Local Politics: Focus on people, not just places, in segregation fight

Rob Moore

It doesn't take a genius to tell you that neighborhoods matter.

I grew up in Bexley, where median incomes are two-and-a-half times higher than the neighborhoods that surround it. Why did I end up there? Because my parents chose the neighborhood when they moved to Ohio 20 years ago based on schools, safety and the sense of community the city gave them when they visited. More than anything, they wanted to give my siblings and me a chance at opportunity, and they had the resources to live there.

A growing body of research shows that the inclinations we have about neighborhoods mattering bear out for families across the country. Even when controlling for parental race, income and education, the neighborhood in which you grow up matters to your future health and labor market outcomes.

Neighborhood disparities don't just happen on their own: They are often the result of conscious policy decisions. Enclaves like Bexley, Grandview Heights and Upper Arlington are able to attribute part of their success to resistance to annexation as the city of Columbus grew. This has led to separate zoning authorities and separate school districts, which lead to housing stock and property tax barriers that keep certain people, often low-income and minority, out of these neighborhoods.

While many urban policy wonks have focused on “place-based” approaches to neighborhood disparities, trying to attract commercial and residential development to declining neighborhoods, this has led to a new bogeyman of urban renewal we're all familiar with: gentrification.

Well-intentioned strategies to redevelop Columbus' urban core have turned previously mixed-income neighborhoods like German Village, the Brewery District and the Short North into neighborhoods that have priced out low-income residents. Nationally, trends like this have not led to poverty reduction, but rather poverty displacement, with one of the big national demographic stories of the past decade being the growth of suburban poverty.

So how do we fight 21st-century segregation? A minority of researchers have been piloting a different approach: people-based development. A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) starting in the mid-1990s doled out housing vouchers that allowed low-income families with children in distressed neighborhoods to move to middle-income neighborhoods. Preliminary results show that adults participating showed better health outcomes and young children had significantly higher incomes as they grew up and entered the workforce.

Ohio State University is now partnering with the Ohio Housing Finance Agency to launch Move to Prosper, a Central Ohio version of this program. This will be a 10-family pilot that may set the stage for a 100-family demonstration project, aimed at giving opportunity to young children from distressed communities.

The city should not abandon place-based approaches, but people-based strategies like Move to Prosper are an essential component of a citywide strategy to end segregation in Columbus. Why should a low-income family not have the same opportunity to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods in the city that wealthy children are lucky to have?