The Dangerous Rhetoric of Escaping to Opportunity
Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 13, 2014
At the Philly Federal Reserve conference last spring, in the "Future of CDCs" discussion our own Harold Simon moderated, Joe Kriesberg, director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said something that really stuck with me:
"Sometimes to attract funders you have to convince people the place you’re in is so terrible, so needy. . . . It can become self fulfilling. . . . That's why I find the whole opportunity mapping thing so counterproductive. It's respected voices declaring vast portions of our country terrible places to live."
In his blog post on the subject, Kriesberg elaborates, noting that places are not universally "good" or "bad"—different kinds of places have dangers and strengths for different people in different life circumstances. (Think of all the queer kids whose lives were saved because they escaped from a "high opportunity" conservative suburb to a poor but welcoming urban neighborhood.) Some high-poverty places, for some period of time, are pretty extremely distressed. Many more are very complicated mixed bags—a place to leave for some, a beloved home to others even while they recognize the place has serious needs. Residents often paint a nuanced picture of even very high-crime, disinvested developments or areas.
Kriesberg's point came to mind again as I was trying to figure out what made me slightly uncomfortable with Alex Polikoff's stirring speech (we published an excerpt here) about the moral imperative to make housing choice vouchers truly enable mobility and choice.
To make his argument for an important set of policy changes (with which I agree), Polikoff regularly refers to America's poor neighborhoods as war zones that are killing everyone in them. He asks why we are not removing children from harm's way. He speaks of any place in the country that is poor as first and foremost a place to be escaped from.
That is a problem, and here's why:
Advocates focused on different parts of the issue all agree (repeatedly) that really you need both—fair housing choice and improvement of conditions in the places where many poor people live (conditions, as Polikoff points out in his speech, that are the result of intentional, institutional discrimination and neglect, not the doing of the people who live there).
But despite that, it seems that the arguments for advancing housing mobility seem to frequently rest on the demonizing of any place that has a lot of poor people and/or people of color living there. This reinforces—unintentionally, and ironically for a movement based in civil rights work—the scary images that the broader society harbors about poor communities of color. It implies that most of the people in these neighborhoods are a problem, and we need to rescue the few who are not.
I fear that if we allow these implications to go unchallenged, they will make it much more difficult to accomplish the other two-thirds of the equation for achieving housing justice and healthy neighborhoods for everyone—i.e., doing any of the myriad of concrete things that can be done to improve conditions for folks living in those areas and making sure residents get to stay in the neighborhoods that do become more popular. It implies that the group of people is the problem, instead of specific, and addressable, forces and policies affecting them—the bus depot causing the asthma, a dehumanizing stop and frisk policy, insurance or appraisal redlining, slumlords, a minimum wage that is losing its purchasing power, etc.
As Kriesberg notes, this kind of good place/bad place language also represents a huge backward step from the longstanding attempt to reframe discussions of disinvested places in terms of their assets rather than their deficits. It implies that those who stay in these neighborhoods are all either saints or victims.
When changing conditions in a distressed area is dismissed as something that takes too long to wait for, as mobility advocates often do, it can come across as "don't bother with these places." In fact, it can read as "for that matter, don't bother with most of these people"—because dispersing every one of the millions of people living in high-poverty areas into "high-opportunity" areas is more impractical than changing all the conditions under which they currently live. (And changing those conditions is in fact possible—and doesn't necessarily require changing the income mix.)
The flip side of that coin is that we shouldn't have to paint extreme pictures of hellholes we're trying to rescue people from to make the case for integration, mobility, and fair housing. In fact, doing so comes to make it look more like a matter of asking for charity—a permanent Fresh Air Fund, if you will—than what it is: a matter of fairness, decency, redress of historical discrimination, and equal treatment under law. (And incidentally also stronger and more sustainable regions, if you get rid of the jobs/housing spatial mismatch that comes from extreme segregation.)
There's a danger, and a disrespect, in assuming the fair housing/mobility cause (or for that matter the larger community development cause) needs to rely on these portraits of "war zones" to win—the danger is that we reinforce the idea that groups of people of color and/or the poor living together creates bad living environments and thus actually increase the resistance to opening communities to them.
The disrespect is to suggest that current residents of lower income majority African-American neighborhoods should only have the chance to move where they want to because they have something unremittingly dreadful to flee.
Let's not unintentionally add to the problem we're trying to solve.
(Photo: CC BY-NC-ND, Culture:Subculture, 2006 protest against demolition of New Orleans public housing. "In this image, Stephanie, a public housing resident speaks aloud to the unequal protections affecting lower-income residents of New Orleans public housing, insisting that if her neighborhood is being demolished and rebuilt as mixed-income housing, then so should the neighborhoods of the affluent and upper-middle class.")
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Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.