housing/residential segregation

Housing is a serious issue across the country, and here in Minneapolis there has been a big discussion about new zoning policies that could be a model for cities everywhere. 

In true midwestern fashion, the favored way to fight this out on the ground is the passive-aggressive yard sign. Homeowners kicked it off, followed by a pro-development crowd seeking more affordable housing.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, both groups draw grassroots support from local residents who live in Minneapolis and have a stake in how it might change. Just recently, though, someone else jumped on the bandwagon. A new set of shiny yard signs started popping up all over my neighborhood. Someone had coordinated an overnight drop, putting out three or more signs every block with this slogan:

Many of the signs were outside apartment buildings, and it turns out that they came from a group of landlords organizing against protections for renters. I came home to my apartment one day to find three signs posted in the front yard of the building. Nobody told us these signs were going up, and many of them were removed the following week.

This is a classic example of what social scientists call “astroturfing”—a practice where business leaders copy grassroots activism strategies to advocate for their political interests. According to sociologist Edward Walker, full-on astroturfing where a business relies on deception to suggest grassroots support is pretty rare. This is a risky practice that can backfire if they get caught. Instead, business are getting much more savvy by adopting other kinds of grassroots organizing tactics to drive attention to their interests.

These signs show the power of astroturfing, because we usually assume a lawn sign is a pretty direct statement—one that represents the person who lives behind it. Sure, landlords can lobby just like everyone else, but do they have a right to do it in front of where their tenants live, especially if they might disagree? A counter-mobilization effort is already underway in the neighborhood.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston starting in the fall, 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.

This month sociologist Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s book documents, in rich and depressing detail, what it’s like to try to pay rent as a low income earner and how easy it is to end up on the street. Eviction is not caused by personal “irresponsibility,” Desmond insists, it’s essentially “inevitable.”

Eviction is psychologically scarring, but it also throws families further into poverty, destabilizing their work and family lives, often stripping them of their few possessions, and costing money — all while enriching landlords.

Here’s 7 minutes from Desmond about his experience living among low income families and the lessons he learned:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Does crime go up when cops, turtle-like, withdraw into their patrol cars, when they abandon “proactive policing” and respond only when called?

In New York we had the opportunity to test this with a natural experiment. Angry at the mayor, the NYPD drastically cut back on proactive policing starting in early December of 2014. The slowdown lasted through early January. This change in policing – less proactive, more reactive – gave researchers Christopher Sullivan and Zachary O’Keeffe an opportunity to look for an effect. (Fair warning: I do not know if their work has been published yet in any peer-reviewed journal.)

First, they confirmed that cops had indeed cut back on enforcing minor offenses. In the graphs below, the yellow shows the rate of enforcement in the previous year (July 2013 to July 2014) when New York cops were not quite so angry at the mayor. The orange line shows the next year. The cutback in enforcement is clear. The orange line dips drastically; the police really did stop making arrests for quality-of-life offenses.

.

Note also that even after the big dip, enforcement levels for the rest of the year remained below those of the previous year, especially in non-White neighborhoods.Sullivan and O’Keeffe also looked at reported crime to see if the decreased enforcement had emboldened the bad guys. The dark blue line shows rates for the year that included the police cutback; the light blue line shows the previous year.

 .

No effect. The crime rates in those winter weeks of reduced policing and after look very much like the crime rates of the year before.

It may be that a few weeks is not enough time for a change in policing to affect serious crime. Certainly, proponents of proactive policing would argue that what attracts predatory criminals to an area is not a low number of arrests but rather the overall sense that this is a place were bad behavior goes unrestrained. Changing the overall character of a neighborhood – for better or worse – takes more than a few weeks.

I have the impression that many people, when they think about crime, use a sort of cops-and-robbers model: cops prevent crime and catch criminals; the more active the cops, the less active the criminals. There may be some truth in that model but, if nothing else, the New York data shows that the connection between policing and crime is not so immediate or direct.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

A set of maps from Eric Fischer illustrate racial/ethnic populations in a number of U.S. cities, based on Census 2000 data. They’re great for showing levels of segregation, as well as comparing racial/ethnic diversity and population density in different regions.

On the maps, red = White/Caucasian, blue = African American, green = Asian, orange = Hispanic, and gray = Other. Each dot represents 25 people. At Fischer’s website, if you hover over the images you can identify individual neighborhoods/regions.

Here’s NYC, which not surprisingly has the highest apparent population density of any of the cities mapped and a high level of diversity, though also clearly the racial/ethnic groups are residentially segregated to a large degree:

Vegas still shows the distinctive residential segregation of African Americans that first emerged when they were forced to live in a segregated neighborhood called Westside, physically separated from other parts of town by Boulder Highway (see Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City for a history of its development), and the predominantly-White neighborhoods ringing the Vegas Valley:

Fischer has up 102 different city maps, so there’s lots to play with and compare.

Originally posted in September, 2010.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

1The dining rooms are coming. It’s how I know my neighborhood is becoming aspirationally middle class.

My neighborhood is filled with “shotgun” houses. Probably from West Africa, they are designed for a hot, humid climate. The homes consist of several rooms in a row. There are no hallways (and no privacy). High ceilings collect the heat and the doorways are placed in a row to encourage a breeze to blow all the way through.

Around here, more often than not, they have been built as duplexes: two long skinny houses that share a middle wall. The kitchen is usually in the back leading to an addition that houses a small bathroom. Here’s my sketch:

??????????????

As the neighborhood has been gentrifying, flippers have set their sights on these double shotguns. Instead of simply refurbishing them, though, they’ve been merging them. Duplexes are becoming larger single family homes with hallways (which substantially changes the dynamic among its residents) and makes space for dining rooms. Check out the new dining room on this flip (yikes):

8

At NPR, Mackensie Griffin offered a quick history of dining rooms, arguing that they were unusual in the US before the late 1700s. Families didn’t generally have enough room to set one aside strictly for dining. “Rooms and tables had multiple uses,” Griffin wrote, “and families would eat in shifts, if necessary.”

Thomas Jefferson would be one of the first Americans to have a dining room table. Monticello was built in 1772, dining room included. Wealthy families followed suit and eventually the trend trickled down to the middle classes. Correspondingly, the idea that the whole family should eat dinner together became a middle class value, a hallmark of good parenting, and one that was structurally — that is, architecturally — elusive to the poor and working class.

The shotgun house we find throughout the South is an example of just how elusive. Built before closets, all the rooms in a traditional shotgun are technically multi-purpose: they can be used as living rooms, bedrooms, offices, dining rooms, storage, or whatever. In practice, though, medium to large and sometimes extended families live in these homes. Many residents would be lucky to have a dedicated living room; a dining room would be a luxury indeed.

But they’re coming anyway. The rejection of the traditional floor plan in these remodels — for being too small, insufficiently private, and un-dining-roomed — hints at a turn toward a richer sort of resident, one that demands a lifestyle modeled by Jefferson and made sacred by the American middle class.

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Are some Trump supporters’ political views motivated by race?

One way to find out is to see whether the typical Trump supporter is less likely to support policies when they are subtly influenced to think that they are helping black versus white people. This was the root of a study by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine.

Prior to the election, they asked 746 white respondents to complete an internet survey. Each person was randomly assigned to see one of two pictures at the beginning of the survey: a white man standing next to a foreclosure sign or the exact same photograph featuring a black man. Respondents were also asked whether they supported Trump. (Non-white people were left out of the analysis because there were too few Trump supporters among them to run meaningful comparative statistics.)

The first graph shows that white Trump supporters were eight percentage points more likely to oppose mortgage relief if they had seen a “black cue” (the picture featuring a black man) than a “white cue.” The opposite was true for white Trump opponents.

