More than a decade after radical changes to the nation’s approach to public housing, there are more than one million public housing units which are home to some of the nation’s most disadvantaged families. In Boston, research suggests that public housing residents are exposed to dangerous housing conditions and are more likely to have health problems like asthma and depression. Many public housing communities are undergoing redevelopment into mixed-income communities, with researchers raising concerns that the redevelopment process may reinforce exclusionary practices and inadequately involve residents in the planning process. These findings point to the need for continued research to better understand the health and well-being of public housing residents and to translate research into practice.
We aimed to elicit a detailed view of youths’ lived experiences within a South Boston housing development preparing to undergo a $1.6 billion conversion into a mixed-income community. Specifically, we engaged youth as co-researchers in an assessment of community spaces of importance and neighborhood strengths and stressors.
We worked closely with a sample of African American, Cape Verdean, and Puerto Rican youth (n=7) residing in public housing in South Boston for four months using a mixed-methods participatory research approach including: semi-structured interviews to elicit input about residents’ lived experiences; spatial analysis of neighborhood factors using Geographic Information Systems (GIS); and Participatory Photo Mapping (PPM), a method that involves photography, neighborhood walk-along tours, and mapping to identify neighborhood places of importance. Youth co-researchers analyzed the PPM data, and the authors analyzed transcripts of interviews, working sessions, and observational field notes using an iterative process of memo writing and coding.
We will discuss process-related outcomes including lessons learned related to partnership development and sticking points in the research. Preliminary analyses suggest that the PPM method elicited unique perspectives on youths’ use of space and that youth appreciated the opportunity to share their expertise about the neighborhood. Themes included neighborhood strengths (e.g., deep kinship networks and history, social gathering spaces) as well as stressors (e.g., youth violence, opioid and crack use). For example, courtyards served as both an important community socialization space and a stressor: youth described friends being killed in acts of gun violence as well as family cookouts occuring in the same courtyard spaces. Youth also shared their hopes and fears related to neighborhood redevelopment, focusing on their hopes for a safer community that had better social gathering spaces for young people including community centers, basketball courts, and playgrounds.
Conclusions and Implications
Participatory research with youth public housing residents has the potential to lay the groundwork for meaningful engagement and inclusion of public housing residents in community redevelopment efforts. Reducing racial and economic inequality will require interdisciplinary partnerships that privilege the voices of those most affected by such inequalities. Public housing youth are among the most disadvantaged young people in the nation, and the results from this research suggest that youths' unique perspectives have the power to shed light on important neighborhood processes.