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Reflections on Recent Fieldwork in Mobile, Alabama, and Baltimore, Maryland


Researchers have offered several explanations for why voucher families, who are free to rent units in the private market in neighborhoods where greater opportunity for employment and education exist, are concentrated in poor, segregated areas. These include cost, racial preferences, social ties, proximity to relatives, and fully informed decision making. Dissatisfied with these explanations, Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at John Hopkins University, designed a study to understand the social contexts that influence low-income family mobility. DeLuca offered preliminary results from her field research in a recent presentation, “How Housing Policy Intersects With the Lives of Poor Families: Reflections on Recent Fieldwork in Mobile, Alabama, and Baltimore, Maryland.” The presentation was part of a speaker series hosted by HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Begun in 2009, the study tracked the fortunes of 100 families in Mobile, Alabama. By fully immersing themselves in the field and living among the families, DeLuca and her team of researchers developed in-depth residential biographies of participating families. Gathered through in-home interviews, community meetings, and informal interactions, these biographies chronicle the moves of each family. Although the study’s families used several types of assisted housing (including vouchers and public housing), all were low-income black families with children between the ages of 10 and 18. The study was expanded in 2010 to include low-income black families in Baltimore, Maryland.

A high percentage of participant families were subject to reactive moves, and several factors influenced the frequency of those moves and the families’ subsequent housing choices. Reactive moves are those resulting from events outside of a tenant’s control. More than 70 percent of study families had experienced a recent reactive move, with approximately 80 percent experiencing a reactive move at some point in their lives. The most common cause of reactive moves is unit failure, in which the tenant is exasperated by the landlord’s lack of proper maintenance or the unit fails a Section 8 inspection.

When a unit fails, the process of finding another unit is both pressing and challenging. Families are under intense pressure to find another unit before their voucher expires. Adding to the time crunch are other difficulties, such as those felt by single, employed mothers without a vehicle or the time to search for new housing. Compounding these logistical challenges is the high failure rate of units undergoing Section 8 inspections. In fact, one family recounted viewing 20 houses before finding a unit which passed the Section 8 inspection.

A family’s housing choice is also affected by landlords, the lists of available properties supplied by housing authorities, and their own low expectations for neighborhood and housing quality. For many families, landlords and the housing authority lists play a central role in their hunt for new homes. Landlord practices vary widely; whereas some are accommodating and flexible, more commonly, needed maintenance is not provided. Deferred maintenance results in substandard housing and inspection failures. An additional complication is that tenants often avoid reporting their landlords for fear of eviction, the loss of their voucher, or having to endure yet another move.

Although the lists housing authorities provide prospective tenants were intended to help low-income families find homes, evidence presented by DeLuca suggests that these lists actually channel low-income families into low-income neighborhoods. This prospect is particularly troublesome because many families view these lists as complete catalogs of available properties and rely heavily on them for their housing search. These lists, however, are often not updated and do not include all available properties.

Low expectations stemming from a lifetime of exposure to poverty and neighborhood violence affect how a family lives and participates in the community. The end result is often isolation motivated by concern for family safety. Families receiving housing assistance become used to retreating into their units. They often choose unit quality over neighborhood quality, rarely considering, for example, such factors as the quality of local schools and recreational facilities in their home search. In effect, these families tend to select units, not neighborhoods.

DeLuca shared several policy recommendations to improve mobility and housing options for low-income families. The first is to extend search times for families, especially for those who are interested in moving to low-poverty areas or are actively searching there. The second is to reform counseling programs and tools to focus on deconcentrating poverty. Her final recommendation is to provide families with the means to make fully informed housing choices, through up-to-date lists of available properties in safe neighborhoods with good schools and other community amenities.

Although the voucher program was intended to increase mobility for low-income families, its limited success speaks to the value of studies such as DeLuca’s, which demonstrate how the voucher program actually plays out in the lives of low-income families. Some of the unintended consequences that perpetuate urban poverty might be preventable if the right policy adjustments were made.