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How a hybrid housing policy is opening doors to good neighborhoods

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Jackie used short-term financial assistance to help pay the deposit on a new apartment for her and her 9-year-old son. With the help of a housing advocate, Dee, a mother of five, was able to compare neighborhood amenities in ways she’d never thought to do. Melinda received a list of property owners and landlords who ignored “Section 8 stereotypes” and were ready to work with her to find a new home for her and her 2-year-old son.

Through a combination of financial support and custom guidance and advocacy, these Washington state mothers were able to move to neighborhoods with more opportunities for their children. They’re three of the 420 families who participated in a regional housing mobility program that refutes the assumption that low-income families want to stay in low-opportunity areas.

The program, Creating Moves to Opportunity, helped those families overcome barriers to moving to high-opportunity areas through an approach tailored to each family. And it showed surprising results: A little more than 54% of families who received customized support leased homes in high-opportunity areas, compared to 14% who did not receive the support. 

Research shows that children who grow up in low-income (25thpercentile) families but high-opportunity areas make about $6,800 more each year as adults, compared to children in similar families who grow up in low-opportunity areas.

Despite this statistic, there are a variety of reasons why families might stay in a low-opportunity area, said Christopher Palmer, an assistant professor of finance at MIT Sloan. Those reasons could be proximity to family, or work, or other neighborhood amenities that a family likes and wants to remain close to.

But this new research shows that, given tailored support to find the right high-opportunity neighborhood, many families do want to move. Palmer was part of the six-person team behind the program. The other team members include Peter Bergman of Columbia University; Harvard University professors Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz; and Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins University.

The trial ran between April 2018 and February 2019, and was conducted in both Seattle and surrounding King County, with the help of the jurisdictions’ respective housing authorities. The program defined “high-opportunity neighborhood” using data in the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive map of the United States (created by a team including Chetty and Hendren) that followed the trajectory of the lives of children born between 1978 and 1983. 

Fifty-four percent of families who received customized support moved into homes in high-opportunity areas, compared to 14% who did not receive the support.

Sarah Oppenheimer, director of research and evaluation at King County Housing Authority, said both housing departments were looking at access to opportunity for families for nearly a decade before collaborating on the Creating Moves to Opportunity program with the team of researchers.

“[Creating Moves to Opportunity] and results from the academic team’s work really helped us to double down on a policy area — geographic choice and kids’ long-term outcomes — where KCHA and SHA have been focused for a long time,” Oppenheimer said“Working with this team helped us to really up our game on mobility — to employ new tools in defining opportunity neighborhoods, to be really intentional about how to bring together the right mix of service strategies into a single intervention — and to use our partnership with the academic team to develop a really robust but also practical study design to measure what worked best.”

How it worked

Each of the 420 families in the trial were given monthly housing choice vouchers (worth on average $1,510 in rental assistance). The families were first-time voucher recipients, with average incomes of $19,600. 

Along with the vouchers, each family received customized search assistance and short-term financial assistance (about $1,100 in addition to the housing choice vouchers).

The customized search assistance included identifying available units, preparing rental documents (including how to address credit and rental histories), and help with direct engagement with landlords.

The housing authorities partnered with a non-profit that was willing to be a rental broker, Palmer said, “so we didn't actually have to overburden the local governments, the local public housing authorities, because they could contract with this outside provider that could provide these services.”

While exploring what would work best in Washington, the research team developed the intervention with insights from existing mobility programs in Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities that have offered similar services in the past.

In some  instances, vouchers offering more money did help families get into more expensive neighborhoods, Palmer said,  but “not in every city are the more expensive neighborhoods the better neighborhoods for kids to grow up.”

And just giving families more facts about various neighborhoods could overwhelm someone already stressed about a housing situation.

A distinguishing feature of the service in Seattle and King County is that families who participated in the program chose where they wanted to move. In the majority of past mobility programs, families were required to move to certain high-opportunity neighborhoods in order to use their voucher. 

That’s why the more personalized approach developed for Seattle and King County really mattered, said Jodell (Jodi) Speer, a research project manager with the Seattle Housing Authority. 

“Historically in social services we try to do for rather than do with,” she said. “This [Creating Moves to Opportunity] approach really provides tools for families that empowers them to confidently interact with the landlord that they hope to rent from, and then following that, have a successful tenancy because of the tools they’ve learned.”

The housing authorities also learned lessons about implementing a successful research partnership that both Speer and Oppenheimer said can be applied in other jurisdictions. They include:

 
  • Plan for the different technology systems you’ll need.

  • Get buy-in from staff and other related departments.
  • Develop mutually beneficial partnerships among local jurisdictions.
  • Get academics at the table.

Next steps

The research team will monitor whether or not families stay in the high-opportunity neighborhoods they moved into. It will also narrow down whether one of the barriers facing low-income families hoping to move mattered more than another  — a lack of financial assistance, for example, or not enough information on neighborhoods.

“We used a broad spectrum antibiotic,” Palmer said. “We tried to attack every barrier these families might face. Was there one barrier that mattered much more than the other ones? Can we break these apart and maybe come up with a more streamlined and more cost-effective way that tells us what was the biggest barrier, and is there a streamlined cost-effective version of this that we could scale up in other places?”

The team will also be looking to replicate this program in other cities. Palmer said 20 public housing authorities across the country are interested. They include Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis, and Louisville, Kentucky. 

There’s also been attention from Capitol Hill in the form of the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration, a bill that directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish a framework helping local housing authorities to set up their own choice programs.

“It does feel like an important moment,” Palmer said. “There's momentum that neighborhoods matter, there's potential funding and policy interest, and now there's evidence — in part because of this paper — randomized control trial evidence that's scientific and hard to argue with; you can make a difference by removing some of these barriers in addressable ways.”

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