Neighborhood Mobility: The Path Toward Community Choice
Gretchen P. Armstrong, Social Science Analyst, HUD PD&R
The neighborhoods we live in profoundly affect not only our senses of community and identity but also the level of opportunity we find in proximity to good schools, health care, and jobs; a safe environment, and other resources. An individual’s ability to choose to live in a given neighborhood and access those opportunities, however, depends on external factors. Discriminatory policies such as redlining and exclusionary zoning and covenants have created areas of concentrated poverty and segregation that have disproportionately affected the mobility of some low-income Black and Hispanic families.
In 1974, Congress created the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, now called the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, to help low-income families access affordable housing in a wider variety of neighborhoods by providing them with a voucher that they can use to rent an apartment in the private market. Families typically contribute 30 percent of their income for rent, and the housing assistance payment makes up the remaining amount. In general, families who qualify for vouchers must earn less than 50 percent of their area median income; in practice, however, most voucher households earn incomes at or below the federal poverty level. The program currently assists approximately 2.2 million households annually.
Families with tenant-based assistance are not limited in where they can use their vouchers, and surveys of voucher holders indicate that many would prefer to live in neighborhoods that offer better schools and lower crime rates than the neighborhoods in which they currently live. Voucher holders, however, often face barriers, such as a lack of transportation or an inadequate supply of affordable housing, that make moving to these areas difficult. Families may also face discrimination in the rental screening process, particularly in states and localities that lack source of income laws to prevent landlords from discriminating against voucher holders. Studies have shown that another key barrier to mobility among families with tenant-based assistance is a lack of information about high-opportunity neighborhoods and the landlords in those areas who would be willing to accept vouchers.
Over the past 50 years, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) has been critical in developing and evaluating programs designed to encourage mobility, overcome patterns of segregation, and promote fair housing choice. In 1970, before the HCV program began, Congress authorized PD&R to establish the Experimental Housing Allowance Program to test the viability of tenant-based housing assistance. The findings from that study showed that the program demonstrated a modest benefit at improving neighborhood and housing quality but a minimal impact on desegregation. Several key initiatives since then have helped inform policymakers on the best ways to help families use vouchers to access neighborhoods with enhanced amenities and opportunities.
The Gautreaux Settlement
Shortly after the inception of the voucher program, the Gautreaux settlement became a key early area of research on the effect of vouchers on housing mobility. Residents of public housing in Chicago, led by Dorothy Gautreaux, filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the Chicago Housing Authority had engaged in racial discrimination by locating its public housing projects exclusively in majority Black neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. HUD reached a settlement with the plaintiffs in 1976 that was designed to help affected families find housing in Chicago neighborhoods with less concentrated populations of minority residents. The 425 families who used settlement vouchers were required to move to areas with a nonwhite population of less than 30 percent, which generally were in the Chicago suburbs. Participating families received housing counseling and support, including search assistance and outreach to landlords, to help them reach those goals.
Gautreaux was a court settlement, not a demonstration program; however, some researchers did attempt to analyze outcomes for families who participated in the settlement. Surveys of families who moved under the settlement appeared to show higher employment rates for female heads of household, and their teen children showed increased educational attainment and employment. Other researchers also found evidence of lower mortality rates among male youth who were Gautreaux participants.
Although these positive outcomes showed that program participants were able to take advantage of the opportunities that their new neighborhoods provided, their ability to do so might have been influenced by family characteristics that existed before their placement rather than the characteristics of the suburban areas alone. In its first review of the demonstration in 1978, PD&R found key differences between Gautreaux participants who relocated to the suburbs and those who did not. Families who moved to the suburbs had younger heads of household, were more likely to have children, had attained higher levels of education, and were more likely to own a vehicle. Subsequent studies found that the placement type appeared to be correlated with those preexisting characteristics, which limits the extent to which researchers can generalize these results.
The Moving to Opportunity Demonstration
In the early 1990s, Alexander Polikoff, the lead attorney in the Gautreaux case, advocated for a new demonstration program modeled on the Gautreaux settlement. With the support of then-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, Congress authorized the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, which was designed to address the underlying economic segregation of assisted households while resolving the methodological limitations of using Gautreaux for research. MTO used an experimental design to determine the best way to help low-income families with children move to areas with greater opportunity. Qualifying low-income families with children living in high-poverty public housing developments were randomly placed into one of three groups. One group received vouchers along with search assistance and mobility counseling to help them find housing in an area with a poverty rate of less than 10 percent. A second group received only a voucher with no restriction on where they could use it and no counseling services. A third group of families — the control group — did not receive a housing voucher but could remain in public housing if they chose. Between 1994 and 1998, HUD enrolled approximately 4,600 families living in public housing in high-poverty neighborhoods in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York for the MTO demonstration.
Without the explicit and court-ordered goal of racial desegregation, the neighborhoods where MTO families chose to move turned out to be different from those in which Gautreaux residents were placed. Margery Turner, who was HUD’s deputy assistant secretary of research, evaluation, and monitoring at the time, notes that, while they met program criteria for low poverty and were still a huge improvement over their prior neighborhoods, most MTO families moved to more racially mixed areas still in central cities and not as far from their original neighborhoods. Turner argues that “We should not underestimate the extent of the challenges facing families who opted to embark on the kind of pioneering moves that the Gautreaux families did. If our goal is to enable families to move to (and stay in) opportunity-rich neighborhoods, these programs must provide families with stronger support, both before and after their move, to overcome the persistent effects of housing discrimination and segregation.”
