Skip to main content

Enabling Access to Neighborhoods of Opportunity

Featured Article
HUD USER Home > PD&R Edge Home > Featured Article

Enabling Access to Neighborhoods of Opportunity

A row of suburban housing.Living in better-resourced neighborhoods improved residents' health, educational, and economic outcomes and increased equity by disrupting intergenerational cycles of poverty. Photo credit:

Research over the past two decades indicates that neighborhood characteristics influence social and economic outcomes for families and children. This finding suggests that policymakers should pursue two priorities: increasing families’ mobility to neighborhoods of opportunity and comprehensively revitalizing underresourced neighborhoods. At the 9th National Housing Mobility Conference, hosted by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Mobility Works, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, a panel of researchers and practitioners discussed current and future research into policies that promote or impede mobility and how policy can support neighborhood choice. Panelists included Stefanie DeLuca, professor of sociology and social policy at Johns Hopkins University; Sarah Oppenheimer, executive director of Opportunity Insights; Daniel Teles, senior research associate at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute; and Sarah Strochak, a doctoral fellow at the New York University Furman Center. Solomon Greene, principal deputy assistant secretary for policy development and research at HUD, moderated the discussion.

The Power of Place in Reducing Inequities

Substantial research shows the positive impact that moving to neighborhoods of opportunity can have on families, especially children. DeLuca listed some of the benefits that researchers have documented. Mobility benefits children who move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, making them more likely to attend college; earn more over their lifetimes; and eventually have children of their own who grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods, helping to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Women and their female children who move to high-opportunity areas experience improved mental health outcomes on par with mental health best practices and antidepressant medication therapies. In general, families experience better health outcomes — including lower incidences of asthma attacks, lower hospitalization rates, lower inpatient costs, and reduced use of psychiatric services, among other benefits — suggesting that mobility is essentially a cost-effective form of health care.

Human Factors Aiding Household Mobility

Research also is identifying best practices that help families achieve mobility. One important factor is the relationship that families have with service providers. Oppenheimer described the importance of effective housing navigator services in helping families move to their neighborhood of choice. In practice, significant barriers often prevent families from successfully using rental vouchers, particularly for moves to areas of opportunity, leading many to settle for housing in higher-poverty neighborhoods where their voucher may be easier to use. Using a collaborative mixed-method approach involving interviews with more than 160 families, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Harvard University identified 3 distinct ways in which the quality of the relationship between the service provider and the voucher holder influenced optimal locational outcomes. First, families should feel that services are accessible, including in the method of their provision. This can mean that navigators are checking in with regular text messages, for example. Families also benefit when services are convenient, meaning that families can access services on a timeline that works for them. Second, services need to feel collaborative, with families and service providers being full partners in achieving housing goals. Finally, navigators need to be able to provide content that is relevant. Often this means that navigators themselves have had experiences similar to those of the families with whom they work. The information these navigators could provide was not only of greater quality, but the shared experience helps to build trust with families. Consequently, families gained greater confidence in their housing searches, building fortitude to withstand rejection from housing in their neighborhoods of choice, a stick-to-itiveness to keep trying, and resilience from settling for lower-quality neighborhoods the families do not prefer.

Promoting Mobility Through Voucher Policy

Expanded protections against source of income discrimination and the development of Small Area Fair Market Rent standards are two policies that have bolstered voucher holders’ success in moving to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Although source of income antidiscrimination policies date back to the 1970s, they have become increasingly common since 2015; today, more than half of voucher holders live in areas with source of income protections. Teles said that evidence shows that enacting such protections results in more families with children moving into low-poverty neighborhoods. These protections also improve over time as loopholes exploited by landlords are uncovered and closed, and jurisdictions with more recently enacted protections benefit from the experiences of jurisdictions that adopted protections earlier.

Despite these improvements, Teles reported that the success rate of voucher usage has declined significantly over the past four decades. Thirty years ago, the voucher success rate exceeded 80 percent; 20 years ago, the rate declined to more than 70 percent, and by 2019, it declined further to approximately 60 percent.

Strochak explained how the method of setting payment standards for vouchers, which are traditionally set at the metropolitan-area level, can affect voucher recipients' access to high opportunity neighborhoods. When payment standards are determined homogeneously for an entire metropolitan area, more units are voucher-eligible in low cost areas, and fewer are eligible in high cost areas, which tend to have higher opportunity. When payment standards are calculated at the ZIP Code level, a voucher's value increases in higher-rent areas and decreases in lower-rent areas, which should allow more voucher recipients to move to higher cost areas that were difficult to access under traditional metro-wide Fair Market Rents. Emerging evidence shows that the use of Small Area Fair Market Rents is effective in helping new voucher recipients move to higher-rent neighborhoods and reduces the likelihood that voucher holders will move to higher-poverty neighborhoods. Furthermore, the switch to Small Area Fair Market Rents did not decrease the lease-up rate among voucher holders.


Collectively, the panelists presented strong evidence of the benefits of helping families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods and neighborhoods of their own choosing. Living in better-resourced neighborhoods improved residents' health, educational, and economic outcomes and increased equity by disrupting intergenerational cycles of poverty. Furthermore, policy innovations and research into their efficacy have paved the way for increased mobility among voucher holders even as other factors impede their ability to successfully secure an apartment. The panelists emphasized that the success of these innovations should not cause policymakers to neglect the other important element of improving geographically based aspects of human well-being: investing in underresourced neighborhoods to reduce the place-based barriers to equity that make these mobility programs necessary in the first place. While policymakers continue to address these issues, enabling neighborhood choice and improving opportunity in low-income neighborhoods will be complementary strategies for housing equity.

A link to the conference proceedings can be found here.

Published Date: 9 January 2024

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.