Housing and the Cultural Politics of Mixed-Income Schools

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

Housing and the Cultural Politics of Mixed-Income Schools. Challenging the ‘deconcentration’ consensus

Adapted from Pauline Lipman, “The Cultural Politics of Mixed-Income Schools and Housing: A Racialized Discourse of Displacement, Exclusion, and Control” Anthropology & Education Quarterly Volume 40, 2009, pp. 215–236. 

Coalescing around cultural explanations of poverty, mainstream policymakers and academics have consolidated a dominant neoliberal narrative about reducing poverty in urban areas. They contend that intractable poverty is the result of “concentrated poverty” and the “pathologies” it breeds. The remedy—which drives public housing policy—is to “deconcentrate” low-income people and disperse them to mixed-income communities. The assumption is that mixing low-income people with middleclass residents gives them access to the (supposedly superior) middle-class values, social networks, and resources they lack. This “deconcentration consensus” underpins federal policy to dismantle public housing and replace it with market-based mixed-income developments, dispersing the original residents. In Chicago and elsewhere, the push for mixedincome housing is linked to closing public schools serving high-poverty students and replacing them with mixed-income schools.

Although deconcentration is framed as a class issue, the subtext (and material reality) is race. The students and families to be displaced, relocated, and reformed are mostly African American. The racialized underbelly of this campaign of social engineering is clothed in the New Urbanist school of city planners and their designs for livable and communitarian cities that encourage social mixing in a people-centered environment of integrated housing, work, and recreation. This framework was echoed in the optimistic scenario painted by Marysue Barrett, President of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, in Crain’s Chicago Business: “Picture a mix of incomes and housing types, nearby stores for groceries and movie rentals and decent streets, parks and schools” (2002).

Thus, mixed-income policies project an egalitarian and democratic solution to intractable poverty and failing schools. Indeed, few would argue against the need to address intertwined consequences of inequitable urban schools and lack of quality affordable housing. However, in this article, I critique these neoliberal mixed-income policies and their ideological underpinning. I argue that mixed-income strategies contribute to the destruction of communities of color while furthering a neoliberal urban agenda. I contend they are integral to a policy that produces displacement, gentrification, and privatization of public education and housing on the premise of social betterment.

In 2004, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) launched Renaissance 2010 (Ren2010), a plan to close 60–70 schools and open 100 new schools of choice: two-thirds as charter or contract schools (similar to charters), funded publicly but run by private organizations, and one-third as public schools with five-year performance contracts. Ren2010 schools are not required to have democratically elected Local School Councils, and charter teachers are not members of the Chicago Teachers Union. The plan was not only completed ahead of schedule, but accelerated. By 2012, over 105 schools were closed, phased out, or handed over to a “turnaround” operator (almost all in African American low-income communities)—and over 100 charter schools were authorized. Ren2010 is part of a corporate–financial urban agenda driven by the Commercial Club of Chicago (CCC), an organization of the city’s most powerful corporate and financial leaders. Ren2010 was proposed by the CCC in 2003, announced by Chicago’s Mayor Daley in 2004 at a CCC event, and has been led by the CCC’s Renaissance Schools Fund. As I write this at the end of 2012, CPS has floated a plan to close up to 140 additional schools this school year (most on the African American South and West Sides of the city) while committing to 60 more charter schools in the next few years. This move to clear cut public schools in these communities furthers the CCC’s goal of ending the monopoly of public education,” by turning Chicago into a “portfolio district” with at least one-third of the schools privatelyrun, non-union charter schools.

In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority also launched the $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation (PFT) to demolish 25,000 units of public housing, promising to rehab or rebuild them, mainly as privately developed mixed-income housing. Thousands of three-, four-, and five-bedroom family units in high-rise buildings were razed to make way for mixed-income developments. The PFT is Chicago’s version of the 1992 federal HOPE VI Act (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere), which called for demolition or rehabilitation of “distressed” public housing units and devolution of responsibility to local authorities. HOPE VI shifted public housing to the market through privatization of management, vouchers in the housing market, and mixed-income developments financed by public-private partnerships that use tax dollars to subsidize private developers. A key 1995 revision eliminated one-to-one replacement, so residents are not guaranteed they can return to new or rehabbed units.