3

When asked if they were “somewhat angry” about the assistance, the same pattern held:

4

And likewise when asked if the beneficiaries of mortgage assistance were at least “somewhat to blame” for their situation:

5

Findings held when the researchers controlled for possible confounding variables.

These findings aren’t particularly surprising. Others have also found that priming respondents to think of black people tends to make them tougher on crime and advocate for less generous social programs, like in this study on attitudes toward CA’s three-strikes law. What’s new here is the difference between Trump supporters and opponents. For opponents of Trump, priming made them more sympathetic toward mortgage holders; for supporters, priming made them less. This speaks to a real divide among Americans. Some of us feel real hostility toward African Americans. Others definitely do not.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last month my neighbor and I mustered our emotional strength, gathered up our neighborhood cat, and drove to the SPCA to help her leave this earth in peace. He had named her Minou — French for kitty, a common term of endearment for cats in Cajun country — though I’m sure she’d had many names, which is why I’m posting about her here.

Minou is one of the tens of thousands of animals that were victims of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 15,500 were rescued, many more died, and some, like Minou, started a new life all on their own. Another of my neighbors, one who rode out the storm, remembers Minou showing up after the waters receded. The cat — tame, spayed, and quite clearly someone’s pet before Katrina — made my and my neighbors’ yards her home, supporting herself for 11 years on lizards and rainwater and the kindness of strangers.

When I showed up two years ago, she was the first to welcome me. I woke up one morning to find her snuggled up in bed. She had found one of the holes in my dilapidated house and climbed in. She left me dead things. She made me feel at home.

She was our little Minou. One of my neighbors fed her. We all gave her pets and treats. When she got sick, I was the one who could afford to take her to the vet, so I did. I bought her the medicine; a neighbor administered it.

She had always been a tough little survivor but, in the end, it was her time. She died in the arms of people she loved, who loved her.

As we drove to the SPCA to say goodbye, I was struck by how much she had done for us. She had brought us together by giving us a common friend and responsibility. She was the node in our network, more so even than our proximity. Often, she was why we talked to each other. Or we talked to each other over her. When one of us paused to give her some attention, it kept us outside long enough to run into each other. And since everyone stopped to give her a pet, we’d all be there together.

I knew, too, that the two of us who rode in that car together — we who had made and then carried out that impossible decision — would never be able to call each other strangers. Even in her last minutes, Minou forged a bond.

Sociologists are interested in community: the difference between those neighborhoods in which people feel a sense of togetherness and those in which they do not. I don’t know much about that literature, nor much about social networks, but I do know that, with noted exceptions, pets are on the fringe of sociological analysis. It’s an interesting oversight given that more than half of American households include at least one pet. And that’s not counting the strays.

But I do know that Minou is part of why my neighbors and I are a community and her final gift to us was to cement that bond. And when I memorialized her passing on social media, many people commiserated with similar stories of “neighborhood cats.” I bet there are stray cats all over America, bringing people together. I’m so grateful that she did that for us.

2Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at the Huffington Post.

In the 21st century, it is perhaps time to rethink the American Dream of owning a house. The feasibility of this dream was in the back of my mind the entire time I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, the highly praised ethnography of landlords and renters in Milwaukee. Dr. Desmond flips the relationship between poverty and housing instability on its head: eviction is a cause, not a symptom, of poverty.

2 To make a long, well-put, and worth-reading argument short: eviction isn’t rare as many policymakers and sociologists might assume; it is actually a horrifyingly common phenomenon. Urban sociologists have missed the magnitude of the eviction phenomenon because they have traditionally used neighborhoods as the unit of analysis, studying issues such as segregation and gentrification. Because eviction is rarely studied, we don’t have good data on eviction. Establishing a dataset of eviction is not a simple data collecting task, given that there are many forms of informal eviction. The consequences of eviction are devastating and have a profound, negative, and life-long impact on subsequent trajectories: worse housing, more eviction, and homelessness, all disproportionately affecting women of color with children (“a female equivalent of mass incarceration,” Desmond argued at a talk at the University of Pennsylvania last week).

