Why Rich and Poor Neighbours Don't Get Along

Before I even walked through the door of a Toronto apartment earlier this month, I decided not to rent it. It wasn't a crumbling walk-up or a rotting deck that turned me off. It was the building manager. On the steps outside, the young man bragged about how he had kicked out 24 of the building's 26 original low-income tenants. He spoke with the excitement of someone who'd just set a record for keg stands. His lack of compassion was the verbal cockroach I needed to say "no thanks."

But his message is one more and more people want to hear: you can live surrounded by people like you.

Neighbourhoods are becoming more segregated by income. A recent Pew study found the number of mixed-income neighbourhoods in America has decreased by almost 10 per cent since 1980. In Canada, rich and poor neighbourhoods have become even more polarized because of diverging family incomes and a tendency for people to "live nearby like," according to the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network.

The main obstacle to social mixing is that humans are tribal. We're also hypocrites. While I chastised the insensitive building manager, I also want my immediate neighbours to be like me. Before I moved into my last place I had the choice between a bigger apartment in a "sketchier" building or a smaller place in a building with tenants who were also in their late 20s with steady jobs. You can guess where I ended up. The human instinct to favour the familiar exists in all people. Its the job of good policy to help us overcome our tendency to discriminate.

Mixed-income housing developments have been heralded by urban planners as a solution to residential segregation. They offer market-priced and affordable housing options to attract diverse renters to one area. But while this strategy may create physical diversity, it fails to break down class stereotypes.

Mixed-income housing dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, but hasn't successfully integrated diverse social circles. For the most part, these communities have reinforced the idea that people from different backgrounds can't get along.

Since the U.S. implemented a program to revitalize public housing in 1992, poverty-wracked cities such as Chicago have embraced the model. Toronto has a handful of these neighbourhoods -- most famously the new iteration of Regent Park, Canada's oldest and largest social housing project. Vancouver built hundreds of condos cheek-to-cheek with affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside. Halifax is creating a mixed-income community in the city's North End.

The idea is that if higher-income residents move into poor neighbourhoods, they will improve the area. In theory, the more affluent will attract better schools and businesses to the community. They won't stand for burnt-out street lights and will advocate for amenities like playgrounds. In reality, most low- and high-income residents don't interact enough to create any of these benefits.

A study from Case Western Reserve University found that 60 per cent of residents in a mixed-income development experienced an "us vs. them" dynamic.

The biggest schism existed between renters and owners; 43 per cent of mixed-income residents said these groups did not blend well.

Though they all want community, residents from different backgrounds expect the worst of one another. Mark Joseph, a professor at Case Western, says this self-fulfilling prophecy turns little frictions into big tensions.

Rather than being allies in creating a better neighbourhood, residents from different income backgrounds work against one another. "Often enough the efforts of some of the more politically active higher-income people are directly antagonistic towards lower income neighbours," says Martine August, a PhD grad from the University of Toronto's planning department. "Instead of getting together and saying let's get a ball court for these kids, they say let's get this homeless shelter out of our neighbourhood."

The biggest problem is that property managers have not focused on social integration. The buildings look nice, but there are not enough community activities or groups dedicated to breaking down barriers. Residents move in with preconceived notions about the other tenants that fester once they become neighbours.

For August, the success of mixed-income neighbourhoods depends on the urban planning approach. Don't send affluent people to low-income communities as saviours. Aside from being thinly-veiled gentrification, the idea condescends to the poor residents. "We shouldn't wait until middle class people value neighbourhoods to invest in them," she says. Maybe low-income neighbourhoods would function better if cities provided them with the same amenities and maintenance as well-off areas. The best way to create an equal society would be to treat people equally.

Mixed-income communities are welcome alternatives to segregated areas of haves and have-nots. But planners can't expect that social interactions will grow like rooftop gardens. Residents will unpack old stereotypes into their new apartments. Discrimination towards people from different backgrounds can grow with proximity. The strongest foundation for mixed-income buildings is built on connecting social classes, not just making them neighbours.

*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen