A study in Housing Policy Debate, “Rethinking Opportunity in the Siting of Affordable Housing in California,” found that residents’ perspectives on housing affordability, neighborhood conditions, and access to educational and economic opportunity can differ from commonly used measures.
The study’s findings suggest Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) residents’ perceptions of their neighborhoods and opportunities do not necessarily align with standard metrics often used in “opportunity maps.” Residents in the study shared that barriers to opportunity might not be driven by neighborhood factors as much as by larger issues in education and the labor and housing markets.
Efforts have been made in recent years to encourage more affordable housing in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods to improve residents’ economic mobility. Little research, however, has examined LIHTC residents’ neighborhood preferences or their own perceptions of barriers to economic mobility. The author explored resident perspectives through interviews and surveys with 251 residents from 18 LIHTC properties owned and managed by non-profits across California. The properties were sited in neighborhoods that varied in neighborhood quality, but they tended to be in neighborhoods with poverty rates more than 20%.
Many residents learned about their property through a local connection. Nearly one-third of participants had a friend or family member living at the property or another property managed by the same company. Approximately 28% of participants learned about their property simply by walking by it during construction, and another 10% were referred by a social service or non-profit agency. These findings suggest social connections play a key role in steering residents to LIHTC properties, which may result in the clustering of demographics.
Nearly 50% of participants lived in the same ZIP code prior to moving into their current LIHTC home. Seventy percent of residents had moved from a neighborhood with a similar level of poverty, 20% had moved from a lower-poverty neighborhood, and 10% had moved from a higher-poverty neighborhood.
Residents reported significant challenges prior to becoming LIHTC residents. Fifty percent of participants worried about paying for rent prior to moving into their LIHTC home, 40% reported previous food insecurity, 20% moved as the result of an eviction or rent increase, and 20% were previously homeless. Participants commonly cited the affordability and quality of their unit as their primary motivation for moving, eclipsing concerns about neighborhood quality. Another theme that emerged from resident interviews was the lack of social stigma associated with living in a LIHTC home, especially compared to other forms of housing assistance such as public housing or Section 8 assistance.
Participants shared how their LIHTC home afforded them economic stability. Over one-third of participants reported activities typically associated with economic mobility, such as learning English or pursuing a high school or college degree. Participants also, however, highlighted significant barriers to economic security and mobility inherent in the low-wage and low-skill labor market. Participants did not appear to struggle with finding work, but they struggled with low wages, poor benefits, and job insecurity.
Many participants viewed the housing stability provided by their LIHTC rental unit as a buffer to the precariousness of the low-wage, low-skill labor market. Residents also cited issues of educational opportunity that were more closely related to city-wide or school-district-wide issues than to their neighborhood. In terms of economic mobility, respondents tended to focus on these larger issues in the labor market and on education instead of their neighborhoods.
Overall, LIHTC residents’ perceptions of a positive neighborhood environment can differ from empirical measures of neighborhood opportunity. The author makes clear, however, that these findings should not be used to undermine current efforts to promote more affordable housing in neighborhoods of higher opportunity to provide low-income households with more residential choice.
“Rethinking Opportunity in the Siting of Affordable Housing in California: Resident Perspectives on the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit” is available at: https://bit.ly/2QgoAwe