Mobility Program Provides Access to Higher Quality Neighborhoods

A study titled “The Effects of a Housing Mobility Experiment on Participants’ Residential Environments” by Quynh Nguyen, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, Nicole Schmidt, and Theresa Osypuk published this month by Housing Policy Debate finds that voucher recipients in the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration program experienced improvements in neighborhood conditions, such as lower rates of violent crime, fewer economic disadvantages, and fewer signs of neighborhood disorder.

MTO was a $70 million 10-year HUD demonstration program begun in 1994 aimed at testing the effects of low income voucher recipients moving from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods. While most previous studies have looked at outcomes for individuals and families, such as mental health, physical health, and labor market participation, fewer studies have looked at changes in neighborhood conditions.

The MTO demonstration program was implemented in five major cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) and included over 4,600 families with children initially living in public or project-based assisted housing located in high-poverty neighborhoods. Families were assigned to one of three groups:

  1. Low-poverty group: These families were provided Housing Choice Vouchers that could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods where less than 10% of households were in poverty. This group received housing counseling to help them find appropriate rental units.
  2. Section 8 group: These families were given traditional housing vouchers which had no restrictions on the type of neighborhoods in which they could be used. This group received no counseling.
  3. Control group: These families received no vouchers through MTO, but continued to be eligible for project-based housing assistance and whatever other social programs and services to which they would otherwise be entitled.

The low-poverty and Section 8 group experienced improvements in neighborhood conditions as compared to the control group. Both groups experienced better neighborhood socioeconomic conditions, such as lower neighborhood unemployment, lower housing vacancy rates, and lower rates of households receiving public assistance. The effect was larger for the low-poverty group than the Section 8 group on 11 of 22 socioeconomic indicators. Both groups also experienced an improvement in participants’ feeling safe in their neighborhood and declines in neighborhood social disorder, as measured by public drinking, people seen using drugs, police not coming when called, and the prevalence of trash, graffiti, and abandoned buildings.

The study informs current efforts to improve low income households’ access to higher opportunity neighborhoods. The study also demonstrates how a single program target, a lower neighborhood poverty rate, achieved broader neighborhood outcomes, which the authors note is an important consideration in the debate around how to identify “higher opportunity” neighborhoods.

Voucher holders face multiple barriers in moving to low-poverty, higher opportunity neighborhoods. These barriers include a lack of housing available to voucher holders, limited time to find a rental unit, limited knowledge about available units, and the lack of sufficient social services to assist families experiencing other difficulties such as unemployment, mental or physical health problems, or violent crime victimization that put additional strains on the family while searching for a home. Few mobility programs exist to help voucher holders overcome these barriers. And while neighborhood data are available, housing authorities are not evaluated on voucher holders’ neighborhood conditions. The authors recommend funding for housing counseling and search services to ensure families have the assistance they need to locate housing in higher opportunity neighborhoods and to remain there in subsequent moves.

The Effects of a Housing Mobility Experiment on Participants’ Residential Environments is available at: