Cozart and Weiler: Mixed-income communities benefit all

September 10, 2013 

Two studies we’ve read recently have reinforced our belief that healthy and strong communities need people across income levels living near one another. In Chapel Hill and Carrboro, we should be thinking of ways to ensure that our neighbors from all income levels are able to make this town their own.

One recent study conducted by economists at Harvard and UC-Berkeley looked into intergenerational income mobility across the United States. Interestingly, factors like nearby universities, generous tax policies and extreme concentrations of wealth among some members of the community did not measurably affect mobility for poorer individuals.

What did make a difference? Upward mobility was usually higher in areas with mixed-income neighborhoods, where the poor were not geographically isolated from the rest of the community. Strong public transportation, civic engagement and high quality K-12 schools were also factors. It makes sense. If the only place you can afford to live in your region is in an isolated, predominantly poor community far from jobs, you will have fewer opportunities to improve circumstances for yourself and your family.

The data shows that promoting housing policies that allow folks from low-income backgrounds to live closer to vibrant economies, good work opportunities and better schools is one of the best ways to ensure that more people can realize the American dream. This picture of poverty and opportunity has special relevance for North Carolina. Four of the 10 worst metropolitan areas for income mobility in the United States are in the state: Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Fayetteville.

A second study further illuminates the nexus between income diversity and desirable social outcomes. The Chronicle of Philanthropylooked into charitable giving patterns across America. Wealthy people living in mixed-income communities donated to charities at significantly higher rates than comparably wealthy people living in homogeneously affluent enclaves. A psychological effect colloquially known as “out of sight, out of mind” appears to be at work when individuals of significant means are insulated from those in need.

It seems clear that creating socioeconomically diverse communities produces effects that benefit more than just the direct beneficiaries of affordable housing policies or charitable giving. Locally, the Community Home Trust works to achieve these larger synergies by creating permanently affordable housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. CHT is built on the principle that mixed-income communities are strong communities.

With more than 200 affordable homes in its inventory, CHT has allowed a diverse range of individuals, including UNC housekeepers, hospital employees, teachers and more to raise their families close to their work sites in safe and desirable neighborhoods. As noted above, the benefits to the affected families are clear: shorter commutes, access to better schools, increased time for family and so on. But the benefits to the localities and society more broadly are also increasingly clear – thoughtful and robust affordable housing policies contribute to a community that is more caring, economically and civically dynamic, and socially cohesive.

As we learn more about the ingredients for social mobility and broader access to the American dream, we are further convinced that communities rich in social and economic diversity are essential to the favorable outcomes that are good for everyone. It can feel overwhelming at times to identify ways of reversing the trends of growing inequality in American society and declining income mobility. But support for our local affordable housing programs and cultivation of mixed-income neighborhoods is one concrete and clear way of doing so.

Lizzie Cozart and Jonathan Weiler serve on the board of the Community Home Trust.


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