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Expanding Housing Choices for HUD-Assisted Families


Report Acceptance Date: April 1996

Posted Date: March 30, 1996

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Recent social science evidence has shown that housing search assistance and counseling can be critically important for families who want to use their Section 8 tenant-based assistance to move to low poverty or non-minority neighborhoods. Moreover, evidence from the Gautreaux program in Chicago indicates that moving out of distressed inner-city neighborhoods can significantly improve employment and education outcomes for poor families and their children.

The Chicago Gautreaux program was established in the late 1970s as part of a court-imposed public housing desegregation remedy. Black families who are residents of public housing or eligible to move into public housing receive Section 8 certificates that must be used to move to predominantly white or racially mixed neighborhoods; families not willing to make such moves do not receive the assistance. Gautreaux families receive screening, training, counseling, and home referral services from the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, which has placed approximately 6,000 families throughout a six-county area around Chicago since 1980.

Professor James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University surveyed participants in the Gautreaux program and found notable improvements in the employment experience of adults who moved to suburban communities and large improvements in the prospects of their children, in comparison with a reference group. For example, children of families who moved to suburban neighborhoods were much more likely to complete high school, take college-track courses, attend college, and enter the work force than children from similar families who remained in the central city.

Although the evidence from Gautreaux is promising, Rosenbaum's results do not provide definitive evidence that mobility counseling makes sense for all eligible families, or that moving out of a distressed neighborhood consistently results in improved employment and education outcomes. For example, interest in the Gautreaux program among eligible families is difficult to disentangle from more general interest in Section 8 assistance, because Gautreaux offers families a short-cut around the Chicago Public Housing Authority's years-long Section 8 waiting list. In addition, Rosenbaum's research was limited to families who stayed in their new housing units, making it impossible to determine the number or characteristics of families who chose not to remain in the predominantly white neighborhoods to which they moved.

Finally, the comparison reference group for research on Gautreaux participants (families who used their Section 8 certificates within the city of Chicago) does not represent a true control group; families who moved to the suburbs may differ systematically in motivation and capacity from those who remained in the city. Thus, the major short-coming of earlier studies of mobility programs is that they estimate program effects by comparing participant outcomes to outcomes for a self-selected comparison group. These estimates cannot definitively separate effects of the mobility program with pre-existing differences between those who joined the program and those who do not. Only by randomly assigning families from a common pool of applicants to different types of housing assistance is it possible to be confident that systematic differences are attributable to mobility counseling and housing assistance.

Despite these limitations, the encouraging evidence from the Gautreaux demonstration resulted in legislation authorizing HUD to test housing mobility strategies more systematically in the Moving to Opportunity demonstration. MTO differs from Gautreaux in that it focuses on the poverty rate of sending and destination neighborhoods rather than on their racial composition. The public and assisted housing projects from which participants are drawn must be located in neighborhoods where at least 40 percent of the population is poor, and recipients of MTO assistance must move to neighborhoods where no more than 10 percent of the population is poor. Despite this important difference, MTO has relied heavily upon the Gautreaux experience in designing a program that is intended to help families in search of better lives for themselves and their children. As in Gautreaux, non-profit organizations recruit landlords throughout the metropolitan area to accept MTO families, and provide screening, counseling, search assistance, and follow-up support to participating families.

Section 152 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992 established three key parameters for the MTO demonstration:

  • The demonstration was restricted to no more than six very large cities with populations of at least 400,000 in metropolitan areas of at least 1.5 million people.
  • Eligibility was limited to very low-income families with children who live in public housing or Section 8 project-based housing located in central city neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.
  • HUD has entered into contracts with non-profit organizations to provide counseling and services in connection with the demonstration and with public housing agencies (PHAs) to administer the Section 8 rental assistance.

HUD has implemented a carefully controlled experimental design for MTO to definitively answer questions about the effectiveness of mobility counseling, and about the long-term impacts of moving to low-poverty communities.

Specifically, the demonstration is designed to answer two important sets of questions about the role and effectiveness of assisted housing mobility. First, what are the impacts of mobility counseling on families' location choices and on their housing and neighborhood conditions? And ultimately, what are the impacts of neighborhood conditions on the employment, income, education, and social well-being of MTO families?

Eligible participants in the MTO demonstration are randomly assigned to three groups:

  • the MTO experimental group receives Section 8 rental certificates or vouchers usable only in low-poverty areas (census tracts with less than 10 percent of the population below the poverty line in 1989), along with counseling and assistance in finding a private unit to lease;
  • the Section 8 comparison group receives regular Section 8 rental certificates or vouchers (geographically unrestricted) and the typical briefings and assistance from the PHA; and
  • the in-place control group continues to receive their current project-based assistance.

Outcomes for all three groups will be systematically monitored and evaluated over a ten-year period, in order to fully assess the impacts of housing mobility assistance. This random-assignment experimental design is essential to achieve the statutory goals of MTO.

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