Moving 'up' isn't as easy as you might think


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    - Marketplace

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    "The Beverly Hillbillies" was a show about a poor backwoods family that moves to Beverly Hills, Calif., after striking oil on their land. Its premise inspired other "fish out of water" TV shows like "The Jeffersons" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

    - The Beverly Hillbillies

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    "The Jeffersons" introduced audiences to George and Louise Jefferson, an affluent African-American couple whose family dry cleaning franchise earned them enough money to move into an upper class high rise on the Upper East Side of New York City.

    - The Jeffersons

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    In the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes," orphaned Harlem brothers Willis and Arnold are adopted by wealthy businessman Phillip Drummond, who moves them into his Park Avenue penthouse. The boys' deceased mother previously worked for Drummond as a housekeeper. The show launched 10-year-old Gary Coleman, who played Arnold, into stardom.

    - Diff'rent Strokes

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    "Beverly Hills, 90210" followed the lives of a group of teenagers living in the wealthy community of Beverly Hills, Calif. The premise of the series was based on the culture shock twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh experienced after moving from Minnesota to an affluent neighborhood in Beverly Hills.

    - Beverly Hills, 90210

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    On "Roseanne," audiences met the Conners, a working-class family in Illinois struggling to get by. "Roseanne" was notable for portraying a blue-collar lifestyle with both parents working outside of the home and tackling many controversial issues related to low income families. In the show's ninth season, the Conners win the state lottery jackpot of $108 million and their lives shift dramatically. The series' finale reveals the family did not really win the lottery and that the show is actually a story written by matriarch Roseanne Conner about her life.

    - Roseanne

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    Will Smith starred as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," a comedy series about a street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia. After getting into a scuffle with some neighborhood kids, he is sent to move in with his aunt and uncle in their Bel-Air mansion, where his lifestyle and hijinks often clashed with that of his wealthy relatives.

    - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

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    "The Nanny" is the story of a Jewish Queens native named Fran who becomes the caretaker of three children from a wealthy background. She eventually marries into the family.

    - The Nanny

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    The cast of the hit TV show "Friends"

    - Friends

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    Social mobility isn't always a story of rags to riches. The show "Arrested Development" is about the dysfunctional Bluths, who loses their fortune after a corporate accounting scandal. The show was canceled by FOX in 2006, but demand for the show's return resulted in a deal for 14 new episodes to be released on Netflix in May 2013.

    - Arrested Development

Jada Love (left) and her mother Valerie, in the apartment they moved to last June through a residential mobility program. They especially like the peacefulness and squirrels in their new neighborhood.

Jacqueline Williams participated in the Residential Mobility Program and found a house in a middle class neighborhood with few other African-Americans. “You do feel like an outsider,” she says. “But you might have a lot the community can benefit from.”

Mobility counselor Tracey Robinson helps families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty to ones that are more economically diverse. She stands in front of the housing project unit where her own family once lived, before they moved in to a middle class neighborhood through a mobility program.

The zip code you live in can have a big impact on your economic destiny. That notion is at the heart of a number of local and federal anti-poverty initiatives --  called "residential mobility" programs. They help low-income families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, struggling schools, and few economic opportunities to middle class places where schools are often better -- and, at least in theory, the opportunities are better too. But while there may be an economic pay off in an "opportunity area" down the road, in the short term a move to a very different kind of neighborhood involves a lot of adjustments, and many are not easy.  

Some adjustments are welcome, of course. Take squirrels. If you have lived in a middle class neighborhood for most of your life, you might take them, and their scampering, for granted. But when Valerie Love and her 12-year-old daughter, Jada, recently moved to Albany Park on the north side of Chicago, squirrels were the first things they noticed.

Jada remembers how her mom began throwing jelly beans to the squirrels.

"They was coming out from every direction," Love laughs.

Their old neighborhood, says Jada, had a different kind of wildlife.  

"It had bugs," she says.

While working on some home improvements -- like putting up a closet door-- they tell me about some of the other differences between their old neighborhood and their new one. In the old neighborhood, shooting deaths were not uncommon, and many buildings had been abandoned. Love says it "looked like somebody took a grenade and blew up half the blocks."
 