Because obtaining the results from the full experiment would take several years, PD&R set aside funds for scholars at the MTO sites to conduct nonexperimental qualitative and quantitative research on the program within the first few years. According to Turner, PD&R intentionally made its research request open ended, which was a somewhat controversial decision at the time. That choice, however, led to several important early findings as well as a broad following of scholars and philanthropists who were interested in the topic of housing mobility and the differences neighborhood choice could make for families.
Based on the positive findings from Gautreaux, initial hypotheses for the MTO impact studies focused on economic and educational benefits; however, research published approximately 10 years into the program did not find these anticipated benefits.
What researchers did find at the 10-year MTO follow up were significant improvements in the physical and mental health of adult participants in the demonstration. Findings from early local research raised interest and attracted funding for medical testing, which Todd Richardson, our current general deputy assistant secretary, says was crucial for demonstrating program impact. As the Contracting Officer Representative for the MTO interim and final evaluations, Richardson remembers training the staff who collected medical data and being the “test dummy” for instructing staff on how to conduct blood spot tests. “I had Band Aids on every finger,” he recalled. An analysis of participants’ medical data showed that adults in the MTO experimental group were more likely to rate their health as having improved and showed significant decreases in diabetes and BMI. Adults and girls showed significant decreases in rates of depression and other indicators of psychological distress, although this finding was somewhat offset by the negative effects found in male youth.
According to Richardson, more than 80 percent of participating families stated that getting away from gang or drug activity in their current neighborhood was either their primary or secondary reason for wanting an MTO voucher; almost no families listed getting a job as their primary motivator. As a result, the families that successfully moved got what they wanted: safer neighborhoods. They did not experience job impacts from the move, and their children’s schools were only modestly better. Richardson concluded that “What MTO ultimately showed is that safe neighborhoods are good for mental health (a sense of safety) and physical health (more walking), and it looks like those benefits translate into better outcomes for young children in the long run.”
Indeed, subsequent intergenerational studies have found positive economic and social benefits in adults who participated in the MTO experimental group when they were children. Children who were less than 13 years old when their families participated in the MTO experimental group had higher incomes in adulthood than other groups, and the younger they were when they moved to their new neighborhoods, the more their income increased in adulthood. Researchers also found that these individuals were more likely to attend college, experienced a lower incidence of teenage birth, and were more likely to be married. Another more recent study found that individuals who had moved under the MTO program as young children had higher credit scores than those in other groups.
Summing up the MTO research, Dr. John Goering, who worked in PD&R and was Government Technical Representative at the inception of the MTO program, described MTO as building upon the Gautreaux program and ultimately demonstrating the enormous benefit of long-term research, including the critical importance of understanding how best to promote housing integration. According to Goering, “MTO was a fundamental pillar in neighborhood effects policy research.”
In 2019, a smaller mobility experiment called Creating Moves to Opportunity found strong evidence that a focus on both mobility services and increased information can improve voucher family mobility. In this experiment, researchers randomly assigned families entering the voucher program in the city of Seattle and King County, Washington, to one of three groups. The first received “Incentivized Information" about high-opportunity areas with customized search assistance and financial assistance offered on the condition that they move to one of those communities. The second group received reduced housing search services, and a control group received standard public housing agency (PHA) resources. The researchers found that families in the full treatment group were 38 percent more likely than families in the control group to move to high-opportunity areas.
The Community Choice Demonstration
Bolstered by this evidence, HUD announced its newest mobility demonstration, the Community Choice Demonstration (CCD), which Congress authorized in the 2019 and 2020 Appropriations Acts. This demonstration differs from MTO in that it focuses on determining the most cost-effective services PHAs can provide to help voucher holders access and stay in better neighborhoods. CCD maintains the experimental design of randomly assigning eligible families with children to either a treatment group that is offered comprehensive mobility-related services or a control group that is offered the standard set of PHA services. In a subsequent phase, CCD will add a second treatment arm to test different bundles of streamlined services that will be selected based on their costs and the initial study results. Unlike previous demonstrations, CCD uses multiple variables to define its opportunity areas and works with PHAs to determine the most appropriate target areas.
Implementation of the CCD pilot began in 2022, with grantees enrolling HCV families with children into the demonstration in eight cities: Cleveland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Pittsburgh, and Rochester. To date, nearly 600 families have enrolled, with approximately 300 families receiving mobility-related services. The full demonstration is projected to enroll more than 15,000 families through 2028, with more than 9,300 families projected to receive mobility-related services. PD&R plans future research to analyze the impact, process, and cost-effectiveness of the demonstration, adding additional projects to assess the environmental impacts and health outcomes for both adults and children.
Comparison of Housing Choice Voucher Initiatives
Target Areas Defined by
|Moving to Opportunity (MTO)
|Community Choice (CCD)
Defined in partnership with PHAs and based on:
All or a subset of the following:
With each iteration, PD&R has gained new insights to modify the HCV program to better serve low-income families. From the innovations of its current demonstration and into the future, PD&R will continue to deliver insightful research and recommendations to further progress toward HUD’s mission to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.
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Federal Register, Vol. 85, No. 136, July 15, 2020. ×