The findings are clear: In many large housing estates, low-income households are moving in. Because they cannot find adequate housing elsewhere, they move to where it is still available at affordable prices. All in all, this increases the concentration of poverty in the large housing estates. What does this mean for policy? The public debate in Germany is still dominated by the image of a “social mix”, which is to be maintained or restored through targeted control of the resident structure of large housing estates. But the scientific evidence for this is thin. Another variable is more important and easier to influence politically: infrastructure provision.
If you follow the discussion on large housing estates in the German public, one narrative dominates above all: “The social mix is in danger!” In conjunction with often dystopian associations, politicians and planners fear the development of “ghettos”, warn of “parallel societies” and see the “integration capacity” of our cities threatened. Such fears are based on the idea of “neighbourhood effects”, which is also discussed in research. Put simply, this theory assumes that living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood leads to additional difficulties for disadvantaged households. From this diagnosis, housing companies and policy-makers derive the demand to keep occupancy rates for low-income households low in large housing stocks and rather not build too many social housing units in large housing estates. But how exactly are the postulated “neighbourhood effects” justified, and how tenable are the justifications? Can they really justify certain political-planning interventions?
Some researchers refer to neighbourhood effects primarily as stigmatisation processes, i.e. the effects of a “bad address” on the life chances of disadvantaged persons. This connection has been proven by individual qualitative studies, for example on discrimination in job applications or in the granting of loans. Overall, however, stigmatisation is difficult to prove. Stigmatisation and discrimination are also difficult for policy-makers to control, because they arise in complex social discourses that are difficult for policy-makers to influence and are reflected in a variety of micro-practices (e.g. in the selection between different housing applicants).
Another perspective refers to socialisation effects. Here it is assumed that the fact that adolescents in the respective neighbourhoods have almost exclusive contact with people of low status shapes their socialisation to such an extent that social advancement is made impossible. If you are surrounded only by the unemployed, you will never think of becoming a professor, so the theory goes. Of all the perspectives, this one implies most clearly that a high proportion of poor households per se (as the governing mayor of Berlin Franziska Giffey put it, for example) leads to “too many social problems in one place”. However, this connection is controversial and the scientific evidence for the “contact hypothesis” is thin. How someone grows up is simply dependent on too many factors. Recent research on migration-dominated neighbourhoods has also shown that spatial concentrations of households with the same social characteristics can also lead to more mutual support and thus better integration. However, even if one shares the very questionable premise that poor people learn poverty from poor people, the question arises as to whether this problem can be tackled through immigration barriers and fewer social housing units in large housing estates. In view of highly strained urban housing markets and the progressive displacement of poorer and even middle-income households from innercity neighbourhoods, moving into large housing estates is currently simply without alternative – at least as long as significantly more social housing is not built in affluent areas as well.
A third reading focuses on infrastructure and argues that neighbourhoods with many poor residents generally have poorer transport links, a less diversified commercial infrastructure and often poorer schools and cultural and social facilities. In this perspective, those who are less well educated, have a poorer diet and have to overcome barriers in order to enjoy culture, for example, are at an additional disadvantage compared to city dwellers who have all this in close proximity. This perspective focuses on material disadvantages, e.g. lack of public transport connections and overburdened schools. Instead of locating the problem with the people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, it emphasises the socio-spatial allocation of resources. It thus directly opens up a perspective for action: neighbourhoods in which households with social problems are concentrated need additional support. They must be particularly well served by public transport and broadband connections, provided with particularly well-equipped schools and strengthened with particularly active youth, leisure and cultural promotion.
In sum, it becomes clear that the paradigm of social mix does not offer the best approach to the actual problems in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods. A policy that focuses on urban disadvantage compensation in the infrastructure sector would be more targeted and effective here.