Monday, August 10, 2009

Attempts to Change HOPE VI Residents' Aspirations and Behaviors

A little bit on the research I presented today at ASA:

HOPE VI (Housing for People Everywhere) is a federal housing program signed into law in 1992, following the report of the Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. In short, the program razes dilapidated housing projects and replaces them with new mixed-income housing. But not only is the quality of the housing higher, the rules are also stricter. In order to reside in a publicly subsidized unit, a resident usually must prove that they have a job, a good rental history, and undergo a criminal background check. In this way, to put it crudely, the program aims to improve neighborhoods and improve people. But virtually all of the research I've seen has been on the former (my explanation: the latter is politically incorrect to discuss).

Please note that I'm not advocating a particular course of action or taking a position on whether or not public housing residents should change the way they lead their lives. I'm simply observing that a number of people are implementing a course of action with this as their goal and exploring how residents are reacting to this.

My study is a qualitative analysis of 24 interviews with residents of one HOPE VI development and explores how they react to attempts to change their behaviors and aspirations.

One of the problems with qualitative research is that it's quite difficult to summarize. The synopsis I passed out is here, full of tables and figures to help explain what I'm saying (Blogger is great, but for some reason they have yet to make it easy to insert tables or copy pictures into posts).

Anyway, here are the basics on what I found:

-The rules that are in place appear to indicate an attempt to enforce upper middle-class social norms on residents (for example, residents reported that they weren't allowed to own pit bulls, grill in their front yard, or fix their car in the street). And the rules are zealously enforced. Management frequently patrols the neighborhood with camera in hand. Small infractions (e.g. leaving a trash can curbside past the day of collection or having visible clutter outside one's house) are dealt with by immediately notifying the resident that they've been fined $25 and placing a photo and summary in their mailbox.

-Management is actively attempting to change residents' behaviors and aspirations -- and most residents are aware of this. Residents must take part in a home ownership class before taking up residence in the neighborhood and they also report meeting with counselors to set goals -- which are discussed in follow-up phone class. When residents purchase their own homes, it's publicized in the community newsletter. As one resident puts it, the development "was built for you to know to be self sufficient, gen on your feet and then move along."

-While some of the residents bristle at the strict rules ("they hold our hand to the fire" says one), complaining about "big brother," most of the residents interviewed had more positive responses. A number of residents reported that their neighborhood was clean, quite a bit better than their old neighborhood, that neighbors were responsible, and that they felt peer pressure to keep things neat and orderly. As one resident puts it, "this is not the projects anymore . . . it's homes, you know?"

-There was limited evidence that, to some extent, the rules and processes in place were leading to desired changes in residents' behaviors and aspirations. For example, various residents reported: not littering because they would be fined for it, saving money for a house after their home ownership class, and becoming better at budgeting since they had to pay their own utility bills.

Research on HOPE VI is decidedly mixed, with the biggest knock being that few of the people living in the neighborhood before redevelopment are allowed to move back in. Accordingly, most of the interviews I analyzed were of people who lived elsewhere before moving. While the evidence was decidedly mixed -- and the sample quite small -- I would say evidence I examined is more positive than negative. The neighborhood seems safer and cleaner than before, rules are routinely enforced, and residents are doing some things that the writers of the legislation would be happy about.

Now, you might be asking yourself what the heck this has to do with education. Well, as we all know by now, if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. And even though most people don't talk about housing programs as educational interventions, the behaviors the policies seemed designed to elicit are similar to those that an educational intervention might aim for. The neighborhoods appear quieter and more orderly -- both neighborhood characteristics that are positively related to academic performance.

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