Public housing is one of the few remaining obstacles to gentrification of the urban core. This was evident in the push to demolish viable public housing buildings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to make way for new development. Nationally, eliminating the one-to-one replacement removed a significant barrier to large-scale private market-rate development. The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 expanded the rollback of federal support for public housing and institutionalized the deconcentration ideology by requiring reconstructed sites to have a mix of incomes with no more than 40 percent of residents considered “poor.” It established strict work requirements, expanded reasons to terminate leases, and limited relocation rights for public housing tenants in these developments on the premise that they required discipline to not perpetuate “dysfunctional” behaviors induced by concentrated poverty.

The MacArthur Foundation, which awarded $50 million to support the PFT including loan guarantees for investors, underscored the strategic importance of schools to attract the middle class to mixed-income developments: “The city has made a commitment to improving the local schools, without which the success of the new mixed-income communities would be at great risk” (2005).

The Ren2010 policy to close neighborhood schools (and open new schools) facilitates the redevelopment of public housing as mixedincome development. The first target was Bronzeville, a historically African American area, where CPS promised to “reinvent the area’s 25 schools and make them a magnet for the return of middle-class families” (Olszewski and Sadovi 2003). Thus, school policy is explicitly tied to the restructuring of public housing and to real estate development. This is part of a larger neoliberal urban strategy of market-based development and elite consumption. Reliance on real estate revenues, particularly creative destruction and reinvestment in the urban built environment, is a central neoliberal urban strategy. Lubricated by city government, gentrification has become a pivotal sector in urban economies and a critical factor in the production of spatial inequality, displacement, homelessness, and racial containment. As federal funding for cities was cut in the 1980s, cities began to rely more on property and real estate taxes to fund municipal government. As a result, cities have become dependent on, and subsidizers of, the real estate market through public giveaways of land, zoning policies favorable to developers, real estate-friendly city planning commissions, and subsidies that funnel tax dollars to developers.

As has become clear with the global financial crisis, real estate is a key speculative activity with mortgages and property investments converted to financial instruments that are traded globally. Speculation pushes up property values and property taxes, reducing the supply of affordable housing and driving out low-income and working-class renters and homeowners. One result is the production of a new urban geography of racial exclusion, containment, and commodified ethnic space, e.g., the cachet of Bronzeville minus those who live there. In Chicago (and other cities), gentrification and destruction of public housing have displaced African American residents to other low-income, racially isolated areas or pushed them out of the city altogether. In their place are vast new developments marketed as “mixed income.”

Underlying this project is a deeply racialized culture of poverty ideology. The central premise of HOPE VI is that high concentrations of socially isolated low-income public housing residents produce social pathologies that are at the root of their inability to “rise out” of poverty. Proponents claim deconcentrating poverty will lead to improvements in behavior and workforce participation and ultimately produce self-sufficiency and a higher standard of living. Middle-class neighbors are expected to provide the role models, social capital, and political clout low-income people need while work requirements provide the discipline. These claims resonate with ingrained cultural explanations for poverty, braiding recycled culture of poverty theories with a new set of racialized neoliberal claims on the city. The deconcentration thesis is joined to the architectural determinism of New Urbanists who contend that the architecture of high-rise public housing shapes the destiny of poor people. These accounts leave out the history of racism, racial segregation, and deindustrialization that impoverished African Americans. They obscure willful government disinvestment in the housing, schools, and neighborhood services that led to the deplorable degradation of public housing and public housing areas in the first place.

The civilizing, regeneration narrative that underpins HOPE VI also shapes the rationale for deconcentrating low-income students and sending them to mixed-income schools. Crucially conflating correlation with causality, the claim that low-income students benefit from having middle-income children in the classroom assumes advantages rest in the “social surplus” of the middle class and  whites, rather than in the educational resources and advantages they have accrued as a result of their economic status, race and power. Mixed-income solutions deflect attention from the root causes of the challenges facing low-income schools—historically inequitable resources, racial subordination, and marginalization. Race is resonant in cultural deficit discourse, yet notably absent in neoliberal mixed-income discourse. This colorblind stance denies that racial discrimination and oppression are relevant in social and economic outcomes. Assumptions underpinning mixed-income strategies resonate with a long history of locating school failure in supposedly deficient cultures, languages, and family structures of racialized European and Asian immigrants, Latinos, and African Americans. In its current iteration, culture is a proxy for race in a narrative of essentialized negative cultural traits that impede academic success.

