Connecting HUD-Assisted Renters to Opportunity
Studies have also shown that moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods at younger ages can significantly improve outcomes later in life.
Considerable research demonstrates that housing location affects essential outcomes, such as income and health, for residents, and that living in low-poverty neighborhoods with high-quality schools and low crime rates is associated with increased economic mobility and other positive effects. However, housing in these neighborhoods often is unaffordable for low-income families. In August 2023, the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted an online event, “Investing in Opportunity: Rental Assistance and Neighborhoods of Choice,” that featured recent research from Opportunity Insights (OI) on the Seattle-based Creating Moves to Opportunity program along with a general discussion of the challenges and benefits for housing choice voucher (HCV) recipients moving to low-poverty, high-opportunity neighborhoods. Owen Minott, associate director of housing and infrastructure at the Bipartisan Policy Center, moderated the event, with OI executive director Sarah Oppenheimer sharing research findings and panelists Andrea Gift Allan, managing director of real estate at Pretium; Andrea Juracek, director of Fair Housing and Public Housing Revisioning at Enterprise Community Partners; and Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, adding commentary.
Housing Mobility Research
Oppenheimer summarized research on neighborhoods and economic mobility showing that children's upward economic mobility varies widely across neighborhoods nationwide. Using linked data from the U.S. Census Bureau and tax returns, OI mapped the average income at age 35 of people who grew up in low-income households based on the area in which they grew up. The researchers found significant variation in mobility by geography. Studies have also shown that moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods at younger ages can significantly improve outcomes later in life. Because recipients of federal housing assistance live primarily in low-opportunity, high-poverty areas, policymakers have expressed interest in policies that encourage households using rental assistance to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.
In partnership with the public housing agencies of Seattle and King County, OI conducted a randomized controlled trial called "Creating Moves to Opportunity" that helped HCV recipients move to high-opportunity neighborhoods through offering counseling and search assistance, cultivating relationships and coordinating with landlords, and providing financial assistance with expenses such as application fees and security deposits. More than half of renters in the treatment group, 53.2 percent, used their HCVs to rent housing in an opportunity neighborhood compared with 15.4 percent of those in the control group. In a second phase, researchers scaled back the intervention, with one group receiving only financial assistance and one group receiving reduced financial assistance along with the other services. They found that both groups moved to opportunity neighborhoods at higher rates than the control group, although the impact of the intervention was smaller than that of the first phase.
Barriers to Housing Mobility
According to Allan, low-income families trying to access housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods face two significant challenges: identifying a home to rent — noting that one-third of high-opportunity neighborhoods are "rental deserts," many of which have exclusively or predominantly single-family homes — and being able to afford the rent for a prospective home. Although HUD's HCV program can help families afford rent in these neighborhoods, even HCV recipients can face challenges.
Navigating the HCV program can be difficult for both tenants and landlords, said Juracek. For tenants, the assistance of counselors or coaches can be helpful, particularly when they are members or representatives of the community they serve. Minott added that expert practitioners suggest pairing mobility programs with "financial education, job training, [and] individualized coaching" to help residents take advantage of the opportunities available in their new neighborhoods. Juracek noted, however, that such supports should not be requirements that burden residents. Oppenheimer agreed, arguing that "families are usually the most expert in what they need," and that offering flexibility and customizability in any support is the most effective approach.
For landlords, participation in the HCV program can entail additional steps and paperwork, potentially introducing delays and uncertainty. Juracek urged policy changes to lower the regulatory burden for landlords to participate in the program and reduce the time it typically takes to lease to a voucher holder. She also suggested that policymakers make every effort to ensure that rents keep current with market rates, and Allan pointed out that small area fair market rents or exceptions might be necessary for higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Juracek also referenced experimentation in direct-to-tenant subsidies — that is, giving tenants money directly to use for rent — as a potential way to simplify rental assistance for both landlords and tenants.
In addition to a dearth of rental options and unaffordability, discrimination can pose a barrier for low-income renters. Fair housing protections, especially source of income protections, are critical for ensuring that voucher holders can access apartments in neighborhoods of opportunity, and vigilance is required even in areas where source of income discrimination is legally prohibited. Samuels noted that because more voucher holders typically exist than landlords willing to accept vouchers, landlords can be very selective and discriminate, for example, against families with children or renters with disabilities. Receiving neighborhoods can be less welcoming to voucher holders, and, in some cases, racism and classism can present challenges for tenants.
"Both, And" Access to Opportunity
Programs that not only provide housing vouchers but also ensure that the vouchers compete with market-rate rents, lower regulatory burdens for landlords, and provide additional financial supports can help low-income renters move to neighborhoods of opportunity, which, in turn, lead to improved economic mobility and other positive outcomes. Seattle's Creating Moves to Opportunity program as well as programs providing mobility-related services under HUD's Community Choice Demonstration are successfully opening access to opportunity for HUD-assisted renters. However, the broader question, said Oppenheimer, is, "What do we do to help build or reinvest in opportunity in the areas [of lower opportunity]" so that they offer the same improved economic mobility that moves to opportunity do? The panelists agreed that policymakers should complement programs opening access to opportunity through neighborhood mobility with efforts to increase opportunity in disinvested, low-opportunity neighborhoods. Juracek pointed to an Enterprise Community Partners initiative in Louisville, Kentucky, called "Place of Promise," which centers residents in decisionmaking around community investments that promote opportunity. Mobility programs that facilitate moves to low-poverty neighborhoods and place-based investment in high-poverty neighborhoods can increase access to opportunities for low-income, HUD-assisted renters.