A Chance to Succeed: Housing Mobility Programs Help Families Move to Healthy Communities
Baltimore spent much of 2015 transfixed by the case of Freddie Gray’s death. This incident spotlighted the city’s questionable police practices and the woeful state of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray lived, an area plagued by decades of poverty and violence, where half of all households earn less than $25,000 a year. Police and criminal justice reform, along with the massive investment needed to revive such distressed neighborhoods, will require years to accomplish—and there is no guarantee of success. In the meantime, a host of programs are proactively helping families who face the same conditions of disinvestment and concentrated poverty that contributed to Gray’s arrest and death. One of these efforts is the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program.
Born out of a housing desegregation class action lawsuit, Thompson v. HUD, and administered by the non-profit Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership (BRHP), our program provides service-enriched housing vouchers to help low-income families from high-poverty Baltimore neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester move to strong neighborhoods in Baltimore City and across five counties in the metropolitan area. As one of the largest “housing mobility” interventions in the country, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program is a national model for how to put the “both/and” approach to housing policy into practice, where revitalization of poor neighborhoods is balanced with efforts to expand housing choices for families seeking safer, better-resourced communities.
Although housing mobility is widely seen today as an effective way to use housing policy to break cycles of intergenerational poverty and improve quality of life for low-income families, this has not always been the case. Acceptance of this approach has been hard-won through years of experimentation, research, and increasing public awareness of the adverse effects of concentrated disadvantage and housing segregation, among them poor academic performance, exposure to crime and violence—and the associated toxic stress that can lead to problems with children’s cognitive development, and other poor mental and physical health outcomes.
The best-known housing mobility intervention—and the main source of experimental data on this model—is the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, a randomized control study that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored in the mid and late 1990s. The study, which did not include our program, examined the outcomes of low-income residents in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York who received housing vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods and compared them with families who did not receive vouchers and those who used vouchers to move to any neighborhood of their choice, regardless of its poverty rate. The findings in HUD’s final evaluation, which looked at outcomes 10 to 15 years after baseline, were disappointing to many, showing few employment, income, or educational benefits. The results did show that voucher families were living in lower poverty neighborhoods than those who had not received vouchers and that they felt safer. In addition, adults who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods saw improved health, including lower rates of diabetes and extreme obesity for adults, and women and girls saw improved mental health.
In 2015, housing mobility supporters were vindicated when Harvard’s Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz published a study of MTO families on longer-term effects for children who had moved under the program. They found that children whose families had moved to low-poverty areas when they were under 13 had higher earnings, marriage rates, and college attendance by their mid-20s than those who were not offered a voucher to move. Chetty and Hendren also conducted a study of tax records on 5 million children whose families had moved across counties between 1996 and 2012, and similarly found that each additional year low-income children spent in a better area improved their earnings and college attendance, and reduced the likelihood of teenage births. This “childhood exposure effect” was linear; the more time spent in a healthy community, the greater the benefit.
The Chetty findings, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June in the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., fair housing case and a new federal rule requiring HUD grantees to affirmatively further fair housing issued in July, bolstered BRHP’s confidence in the effectiveness of our program and raised national awareness of efforts such as ours as an evidence-based means for moving people out of poverty. With 14 other programs now in operation throughout the country—the largest in Baltimore, Chicago, and Dallas—and with New Jersey set to establish one this year, we expect to see mobility programs gain greater attention and support.
Each housing mobility program takes a slightly different form in its administrative structure, program requirements, and service components. BRHP’s program in the Baltimore region is funded largely by HUD, as required by the settlement for the aforementioned desegregation lawsuit. We administer both the Housing Choice Voucher side of the program and our supportive counseling services. A key feature of our approach is flexible payment standards that allow the program to pay higher subsidies in better areas. Another key element is extensive pre- and post-move counseling for families.
Before receiving a voucher, our participants complete a series of pre-move workshops and one-on-one sessions, in which they address financial barriers to leasing in the private market place and learn skills for negotiating landlord-tenant issues. We also hold group and individual housing tours so that participants are supported in their housing search. Recognizing the challenge of finding a voucher-friendly landlord in our sprawling jurisdiction, we provide generous search time and have a dedicated landlord outreach specialist. We offer substantial security deposit assistance and thereby reduce the challenge that saving such a large sum presents to low-income families. Because our vouchers can be used across Baltimore and its surrounding five counties, without the administrative hassle that “porting” a voucher across county lines usually entails, our clients are able to find a new home far more easily than under the traditional voucher program. Lastly, our model requires families to remain in an opportunity area—which we define based on high-performance on opportunity indices, standardized school testing, and other data sources—for the first two years they are housed in our program, giving them time to acclimate to life in a new community.
Due to the emerging and positive research, more PHAs are showing interest in creating mobility programs. But because of limited funding and federal-level policy decisions, the number of housing mobility programs in operation today remains limited. Even an infusion of funding for targeted programs like ours, however, is not the sole solution to our national affordable housing shortage or the dire social and economic conditions in our inner cities. Mobility programs should be considered along with place-based investment and be used in combination with other policy tools that allow low-income families to more easily move out of distressed areas. These tools include both source of income protections, prohibiting landlords from discriminating against voucher holders, and inclusionary zoning policies, encouraging (or requiring) developers to include affordable units alongside market-rate ones. States can also create incentives for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which subsidize the development of affordable rental units, to be used in high-opportunity neighborhoods, rather than the lower-cost areas where the tax credit properties are currently concentrated.
A mix of smart and affirmative policies, reforms, and dedication can begin to dismantle the hurdles low-income families face in finding safe and affordable homes to raise their children. We hope to see these policies take effect in Baltimore and beyond in the near future.
By Rachel Brash, Policy and Research Director of the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership