Modest Incentives Did Not Prompt Voucher Recipients to Move to Areas of Opportunity in Chicago

A study published by Housing Policy Debate titled “Encouraging Residential Moves to Opportunity Neighborhoods: An Experiment Testing Incentives Offered to Housing Voucher Recipients” by Heather L. Schwartz, Kata Mihaly, and Breann Gala found that modest incentives, such as small grants to pay for security deposits or moving costs and low-intensity counseling, did not result in voucher recipients moving to neighborhoods of opportunity in Chicago. The authors suggest a number of barriers may have prevented voucher holders from moving to areas of opportunity, including insufficient available and affordable housing, a lack of landlord recruitment, insufficient incentives, and limited program funding.

Previous research shows the long-term benefits of living in low poverty, high opportunity neighborhoods, especially for children. Approximately 80% of voucher recipients, however, live in neighborhoods of moderate to high rates of poverty. Little research has examined the impact of incentives on encouraging voucher recipients to move to areas with lower rates of poverty and greater access to jobs, better schools, and transit.

The authors tested the impact of incentives in the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative (CRHCI) intended to encourage voucher recipients to move to opportunity neighborhoods. CRHCI was a pilot program implemented by 7 public housing agencies in the Chicago region that included coordination of a regional waiting list and efforts to make portability easier for Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) holders. An opportunity neighborhood was one that scored from 6 to 10 on a scale of 10. The scale was based on neighborhood poverty, housing stability, job access, labor market engagement, school performance, and transit access. Neighborhoods with a score of 1 to 5 were called non-opportunity neighborhoods.

Voucher recipients interested in moving were randomly assigned to one of three types of briefing sessions, which were:

  1. Business as usual: participants were provided a basic overview of the HCV program, family and owner responsibilities, and portability;
  2. Briefing + Grant: participants were provided the same information as above plus an explanation of opportunity areas and their benefits, tips about the housing search process, an offer of a $500 grant for moves to opportunity areas, and a folder with opportunity maps, copies of the Powerpoint presentation, and a flyer about the $500 offer. The $500 grant was a reimbursement paid directly to a landlord, moving company, or furniture company to help defray moving costs.
  3. Briefing + Grant + Mobility Counseling: similar to the previous group but participants were provided free mobility counseling by a family advisor.

The modest incentives had an insignificant impact on moves to opportunity neighborhoods. Among voucher recipients assigned to the typical “business as usual” briefing, 12.2% moved to opportunity neighborhoods. Just 11.4% of recipients eligible for the $500 grant and 12.1% of those offered the grant plus individual counseling moved to opportunity neighborhoods. While the incentives did not result in a higher rate of moves to opportunity neighborhoods, those households moving to opportunity neighborhoods who received counseling moved on average to slightly lower poverty, higher income neighborhoods. The heads of household that moved to opportunity neighborhoods were more likely to be white, in slightly smaller families, and employed.

The findings suggest significant barriers in the Chicago metro area for vouchers holders moving to opportunity neighborhoods. One barrier is a lack of available affordable rental housing. Other possible barriers are related to the design and implementation of CRHCI’s mobility program, including a high standard by which opportunity neighborhoods were defined, the lack of landlord recruitment, an offer of incentives too late in the housing search process to be significant, insufficient incentives, client-led counseling that was too low in intensity, and limited program funding that caused resources to be stretched too thin.

The authors offer detailed recommendations for further research on mobility counseling and landlord recruitment to test ways to increase the rate of moves to opportunity neighborhoods among voucher recipients.

“Encouraging Residential Moves to Opportunity Neighborhoods: An Experiment Testing Incentives Offered to Housing Voucher Recipients” is available at: