April 27, 2010

Neighborhoods Matter in Shaping Lives, Researcher Says

Anna Maria Santiago.
Photo by MJ Murawaka.

Having grown up in poverty and lived in substandard housing has brought sensitivity to Anna Maria Santiago's social work research about how people live and how place affects their lives.

The Case Western Reserve University campus recently met Santiago, the inaugural holder of the Leona Bevis & Marguerite Haynam Professorship in Community Development at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, during a special reception.

Currently on the faculty at Wayne State University, Santiago will officially start at CWRU on July 1. Her arrival will build on the social work school's strength in neighborhood research by faculty members Mark Chupp, Claudia Coulton, Rob Fischer, Mark Joseph, Sharon Milligan and others from the Center on Poverty and Community Development.

"Place matters," Santiago says. "Where one lives has a tremendous influence on the resources available to the individual."

It's a finding emerging from her research with hundreds of families in public housing and who are raising thousands of children in Denver.

Schools, grocery stores, police protection, medical facilities and libraries are the kinds of resources not equally distributed among neighborhoods, Santiago said.

It was those kinds of resources—and in particular access to training in music and the arts in Milwaukee with progressive social services and neighborhood programs—and her mother's value of education, Santiago attributes to her success.

"I would not be where I am today," she said, noting that the opportunity to master the oboe earned her a college scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. She later changed her major to geography in the social sciences, with a specialization in the Caribbean and Latin America.

After working as a social worker in her old neighborhood in Milwaukee, she went on to earn a PhD in urban social institutions from UW Milwaukee.

Santiago is the lead investigator on two major projects that involve families and children from the Denver Housing Authority: "Not Just Buying a Home: The Effects of Participation in Homeownership Programs On Building Human, Financial and Social Capital Assets of Subsidized Housing Residents and their Children," funded by The Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and "Magnitudes and Mechanisms of Neighborhood Impacts on Children: Analyzing a Natural Experiment in Denver," supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The projects will be jointly housed at CWRU and Wayne State after she comes to campus.

She has concentrated her research on the families living in the Denver Housing Authority, because their self-sufficiency and asset building programs are models of best practices among the 1,500 housing authorities providing such programs.

Long before it was federally mandated to provide scattered-site housing as an option, Denver's housing authority had been purchasing homes, fixing them up, and giving families a chance to live in better neighborhoods.

In previous work, Santiago and colleagues looked at two factors—crime and property values and found neither increased because of the arrival of public housing families. Neighborhoods improved.

Building upon what is known about low-income European American and African American families, Santiago has created a new niche in neighborhood research by including the Latino community, which is the predominant ethnic group in Denver's public housing. She is also looking at the role of housing programs on refugee groups such as the Vietnamese.

In "Not Just Buying a Home," a longitudinal study over the past 11 years, Santiago has followed 500 families in an asset-building program that has a home ownership component. In the first two years of the program, families are helped with money management and budgeting skills to reduce debt and repair credit. In the third year, the families participate in the Homebuyer's Club, a 12-month commitment to receive intensive counseling on homeownership to learn about mortgages, home purchases, and other factors associated with buying a house.

Families, which have completed the program, moved into higher quality neighborhoods, the homes appreciated in this downturn climate and fewer homeowners—only 8 percent compared to an average 16 percent overall for low-income homeowners who did not participate in the program—faced home foreclosures.

In the study on neighborhood effects on child outcomes, Santiago is following the lives of nearly 2,000 children, who have lived at least two years in public housing during childhood. The study traces where they lived and how they fared across four developmental stages: early childhood; late childhood; pre-adolescence and adolescence.

Santiago's new chair—the Bevis & Haynam Professorship—was established by lifelong social workers and friends Leona Bevis (SAS '43) and Marguerite Haynam (FSM'30, LYS '31, SAS '41). In 2009, their combined estate gifts, together with support from friends, peers and an anonymous champion of social service research, created the professorship. Bevis was the first female executive director of the Welfare Federation of Cleveland. Haynam was the executive director of the Travelers Aid Society and a former faculty member at the social work school. In addition, the Frank and Nancy Porter family provided an endowed scholarship in support of the fund.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, April 27, 2010 09:01 AM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, Faculty, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Research, features

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