Social Networks’ Influence on Housing Decisions Can Perpetuate Segregation

A study published in Cityscape titled “Housing Decisions Among Low-Income Hispanic Households in Chicago” by Laura Carrillo, Mary Pattillo, Erin Hardy, and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia finds that residential moves of their study’s participants – low income Hispanic households without housing assistance – were often unanticipated and constrained by financial, transportation, and immigration status considerations. Social networks were the most influential factor in deciding where to move, resulting in moves of a short distance that did not alter racial or class segregation.

Federal housing policies are attempting to alleviate the concentration of racial minorities in low income neighborhoods. The 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing final rule (See Memo, 7/13/15) requires local governments to take proactive steps to undo historic patterns of segregation and discrimination and to ensure households have access to areas of opportunity. Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) are intended to provide low income renters the option of moving to higher opportunity neighborhoods.

These interventions, however, serve a small proportion of low income households because most people who qualify for housing assistance do not receive it. The Hispanic population particularly lacks housing assistance. The HCV program serves about 36% of income-eligible black renter households with children but only 6% of income-eligible Hispanic renter households with children.

The authors interviewed 23 Hispanic mothers without housing assistance living in Chicago because little research has explored the housing search process of this population. The interviews consisted of qualitative, open-ended questions.

All participants identified housing affordability as a problem. Many had to make sudden, unanticipated moves because of unpaid rent and looming eviction, stress caused from overcrowding, and other housing quality problems. Overcrowded housing was associated with the stress of housemate conflict and lack of control and privacy. Given their financial and time constraints, interviewees tended to rely on their social network of family or friends to find available, inexpensive housing. These networks tended to lead them to find housing in close proximity to their previous homes or in similar neighborhoods, perpetuating racial and class segregation. Moves were often “quick to nearby apartments.”

The authors provide policy recommendations to provide more residential options to low income households, including temporary or emergency rental assistance to provide the recipient with more time to locate affordable housing in a neighborhood of their choice, improving fair housing enforcement, increasing the information that households receive about areas of opportunity, and making public investments in disinvested neighborhoods to improve transportation infrastructure and other priorities.

The authors caution that a universal voucher program would not completely eliminate the housing challenges faced by their study’s participants. First, the immigration status of some participants would make them ineligible for assistance. Second, without stronger code enforcement and building inspections, housing quality problems – like insect infestations or plumbing, mechanical, or structural failures – cause sudden, unanticipated moves for both voucher holders and non-voucher holders.

Housing Decisions among Low-Income Hispanic Households in Chicago is available at: