The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 24, 2015

Moving out but not up: Why mobility programs don’t always work as expected

June 24, 2015

Mobility has become a key goal of US housing programs. The assumption is that by providing housing assistance to reduce housing costs for low-income households, they can make the seemingly rational choice to move to better neighborhoods.

Several notable mobility programs have operated under these pretenses, but the results of Gautreaux, Moving To Opportunity, HOPE VI, and the Housing Choice Voucher program have been disappointing. Time and again, these evaluations have shown that too few low-income households end up moving to or staying in neighborhoods with higher incomes, lower poverty, and better amenities for children and families.

Why do mobility programs fail to move low-income households to better neighborhoods?

In a recent article I wrote with two colleagues from The Ohio State University, Rachel Garshick Kleit and Seungbeom Kang,  we examined the collective research evidence on mobility programs, on one hand, and housing instability, on the other. We found two key factors that may undermine mobility program outcomes and require better policy responses.

  • First, low-income households often face chronic and more severe housing instability. Housing stability exists along a continuum—from being stably and affordably housed, to being overcrowded or behind on rent, involuntarily or frequently moved, or homeless. While the goal is to move families to greater stability and keep them there, many low-income households have a cumulative history of instability working against them. For some households, unaffordable housing costs may be their biggest barrier to greater stability and opportunity, and housing assistance a sufficient solution. For others, housing assistance may only scratch the surface.
  • Second, low-income households are more likely to experience negative circumstances that push them to move. Events such as household dissolution, job loss and economic insecurity, and domestic violence can occur suddenly and require a rapid move. Low-income families are also more likely to be involuntarily displaced by the actions of both private and public landlords, sometimes being forced to move multiple times. In these circumstances, the evidence suggests that the immediate need for housing trumps concerns over neighborhood characteristics – while setting affected households on a path toward growing housing instability.

So if housing assistance isn’t enough to stabilize poor households and enable moves to better neighborhoods, what is?

Certainly housing mobility counseling can help—yet no such counseling is included within the large Housing Choice Voucher program. The services that do exist aren’t adequate to deal with the oftentimes harsh realities and cumulative instability that repeatedly push families to move.

One solution is to develop a more comprehensive set of supports and services to enable successful transitions to better neighborhoods. Another option is to shift program emphasis toward increasing a family’s housing stability rather than simply promoting mobility. This could encourage a more diverse menu of options for assisting households in accessing opportunities, such as additional interventions to reduce move frequencies and address push factors head on. This requires more program flexibility than typical, such as offered through the Moving To Work and Rental Assistance Demonstration programs.

The result could not only be more place-conscious strategies that balance mobility with place-based investment, but more family-conscious ones focused on moving low-income families toward greater stability across multiple facets of life.

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