Residential Mobility and the Reproduction of Unequal Neighborhoods

Sharkey, P.
Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 2012. Volume 14, Number 3

Housing assistance policy has shifted away from project-based assistance toward tenantbased assistance. This shift in approach reflects a common assumption that, if families have the option to find homes on their own in the private market, they will seek out better quality homes in racially diverse neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty. This article presents evidence to qualify this assumption by highlighting the limits of residential mobility in reducing, in any substantive way, the degree of racial and ethnic inequality in urban America. Two empirical observations form the basis of the argument. The first observation is that residential mobility typically serves to reproduce urban inequality instead of disrupting it. The second is that urban inequality is resilient: even when individuals or families make moves that disrupt patterns of racial and ethnic inequality, the changes such moves induce are undermined by system-level processes that serve to reproduce inequality in the urban landscape. As a result, changes in families’ neighborhood environments arising from residential mobility are often temporary and are diluted by subsequent changes occurring around families. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for housing assistance policy.

Wagner Faculty