Celebrating all the Nation's Neighborhoods on Independence Day


Pervasive inequality should be at the heart of a large national debate about the future of our cities as we celebrate the establishment of our country and its ideals.

On this Independence Day, many of us are experiencing the camaraderie of our friends and neighbors and sharing the success stories of our children's accomplishments. It's a wonderful time to celebrate our bounty. Think about the opportunities and personal networks on which many of us are building. In my Russian-Jewish immigrant family, it took just two generations to make it from Ellis Island to the American middle class and one more for almost all in my generation to be blessed with college (and often graduate) educations, stable jobs and homes in neighborhoods we chose. Our fortunes are the result of luck, hard work and, let's face it, changing social views.

But over 11.5 million Americans do not have these same opportunities. They are living in neighborhoods where deep concentrations of poverty and decades of disinvestment make it tough to find decent housing, send kids to strong schools, eat healthy and affordable food, and where the cost of entering the job market is buying, maintaining and filling up the tank of a car. These same neighborhoods are now proven to be a health risk, as persistent exposure to such stress increases the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, depression and other life-threatening illnesses. As my friend and mentor Ron Sims, former deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, used to say: Our ZIP codes should not determine our life outcomes.

The research demonstrating that where people live - their neighborhoods -- has a big impact on their upward mobility and their long-term health is growing. The idea is that the longer low-income children spend in opportunity-rich neighborhoods -- those with less poverty and crime, better schools, access to healthy food, less traffic, clean air and water, and stable families - the better those children do as adults.

It seems like a logical conclusion - maybe something we've all believed in the back of our minds - that the quality of life in our neighborhood and surrounding community matters to our success and health. But there's more to the story.

Adding to the debate

Another all-American assumption - that there is an upwardly mobile middle-class - is not playing out equally across races. Another recent study elevated the fact that there is a "neighborhood gap" between whites and blacks of similar income. Middle-class African American families are more likely to live in low-income communities than their white counterparts - neighborhoods, in fact, with lower incomes than the typical low-income white family, with lower-quality schools, day-care options, parks, playgrounds and transportation options. This underscores the important reasons community development advocates have spent decades trying to improve the quality of life in distressed neighborhoods - not to mention the billions the federal government has invested in its efforts in housing and urban development.

Smart people and reputable journalists are mining this new evidence surrounding "neighborhood" as a key factor in life success, and some are coming to the conclusion that we need totally different solutions. They say, why not help more low-income people move to neighborhoods with greater opportunities to succeed so their life outcomes improve far more rapidly? It's a good point and one that is just beginning to gain traction among policymakers.

But does this mean our past focus on helping to fix up distressed areas is wrong?

I say no, and not just because many of us in this line of work have spent our careers trying to help lift up distressed neighborhoods. Accepting this thinking as an either/or has dangerous potential to break up communities of color and open up distressed areas to displacement as the market for urban living heats up and long-time residents can't afford to pay the higher rents that typically go along with an influx of new investment and neighbors.

Where to go from here

The magnitude and scale of the problems necessitate a both/and strategy.

We need to continue improving the conditions of distressed communities, learning from the past to be innovative in how we do it. One example is in Watts, the south Los Angeles neighborhood rocked by racial unrest 50 years ago this Aug. 11. Working with the Grant Housing & Economic Development Corp., which is associated with the 100-year-old Grant AME church, Urban Solutions is helping to bring community members together to act on years of planning by official agencies. The vision isn't to swoop in with an outsider's point of view, but to approach improvements based on needs the community has expressed - enabling forward-thinking solutions on everything from jobs and social equity to public health, transportation and the environment.

At the same time, we also need to ensure full mobility options for all families. The Supreme Court weighed in late last week on one of the major underlying issues, preserving a long-established and key mechanism aimed at equality - the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It ruled that even unintentional housing discrimination - which can be the end result of so-called race-neutral policies - is illegal.

The ruling goes to the heart of some of the causes of our persistent patterns of segregation and is only one bit of evidence that cities need this both/and approach to creating ladders of opportunity for everyone.

Yes, we need high opportunity neighborhoods to welcome low-income people of color - through changes in zoning that integrate apartments sensitively into communities and flexible policies that allow a family with a housing voucher to use it anywhere in a metropolitan region. But we also need to right past wrongs by targeting public resources to distressed neighborhoods that haven't had a fair share of investments.

Our challenge this July 4 is to dig deep into our racial and economic history and pinpoint what, specifically, is preventing so many Americans from partaking in the basics of life that so many of us take for granted -- safe streets, clean air and water, affordable housing, good schools, healthy food and convenient and affordable access to jobs - and the opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children.

I look forward to keeping this conversation alive. Our shared prosperity depends on it.