Residential Mobility and Narratives of Neighborhood Violence

 In Research

By Eva Rosen

Poor families experience high residential instability, yet, by and large, residents of low income, high-crime neighborhoods stay put much of the time. And when they do move, they are likely to move laterally to a similarly disadvantaged place. Why do people experience this “horizontal immobility,” moving to, churning between, or staying within disadvantaged environments? While recent scholarship highlights the perils of involuntary displacement and residential instability, not all moves experienced by low-income families are involuntary. Despite tremendous constraints on residential choice—including financial resources, discrimination, and low-quality housing stock—poor residents perceive themselves as making active decisions about when and where to move. In a recent article in the American Sociological Review, I consider the way in which violent neighborhood contexts shape how residents think about where to live.

The concept of “narratives”—the stories people tell about safety in their neighborhoods—helps explain why families remain and move within disadvantaged areas.

In order to understand how high crime neighborhoods affect residential outcomes, I argue that we must look to the residents themselves. The concept of “narratives”—the stories people tell about safety in their neighborhoods—helps explain why families remain and move within disadvantaged areas. Previous research suggests that residential decisions are motivated by a perpetual desire to move “up” to the “best” homes and neighborhoods families can afford. In the ASR article, I show that while poor families in crime-ridden neighborhoods strongly value neighborhood amenities such as good schools and job opportunities, they face a set of challenges preventing them from accessing the kinds of neighborhoods that can offer these amenities. For these families, the residential striving narrative of moving “up” to a bigger house or a better neighborhood is less pertinent than the more immediate need to establish a sense of safety and belonging.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with 50 renters in a low-income, high-crime Baltimore neighborhood, I focus on the cases of four families in depth. Here, as in other poor and violent neighborhoods, residents craft narratives to make sense of how to live and survive in their communities despite the perils they face. These stories are critical to making their living situation sustainable, enabling families to make sense of staying put when they don’t have other options.

These malleable narratives adapt and expand to accommodate new information and experiences, but at times, encounters with crime and violent events strain their coherence. The renters I observed encountered moments where their narratives stopped working and revealed themselves for the stories they were—both to me as an observer and to the individuals themselves. This breakdown is what I call narrative rupture. For example, Raven, who believed her social safety net would protect her, learned the limits of this approach when her home was invaded by a stranger and her neighbors did nothing to stop it. Tina, who withdrew from social interaction to protect herself and her daughter, found that when a fight broke out in her hallway, she did not have the means to escape without literally shutting herself within the confines of her apartment. And Vivian, who believed that violence in the neighborhood was rare if she played her cards right, was confronted with an undeniable moment of truth when her husband was shot during a mugging.

In these instants, families were faced with irrefutable evidence contradicting the stories that had helped them manage their daily existence in the neighborhood until then. In light of these contradictions, residents were motivated to action when they had previously been inert. However, the resulting moves are often horizontal, in part because past residential experiences shape how residents imagine what is possible in ways that preclude more ambitious moves. The act of moving after a narrative rupture—even when residents do not move far—allows them to restore a narrative of safety. A new address—though not always a “better” one—can solve problems that some do not have the resources to solve by any other means.

These findings have implications for the way we understand the reproduction of poverty. While urban scholarship has typically conceived of residential preferences as rooted in the individual, there is reason to believe that the way residents think about these choices may be shaped by the neighborhood contexts in which they already reside. In this way, the reasons people stay and churn within disadvantaged neighborhoods are themselves a product of living and learning to survive in such environments. Thus, neighborhood traits such as violence can shape narratives that lead to cycling into, out of, and between disadvantaged areas. This is one explanation for why growing up in a poor environment would make it more likely for a person to end up in a similar one as an adult.

The power of narrative should in no way diminish our appreciation for the potency of structural forces in shaping where and when families move. Real and significant constraints—including financial limitations, the logistics of moving, housing discrimination, and landlord practices—perpetuate instability by inhibiting poor households’ ability to move to a suitable home. But structural constraints do more than just physically force people to move. They can temporarily change how people think and make decisions—not just constraining, but also defining the range of residential possibilities.

While narratives show how years of learning to live in a disadvantaged neighborhood context shapes the way people think about the choices they have, there is also evidence that narratives are dynamic, malleable, and capable of changing quickly with new information and experiences. It is therefore crucial for housing policies to focus on providing residents the information and resources they need to make informed decisions.

Policies targeting barriers to housing mobility—for example, through housing counseling, security deposit assistance, and transportation to visit available homes—would help families learn about and access a wider array of options. This could have an important and successful impact on the residential outcomes of the urban poor. This is especially relevant in the context of U.S. housing policy, which relies predominantly on a mobility model to provide poor families with vouchers to move out of poor neighborhoods into homes of their choosing.

While understanding how neighborhood narratives affect residential outcomes highlights some of the subtler ways in which violence affects residents, policy should not solely be focused on removing barriers to mobility. Simply emptying out disadvantaged neighborhoods is neither feasible, nor does it actually solve the problems of crime, discrimination, entrenched poverty, and poor-quality housing. In an era when housing subsidies and social aid are under increasing threat, this research is a reminder of the importance of not neglecting our cities’ poorest neighborhoods and the people who live within them.

Eva Rosen is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

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