Q&A: Avoiding Isolation Will Be Key For MetroHealth’s New Housing Project
MetroHealth recently announced it will invest $60 million in a new mixed-income housing community in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood on Cleveland's West Side. Case Western Reserve University Professor Mark Joseph spoke with ideastream's Anne Glausser about the influence these kinds of developments can have on community health.
You’ve studied mixed-income communities a lot, what’s the general idea behind them?
The general idea is it's kind of a win-win. On the one hand, you've got communities that perhaps for a long time have been disinvested and so have kind of gotten down on their luck, as it were, and a mixed-income community is an opportunity to both invest in housing that will be there for low-income households, low-income families, but also have market-rate homes that can continue to bring people into the neighborhood, into the region, who have higher incomes. And so you get a little bit of both. But you also have an opportunity then to have communities, unlike most of our neighborhoods in many of our cities that are so segregated, where folks who have different economic and racial backgrounds are able to live together.
So that's the idealistic version. But as your research has pointed out, there are some very specific cons to this kind of approach, too.
Let's make sure we're clear about the upsides which are, evidence shows, we can certainly physically revitalize neighborhoods. And that results not only in the actual site being transformed but also the neighborhood around it. And then that results in a safer, more stable, less stressful environment for everyone involved, so that's a really important thing. On the other hand, the goal is also to go beyond mixed-income housing and create mixed-income communities, where folks of different backgrounds are living together and connecting, building relationships, networks and so on. And our research has shown that's much more challenging to get folks who are coming from very different experiences and outlooks sometimes to figure out how to live together comfortably. There's also hope that mixed-income housing is a platform for economic change and economic opportunity. I think that's actually one of the things that's exciting about the plan that MetroHealth put out on Friday. They have clearly some specific ideas. For example, this HOPE institute that includes job training, that includes financial literacy, includes other ways of making sure it's not just about housing but it's also about the other components that can really make a difference in people's lives. We haven't seen that happen as much in other cases.
I have seen from your research that isolation and the lack of community building can very much be present in mixed-income community developments. This gets some people on the fence about this kind of project.
Yeah, it worries me in a big way, and so I'm glad you've raised it. This is where mixed-income communities can go wrong or could certainly fall far short of what we hope from them. When you bring people of different backgrounds together but then you end up setting up a community where certain folks don't feel as welcome, don't feel a sense of belonging, feel more monitored, feel like they're kind of on thin ice as far as what they or their households or their visitors do, they naturally hunker down. And if you've got others in that community who aren't used to being in a racially-mixed and economically-mixed community who kind of keep to themselves, you actually end up with more social isolation than you had in the previous segregated community. And as you may know, social isolation has been directly linked to worse health. If we want better health, being connected with our community, having good social capital as we call it, is key. So we've got to make sure that mixed-income communities also turn into places where folks are connecting with each other, are feeling a part not only of their housing but of their neighborhood. So one of the questions I would have, for example, for the MetroHealth project, I noticed that it's mixed-income, but it's separate buildings. So, there's an affordable building and then there are two market-rate buildings. One of the opportunities here is to think really hard in the design of how you're going to connect those buildings to each other and to the amenities that are going to be provided, and to the broader neighborhood. What you don't want is folks getting wonderful affordable housing but feeling like they have to really hunker down and not be a part of their broader community.
Do you think that other local nonprofit hospitals might follow suit?
I'm sure folks are going to be looking very carefully at what that $60 million yields and if there is a return on investment that starts to show their health savings on the back end of this, I absolutely think that others will be jumping on board.