Their new neighborhood is, Jada says, "peaceful and clean." Her mom adds, "there's no gangs hanging on the corner."

Squirrels, peacefulness ... these new experiences are welcome for Jada and her mother.  Love is also proud of her shiny, new kitchen, which she says the landlord used as a big selling point. "He said it's a European-style kitchen, microwave over the stove and a stainless steel refrigerator," says Love.

But there are other adjustments involved in their recent move that have been hard and uncomfortable. Love shows me her bedroom, where she's taped plastic over the windows for extra insulation in the cold winter. When her landlord visited, she says, "He said he don't like the plastic over the windows." 

He didn't like the blanket either, with the face of a tiger, that she's hung over the doorway to the guest room. 

"He came here complaining about that. 'You got a rug over the door.' I said 'a blanket, sir, a blanket,'" she says.
 
It's an unspoken thing, but even after seven months in their new world, it's easy to feel judged by a landlord over decorating choices and by new neighbors.

"In the back yard, everybody has grills on the porch," says Love. "I don't socialize too much with the neighbors in the building."

She feels like an outsider.


Changing neighborhoods can change your life Helping poor families relocate to safer neighborhoods with better schools shown to improve mobility for children.


 

Jacqualine Williams* also recently moved through a residential mobility program -- to a middle class neighborhood in Chicago's north side. It's called Edgewater, and like the area where Valerie and Jada Love live, Williams says it doesn't have a lot of other black residents.  

"The first tendency is to say, you know, I'm just going to keep to myself. But that's not going to feel good for you and you might have a lot that that community can benefit from," says Williams.
 
Williams says in some cases, she's faced outright discrimination. She says two landlords told her they wouldn't rent to tenants who had federal rent vouchers, and she's filed legal complaints against them. Williams says even though she feels like she sticks out -- for having subsidized rent, for being black- - she says she's trying to make connections in her new community.   

"I patronize the boutiques and the restaurant. I think the alderman or something put on this annual Halloween type of thing. And there wasn't that many African-Americans there. Now I can't say that I developed friends there, but we got to meet people," says Williams.

Tracey Robinson is a "mobility counselor" with a group called Housing Choice Partners in Chicago. She's helped Jackie Williams -- and people like her -- to move, and adjust to their new neighborhoods. Robinson goes down a mental list of some of the common challenges clients run in to. One woman couldn't get used to how quiet her new neighborhood was. Another was worried about leaving behind the friends and family from her old neighborhood, who helped out with babysitting. Though once she moved, she realized the trade-off was that in a safer neighborhood, her kids could do more stuff on their own.  
 
"Her grandchildren can actually ride the bus on their own now, and she's glad she made the move," says Robinson. "She don't have to worry."     

Robinson has first-hand experience with moving from a poor neighborhood to a middle class one. Her family went through a mobility program a few years ago and she still remembers the rocky beginnings.

"It was almost a month, we were getting the cold shoulder," says Robinson.
 
She decided to tackle the problem head on.  

"Finally, I went up to one of my neighbors and I introduced myself, and I just let her know if we had offended her in any way, accept our apology. And that's when she went to tell me about how the parking went," says Robinson.
 
I turns out there was an unspoken rule on her new block that everybody got one parking spot in front of their own house. The Robinsons had been parking in front of other people's homes.  

"If somebody had said 'You know what, welcome to the neighborhood, we kind of let everyone park in front of our house, blah blah blah', we would have ran with that. But, we -- we didn't know," she says.

Now, because they asked, the Robinsons do know. Tracey Robinson says it was a little thing, but it made it so much easier to feel comfortable. She's been friends with her neighbors ever since. 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name Jacqualine Williams.  The error has been corrected.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

Jada Love (left) and her mother Valerie, in the apartment they moved to last June through a residential mobility program. They especially like the peacefulness and squirrels in their new neighborhood.

Jacqueline Williams participated in the Residential Mobility Program and found a house in a middle class neighborhood with few other African-Americans. “You do feel like an outsider,” she says. “But you might have a lot the community can benefit from.”

Mobility counselor Tracey Robinson helps families move from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty to ones that are more economically diverse. She stands in front of the housing project unit where her own family once lived, before they moved in to a middle class neighborhood through a mobility program.

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