Housing Development Arguments in “Climbing Mt. Laurel”

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Douglas S. Massey et. al. describe in Climbing Mount Laurel the ways in which the market for housing in the United States, more specifically New Jersey, is not free and fair. Zoning laws and real estate agent interests have made housing markets inaccessible to some, especially racial minorities and lower class families.

Solutions to these sorts of problems do not come easy, and lower income housing developments are contentious due to the many stakes involved. Real estate agents and homeowners have a stake in the value of housing, and inviting low income housing to the neighborhood is generally seen as a risk to be avoided. There is also the fear that with poverty comes crime and other problems less prevalent in wealthy areas, not to mention fears of higher tax burdens, sagging schools, and the like. These sentiments are often fueled by xenophobia. Of course, in the case of Mt. Laurel, the potential residents of such housing aren’t all strangers moving into the community, many are families who have either been forced out or are at risk of losing their housing in Mt. Laurel.

It is no surprise that there was quite a lot of backlash, disagreement, and dragging of feet in the wake of Mt. Laurel II. While the most evident misgivings about developing low-income housing are self interested or bigoted, many are more complicated than this. Effectively integrating low-income residents into an established suburban community is a difficult task, even without the stumbling blocks that the city puts in place. A Mt. Laurel resident posed the argument that integrating low income residents into suburban communities isn’t as beneficial as it seems, because the location and structure of the neighborhood practically requires a car, an expense potential residents might not be able to afford (44).

Others doubt the effectiveness of creating deliberate, low-income developments. For one, potential residents might not appreciate the stigma attached to living in such a development (45). Second, some question that such a development would be effective at integrating low-income residents into a wealthier community (44). Massey engages the idea that in the past, people on all political sides agreed that housing developments created for low-income citizens perpetuated cycles of poverty and did little to combat discrimination (23). Many worry that the results of Mt. Laurel could lead to similarly dismal results.

The property value argument pushed by realtors and homeowners has deeper implications, too. While realtors are worried about the wealthy neighborhoods becoming stigmatized due to poor developments, the stigma could be just as harmful to the residents of the new development. If a community such as Mt. Laurel experienced a severe case of “white flight,” some argue that the poor members of the community would be left in an even worse place – in an empty shell of a residential suburb (47).

While many of the arguments against Mt. Laurel are easily dismissed, several articulate many of the challenges that must be faced in tackling problems of social stratification and segregation.

Achievements and Downfalls of Housing and Subsequent Data Visualization Reflected in Chapter 8, “Tenant Transitions”

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Chapter 8 in Climbing Mount Laurel addresses the potential long-term effects that a housing development like the Ethel Lawrence Homes [ELH] could have on the population that lives in them.  On a whole, Massey et al. conjectured that the lives of the residents have “significant[ly] improved” since the move compared to those of non-residents (145). Some of the criteria that the researchers used to measure this ‘improvement’ were having better schools, less “school disorder and violence,” more “quiet place[s] to study” for youths, more “supportive parental behavior,” and more hours spent studying by school-aged children (182). Whether grades improved for the children who reside in ELH has been disputed seeing as the G.P.A data was not only self reported and therefore not totally scientific but also potentially statistically insignificant because the previously attended schools attended were, on a whole, worse than those in Mount Laurel.

Massey et al. presents this data with both written explanation and visual graphs.  The social scientists carefully lay out tables, flow charts, bar charts, and figures with hypothetical future statistics to supplement written data.  While this graphical representation is beneficial for visualizing trends – sometimes words are hard to conceptualize – there remains a major gap in comprehension. Nominally, the conclusions drawn are hard to understand as a statistical analysis layman. Despite Massey et al.’s brief explanation, someone with a limited background in statistics or data analysis cannot readily understand what “p” means, what the index “points” referred to are, exactly how the scientists hypothesized and calculated the long-term effects of the move, what the “z-scores” are, etc.  In this regard, chapter 8 is best read and understood by an erudite person familiar with social science data analysis. That said, it is unclear whether a more interactive data visualization, perhaps one on a computer and therefore less static, would be beneficial to laymen considering the fact that the lack of comprehension stems not from the conclusions themselves, but rather how the analysis was conducted.

