in our region and around the nation will continue to experiment with the best way to build truly mixed-income communities. The benefits are clear; making it work will take practice and creativity.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.