Is household mobility an asset or a problem for neighborhoods?

A new study from the Urban Institute, “Family Mobility and Neighborhood Change: New Evidence and Implications for Community Initiatives” offers some insight into how to interpret residential mobility. The study draws on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, a 10-year effort examining neighborhoods in 10 U.S. cities.

On Tuesday, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute on the study: “Who Moves, Who Stays, and the Resilience of Low-Income Communities.” (You can listen to the audio recording through a link on that page.) The panel included study authors, a representative from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and an official from HUD.

The authors caution against using poverty rates and mobility alone as indicators of a neighborhood’s quality. Instead, the study develops a typology that can be useful for future research on neighborhood initiatives. Residents over time can be characterized as movers, newcomers or stayers. Within each of those three categories, there are subcategories of residents. Movers may be churning movers, nearby attached movers or up-and-out movers. Newcomers may be dissatisfied renters, low-income retired or positive newcomers (in middle child-rearing years). Stayers may be dissatisfied stayers, long-term older stayers, or positive stayers who are optimistic about their neighborhood.

Then, by examining the makeup of a neighborhood’s residents, the neighborhoods were divided into five different typologies:

  • Incubator neighborhoods have low mobility, and tend to be improving. Many newcomers are positive and the stayers are attached to the neighborhood.
  • Launch pad neighborhoods have high mobility, and many movers are up and out. People new to and rooted in the neighborhood have high affection for it.
  • Neighborhood of choice has high mobility but with churning movers. New residents and long-time residents are both engaged in the neighborhood.
  • Comfort zone neighborhood has low mobility, but may have neutral or worsening conditions overall. People are comfortable in and attached to their neighborhood.
  • An isolating neighborhood has moderate mobility with worsening conditions. Many families are churning movers, and the long-time residents and newcomers both are renters with a degree of dissatisfaction.

The panel emphasized that mobility means different things to different neighborhoods. Overall, a neighborhood that loses more residents than it gains may be in distress, and mobility may be a problem. But what of neighborhoods that continually churn residents? Is that an indicator of trouble, or something else? It depends on the neighborhood — and it may be an asset for the neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, a high volume of churn indicated that the neighborhood was actually an incubator for future success — that is, residents there developed skills and networks that enabled them to improve their employment and financial situation, and then they moved out. When they did, they tended to retain ties to the original neighborhood.

One example of this discussed is Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW), a CDC in Lawrence, Massachusetts. [Lawrence is not a part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation study.] LCW views neighborhoods and communities as networks. It trains people as “weavers” to help people navigate the network. These weavers are educated on job opportunities, social services, education centers and other available options to help residents. LCW integrates these weavers and the network of services to popular community events, such as a local school’s back-to-school night. By co-locating these events in places where community members will be in attendance, it increases the chance for connections throughout the network with little extra effort on the part of the residents.

For a city struggling with declining population, both the neighborhood typology and the community network approach offer possible ways of approaching residential connections and mobility.