Tangentially, considering the hypothetical long-term conclusions, it seems that the residents of ELH will, on a whole, achieve higher levels of success and have “new” trajectories that they would not otherwise have had access to had they not been residents (181).  However, while this trend is generally positive, it should not be forgotten that the population of ELH is small and that this positive change in economic and social opportunity exists on a microscopic and place-by-place scale.  Rather than ubiquitously altering the way that economic, social, educational, and geographical stratification happens with regard to race and class, the ELH model only gives opportunities to a very small populations, specifically, those deemed “good tenants” (195). Even if this type of development were replicated in other communities, it would still only affect a few, carefully selected persons. In other words, ELH’s positive change lacks systemic significance.

Selection Bias and Internal and External Validity in Climbing Mount Laurel

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As we have discussed in class, selection bias poses a significant challenge in evaluating the benefits of housing and schooling programs that involve both random assignment into groups of applicants who do and do not get into the desired program as well as differing levels of motivation to apply to the program in the first place. The authors acknowledge the possibility of selection bias in their research and make efforts to account for these effects, but I ultimately thought this was a flaw in the design of their study.

Massey and colleagues make appropriate analyses of the differences between groups, as they compare applicants to the Ethel Lawrence Homes who did and did not get accepted to live there. They note, “both current and former residents and nonresident applicants have self-selected into the group of people seeking to leave their current homes and move into the Ethel Lawrence Homes, thus holding unmeasurable traits such as motivation and gumption more or less constant” (74). The researchers claim their methodology thus produces a study with a high level of internal validity, and I agree with them there. Their comparison groups reminded me of the groups we as a class decided to compare when assessing the benefits of attending a particular school or type of choice school. However, even though the results may reflect real differences that can be causally attributed to residents in the Ethel Lawrence Homes, it is necessary to acknowledge that the lack of randomness in these groups may be a major flaw in generalizing the results.

The managers of the Ethel Lawrence Homes decide who may reside there through a process that is explicitly not random. In Chapter 5, Massey and colleagues write,

Applicant screening is thorough and includes credit checks, criminal background checks, income verification, and a home visit. Of the population seeking affordable housing in New Jersey, then, the residents of Ethel Lawrence are a screened subset of people who are probably less likely than poor people in general to have the proclivity, knowledge, and ability to engage in criminal or delinquent activities” (90).

This language reminded me of the rhetoric of “creaming” that is often brought up with respect to charter school admissions. Most particularly, the ELH admissions process seemed analogous to the “Hooping it Up” and “Send Us Your Best” items from Kevin Welner’s article on the charter school dirty dozen. In the descriptions of these items, Welner argues that charter schools often make the application process so arduous that only the most committed will follow through and that they also place requirements on enrollment that ensure that the already-highest-performing students get in. Similarly, in Mount Laurel, a creaming process seems to be taking place, and the authors acknowledge this at the very end of Chapter 9, but they do not delve into the effects that this has on the community or how it might influence their findings. Their comparison groups are chosen aptly, but they are not random, and to describe the results without mention of this critical fact is a large flaw.

Greener Pastures: Chapter 7 of Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle For Affordable Housing And Social Mobility In An American Suburb by Douglas Massey

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This chapter examines how the lives of the residents of the Ethel Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, New Jersey have improved since moving into their residencies. The survey used to approach this was an interesting one and the results were intriguing, however there were many questions left unanswered. Just from this chapter one can see that this housing program gives lower socioeconomic status families a “path out of poverty”. However, it was disappointing to learn in chapter 9, that the families chosen for the residency were screened, maintaining some biases and leaving some families who could benefit most, such as families who are more predisposed to violence than others behind in order to avoid bringing conflict to the area. In some ways this fact ruins some of the author, Douglas Massey’s, statistical analysis. An example of this is the chart displaying the Weighted Index of Violence and Disorder for both non-residents and residents. The resident’s rates decline on this chart which is certainly positive, however, they start more than ten points lower than the non-residents did, which insinuates that the non-residents they chose to examine are not in situations similar to the circumstances the ELH residents’ were exposed to before moving. The test groups should be in identical situations if Massey hopes to compare experiences, and if they are significantly different, as was the case here, it should not be considered viable.