The solution is a universal housing voucher program that is funded using money that currently goes to the mortgage interest tax deduction, a $170 billion program for homeowners that benefits mostly the upper-middle class.

Let’s set the economics of a universal voucher program aside — Desmond and many economists on both sides of the political spectrum (including Harvard economist Edward Glaeser) have already addressed the effects on the market, the argument that such a program will be a disincentive to work, and the fear of the lag time that a program will create in the housing market increasing search times. At the heart of public policy are norms and values, and the existence of the mortgage interest tax deduction — the largest housing assistance program in the country — is not a reflection of an inherent American preference for the rich over the poor. Rather, it is a reflection of an inherent American preference for the homeowner over the renter.

To implement the universal voucher program that Desmond argues for, we need to rethink the way we conceive of homeownership in American culture. As I read Evicted, the work of Robert K. Merton came to mind. In 1938, Merton, one of the contenders for the title “founder of modern sociology,” published a paper titled “Social Structure and Anomie.” In the paper, Merton argues that every society has cultural goals, “a frame of aspirational references,” and institutionalized means, “permissible and required procedures for attaining these ends.”

In American society, the institutionalized means are study hard/work hard (and maybe go to church every so often), and the cultural goals are accumulate wealth and own a house. Obviously, the vast majority of Americans don’t achieve these goals and it is extremely hard to argue that the institutionalized means will actually lead them there. But that’s okay; it just makes for a nation of ritualists. Ritualism is devotion to the means without achieving the goals. These ritualists are everywhere in American society, or at least in the way we perceive our society. We romanticize a fictional poor person that takes pride that s/he never took welfare, for example, no matter how tough times were. Welfare is not one of the institutionalized means, and the ritualist prefers to stay farther away from the goal than to cross the line to non-institutionalized means.

According to City Lab, 41% of all US households are residing in a rental unit. Are these households inhabited by ritualists, trying to achieve the goal but without the means? Maybe, but Merton offers another option – they could be rebels. The rebel may or may not conform to the cultural goals and may or may not use the means. The condition for rebellion, according to Merton, is that “emancipation from the reigning standards, due to frustration or to marginalist perspectives, leads to the attempt to introduce ‘a new social order.’”

If one of the American cultural goals is homeownership, the mortgage interest tax deduction is a tool to maintain this social order. The goal’s support structure recognizes in a sense that, with only the purist version of the institutionalized means (hard work with no government assistance), the goal is out of reach. If that support system is taken away, if we shift funding from the mortgage interest tax credit to a universal housing voucher program, we must recognize that we are supporting a cultural rebellion.

It is time to call for a change in the norms and values that are at the heart of our public policy. That is not a simple task. When I think of the “American,” I think about Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Recreation. In one of the show’s episodes, Swanson explains America to a little girl, “Let’s get started. Life, liberty, and property. That’s John Locke. This is your lunch.” Matthew Desmond, by calling for a universal voucher program, challenges this status quo and attempts to put habitability, stability, and opportunity at the heart of our value system and not as byproducts of homeownership and hard work. He also challenges the institutionalized means by calling for an increase in the number of people achieving this new goal — a stable home — specifically through quality rental housing, with government assistance, rather than through hard work alone.

The United States is nation of renters that views itself as a nation of homeowners. The millions of rental households deserve to be a part of the group that achieves the American cultural goal. They deserve government support, they deserve stability, and they don’t deserve to have to break away from the American institutionalized means. We must not shy away from the size of this task. The country might not be ready to think of itself as the nation of renters that it is. The United States is undergoing a housing and eviction crisis, and as Matthew Desmond said in his talk at Penn this week, “This is not us, there is nothing American about this.” It is time for a new social order, for the rise of the renter class as more than ritualists and rebels.

Originally from Tel Aviv, Abraham Gutman is currently at the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University. He is an aspiring sociologist working on econometrics, race, policing, and housing. He blogs at the Huffington Post and you can follow him on Twitter.