In the neoliberal context, we should ask: Is the well-being of low-income students really the goal of mixed-income policy? Plans to link mixed-income housing and schools make it clear that guaranteeing middle-class families slots in mixed-income magnet schools is the priority, and marketing schools to these “consumers” is taken for granted, e.g. marketing a Montessori magnet school in the redeveloped Henry Horner public housing area. Closing schools in low-income communities and opening new schools with new identities is part of “rebranding” these communities for middle- and upper-middle-class homebuyers. In Chicago, from 1995 to 2002, nearly 50 percent of families forced to relocate with housing vouchers moved to “high-poverty” neighborhoods. The theoretical opportunity to move to better performing schools in mixed-income areas obscures this reality of displacement and exclusion. A 2011 Chicago Housing Authority report found that 20% of displaced public housing residents returned to rehabbed developments, 11% went to mixed-income developments (9% have been evicted), and many do not meet work and other requirement to apply; 2,202 families are unaccounted for.

Exclusionary mechanisms also operate in mixed-income schools. To transform lowincome students, Richard Kahlenberg, an advocate of mixed-income schools, recommends no more than 40 percent low-income students to ensure that middle-class students will dominate school culture, work ethic, and behavior standards. Complicated application procedures for specialty and charter schools work against low-income parents (10 pages long, must be completed on-line, require an essay or parent interview). And informal selection mechanisms exclude families with the least stability and students with characteristics not beneficial to the schools, such as low test scores, special needs, and English as a second language.

As HOPE VI reached the end of its first decade, critics argued that the policy had made things worse for many public housing residents. Far fewer units had been built than were lost under the policy, and few residents had returned to their communities refashioned as mixed income. Residents suffered the trauma of dislocation, some numerous times. Children who have remained in gentrifying communities are transferred from one school to the next with few good schools available. Similarly, although CPS leaders claim Ren2010 is creating “great choices” in every neighborhood, overall, the evidence shows that Ren2010 has not benefited displaced lowincome students of color. School closings led to spikes in violence and further destabilization of communities already destabilized by the PFT and gentrification. And, most students have been transferred to schools no better than the ones they left, not desirable mixedincome schools.

The deconcentration thesis is a racially coded morality discourse that targets for dispersal and correction African American communities and their public institutions. Black public spaces, in particular, are constructed as pathological and in need of discipline. Bruce Katz, Brookings Institute proponent of mixed-income strategies, described Chicago’s public housing as “sink holes of negativity” (speech to Chicago Futures Forum, February 26, 1999). Similarly, Arne Duncan, CEO of CPS. explained he was closing two African American high schools because they had a “culture of failure.” This is the ideological soil for racialized dispersal and regulation of low-income people of color and a larger neoliberal urban agenda. Mixedincome policies facilitate the appropriation of public goods (public schools and housing) to further gentrification and real estate development. The “deconcentrating poverty” ideology denies that urban communities of color and their schools are spaces of identity, solidarity, cultural and political resistance, and material survival. The supposedly democratic and inclusive framing of mixed-income communities and schools, coupled with pathologizing low-income people of color, legitimate appropriation of land, schools, homes. These cultural politics mask and reframe the network of public policy and investment decisions that produced deindustrialization, disinvestment, unemployment, and degradation of public health, the built environment, and schools in urban neighborhoods over the past 30 years as well as the persistence of racial discrimination.

Yet dominant constructions do not go unanswered as parents and teachers assert their own narratives of their schools and communities. Struggles over identity and meanings of place are integral to struggles over distribution of resources and the right to political participation. In my research and collaboration and action with communities of color, youth, and teachers, the discourse of deficiency and pathology is contested on the ground. This is evident in powerful mobilizations against school closings that helped spawn a revitalized Chicago Teachers Union. The authority of parents, teachers, and students is asserted in their demand for a school-community led process of school transformation. The repeated chant, “Whose schools? Our schools!” insists on the right to stay put  and the right to revitalized schools and communities by and for those who have been living there and who have given communities meaning and value. ◊


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