The rates of all kinds of violent instances for residents certainly decreased, however it was disappointing to see that the rate of physical violence is still prevalent in the community, despite its decline and regardless of the fact that residents were reporting that their neighborhood social support had increased. It would be interesting to investigate what caused this. Overall there was one thing that went unmentioned, at least in my assigned chapters, that is a significant factor in housing: diversity in schools and the neighborhood’s reaction to schooling. Were the children who lived in the ELH units sent to an isolated school? What was the racial makeup of the student body? If they were combined with students from surrounding neighborhoods what were the parent’s reactions? In addition, although this model does seem flawless, its hard to imagine, how this model would translate to other areas like it, especially with the lack of public transportation and the lower socioeconomic families that live in these establishments that are unable to purchase a car (87% of the residents being able to afford cars is rare, I imagine). Massey also claims that this affordable housing lowers levels of racial and class bias, however this cannot be entirely possible when people in the surrounding neighborhoods said they do not interact with the residents of ELH. Massey shows excellent progress towards finding an effective, racially and socioeconomically unbiased and affordable housing model; there are still some questions left unanswered and still some biases that remain. It is without a doubt that this population was given a “path out of poverty”.

The Keynesian View of Housing and Public School Markets: Is the Grass Always Greener for Ethel Lawrence Homes?

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I find Massey’s arguments about the important role played by the government in housing markets and the shift of mechanism that promotes housing segregation to be persuasive. Similar to Keynesian economics, housing markets are not truly “free markets”. Massey’s presentation slides summarized the positive effects of government intervention in the form of ELH residence found in chapters 7 and 9, which included promotion of racial integration. However, the fact that nearly 90% of residents in surrounding neighborhoods had never interacted personally with ELH residents challenges this claim. While Massey makes a bold claim that housing can help close our achievement gap, it is difficult to conclude a direct effect of ELH housing on children’s GPA due to the fact that he attributed variables that yielded negligible indirect effects on GPA. The ELH project might indirectly improve ELH children’s GPA, but it remains to be seen whether the presence of ELH children would change the study environment that non-residents had access to prior to ELH establishment.

I am interested to see if the presence of ELH homes would create negative externalities over time. Since they do not necessarily promote racial integration, their sole purpose is to improve social mobility of city residents without affecting non-residents. Even though Massey claims that ELH homes do not have any negative impact on taxes, crime or property value, I doubt this would remain true if the ELH model is replicated on a large scale across US suburbs.

Just like private housing markets, public school markets are not truly “free markets” as parents have received government aid through choice schools and school vouchers. The school choice system may not be fair to all parents, but if the public school system were framed as a perfect free market, more parents would be deprived from sending their children to good public schools. The government clearly cannot leave housing and public school markets to the guidance of the ‘invisible hand’ at the expense of low-income individuals.

Massey has convincingly presented the shift from overt racial discrimination in housing to density zoning through the passage of four laws in the civil rights era. I wish Malaysia had experienced a similar civil rights movement, because overt racial discrimination in the housing and public school markets is condoned by the government through affirmative action policies that sideline minorities.

Early in the 20th century, US municipalities established racial zones and perpetuated racial segregation until 1917 when US Supreme Court decided in Buchanan v. Warley that racial segregation ordinances were unconstitutional. The land-use policy decisions at the municipal level can be a problem due to the lack of protection from federal regulation that limits racial segregation in housing.

An example of a data visualization that I would add is a line graph showing the concentration of poverty for whites and blacks over time. An interesting observation is that the disparity, measured by the difference in concentration of poverty between two races, is the same at 10% in 1970 and 2007 despite changing over time.

Disparity Line Graph