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Changing Lives in a Changing Neighborhood

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

By Dr. Lisa K. Bates

I was dropped off at college in Washington DC with the typical family admonition to middle-class black kids—always do 200% and don’t let them see you sweat. It is surprising to those who know me now, but for the first few years I didn’t speak in class. That changed when we were assigned to read chapters from Losing Ground by Charles Murray in an urban policy seminar. I can remember reading at a furious pace, in total disbelief that we were meant to take seriously the stereotypical portrayals of young black women calculating how much welfare benefit they could get if they had one more baby. At my internship, in the social services department of a free medical clinic across town, I saw a completely different reality. While it was probably only a few minutes that I spoke in class that day, it felt like I gave a thirty-minute passionate and top volume oration on structural racism and classism and the unbelievably hard choices that have to be made every single day if you are poor. I was definitely perspiring! As I continued to engage with professors, I realized that I could do something about the state of the literature on poverty, housing, neighborhoods, and the lives of African-Americans. I could produce the kind of research I was missing, that would lift up the voices of the people who were actually experiencing the consequences of policy. Joining the Access to Opportunity team is bringing me into dialogue with amazing scholars and practitioners with deep understanding of policy systems, focusing on an under-studied context of west coast cities. I am looking forward to sharing the research from Portland as we complete this initial round of work.

We are looking at Humboldt Gardens, a development of Home Forward (the Housing Authority of Portland), as a site for understanding low-income parents’ (mostly parents of color) strategies for accessing ‘opportunity’. Our primary research question is: Given the hopes and aspirations of Humboldt Gardens residents, how do self-sufficiency program elements and neighborhood characteristics affect the achievement of their goals for self and children?

At first glance, our team’s case study Humboldt Gardens is like the many evaluations of HOPE VI public housing redevelopment in cities across the country. A formerly distressed public housing development in a low-income neighborhood, which housed mostly Black families, has been redesigned. Residents are supported with case-management and savings opportunities through Individual Development Accounts (IDAs). In order to live at the site, parents had to agree to participate in GOALS (the Family Self-Sufficiency program) and to remain active and on track. The hope was for families to complete GOALS and achieve independence, moving to market-rate housing and continuing to have stable employment.

When the redevelopment was conceived, the Humboldt neighborhood was a high poverty area with significant issues of blight, crime, and disinvestment. The project improved housing and brought additional program resources to the community, as part of a larger urban revitalization program by the city. Today Humboldt is home to a renovated campus of Portland Community College, is well-connected by transit to major job centers, and has a public library, park and community center. These neighborhood features—along with the walkable streets, historic home architecture, and a new light rail line and other economic development—are great amenities for Humboldt Garden’s resident families. These features also made the neighborhood extremely attractive as Portland became a destination for highly educated, well-paid in-movers. Portland has become nationally infamous for its hot housing market, even being named the most gentrified city in America in 2015.[i] Northeast Portland neighborhoods like Humboldt are among the most dramatically changed. Today, families who move to Humboldt Gardens are potentially accessing opportunity through proximity to high-income neighbors and the services and economic activity they support, but also may be losing the community connections and services that worked for low-income folks.

The study recognizes that residents are navigating changes in the neighborhood and in housing authority programs. Home Forward has changed participation rules that relocate families who are not achieving milestones in self-sufficiency programs, out of concern that being further from the opportunities available will be counter-productive. But even success in self-sufficiency without additional housing supports is likely to mean moving away from this service-rich neighborhood. There simply isn’t affordable housing available. As residents in Humboldt Gardens graduate from GOALS, they may be moving away from their jobs, children’s school, and the enrichment and recreation opportunities nearby. For families who’ve experienced multiple displacements through Portland’s urban renewal era, another move –this time, out of Northeast Portland entirely—can be described as “root shock.” [ii]

The research will look at how residents strategize to achieve their life goals in a context of change, at the site and in the neighborhood. We intend our findings to be not only illuminating for conceptual debates about opportunity and economic mobility, but to include actionable information and ideas for Home Forward and other agencies working in a setting like this.

As we conduct in-depth interviews with residents, we find it is important that we understand life goals as defined by the residents themselves, and how they articulate aspirations for themselves and for their children. In terms of housing authority programming, we are asking how residents experience GOALS and other resident services as part of their ability to make progress on their plans. We try to understand how the program works (or doesn’t) given what residents themselves define as self-sufficiency.

Even at a preliminary stage of research, we can see dilemmas for residents’ thinking about ‘self-sufficiency’ as meaning no longer needing housing subsidy, when they observe the prices of new rentals in the neighborhood. The neighborhood also becomes important in discovering how families feel about living in a community that is predominnalty White and high-income—are they finding the supports they need, or are there experiences that are disconnecting or dislocating as they seek services and networks?

With the sharp rebounds in many urban neighborhoods around HOPE VI sites, there is a need for thinking about how to re-orient programming and services to support families who may be both pleased with and apprehensive about these changes as they relate to their own goals for family and community life.




[ii] “Root shock” is a metaphor coined by Dr. Mindy Fullilove to describe the stress reaction to the loss of one’s social and emotional ecosystem. Like yanking up a plant and attempting to replant it in new soil, folks who experience abr4upt and involuntary relocations struggle to thrive.

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