For over a century, public policies and institutional practices have excluded people of color from well-resourced and opportunity-rich neighborhoods while denying resources and investments to the neighborhoods they live in. People of color who have low incomes face acute barriers to finding affordable housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods. Moreover, most federally subsidized housing is concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.
Neighborhood mobility programs offer a partial remedy to this racist legacy, helping families with low incomes use federal housing vouchers to move to low-poverty, opportunity-rich neighborhoods of their choice. This paper describes the origins and evolution of neighborhood mobility programs and summarizes the evidence about their strengths and limitations as a tool for dismantling the legacy of separate and unequal neighborhoods.
What Are Housing Vouchers?
The federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is the nation’s largest direct rental housing assistance program and is intended to ensure low-income families have access to safe, stable, affordable housing. Voucher recipients pay a portion of their rent—typically capped at roughly 30 percent of their household income—directly to private-market landlords each month. The remainder of the rent (up to a maximum rent cap based on US Department of Housing and Urban Development calculations) is paid to the landlord by a local public housing authority (PHA). A network of more than 2,300 PHAs runs local voucher programs, which are dispersed across the nation’s metropolitan areas.
Housing vouchers of some kind or another have been used since the 1970s and, since the mid-1990s, have replaced place-based public housing as the nation’s main form of rental assistance. Roughly 2.2 million households use vouchers to help pay their rent, while roughly 1 million households live in public housing units nationwide. Demand for vouchers far exceeds supply, and funding is available for only a fraction of households eligible for assistance.
Vouchers and Mobility Programs as a Remedy to Discriminatory Housing Policy
A central reason that vouchers gained favor among policymakers and practitioners is the flexibility they provide families to choose homes and neighborhoods that match their particular needs and preferences. Through the 1960s and 1970s, federal investments in public housing properties funneled low-income Black and Latinx households into economically and racially segregated urban areas, while furthering discriminatory lending practices that encouraged white homeownership in rapidly expanding suburbs and aggressively excluded Black families. Vouchers are intended to counteract this history because, in contrast to public housing, they are portable and can be used for any unit that meets the program’s rent and housing quality standards and is located in a neighborhood where a housing agency operates a Housing Choice Voucher program. This gives voucher recipients more housing and neighborhood options than place-based public housing assistance, and in principle allows them to live in any neighborhood with voucher-affordable housing.
In the late 1960s, a landmark housing discrimination lawsuit, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, successfully challenged practices steering Black families into distressed Chicago public housing properties and neighborhoods. Court-ordered remedies in subsequent decades provided several thousand housing vouchers to Black families living in distressed public housing or on waiting lists for available units, with the requirement that they be used to rent housing in more racially integrated neighborhoods in the Chicago region. Thousands more people applied for the program than could be accommodated, with the Chicago Tribune referring to the final Gautreaux program application period in 1996 as “a one-day lottery for a better life.”
Since that case, housing vouchers—usually coupled with counseling or financial assistance to facilitate moves to low-poverty neighborhoods—have been a core element in several court-ordered desegregation efforts, including in Baltimore; Buffalo, New York; Dallas; and Minneapolis. Some PHAs launched neighborhood mobility programs voluntarily (without court mandates) to help voucher holders move to lower-poverty neighborhoods. Although these programs originated as remedies for public housing’s explicit racial segregation, many now offer assistance to households with low incomes regardless of their race or ethnicity, and focus on moves to neighborhoods with low poverty rates regardless of their racial composition. As of 2020, roughly 25 “mobility” programs (some voluntary, some mandated) were operating or in development nationwide.
The most robust of these programs couple vouchers with a range of supports to facilitate moves from higher-poverty neighborhoods to lower-poverty, resource-rich neighborhoods, and offer incentives for landlords to accept vouchers. Supports can include premove counseling, financial assistance with rental deposits or other moving costs, help identifying units or communicating with landlords, and help remaining in “opportunity” neighborhoods. Seattle’s Creating Moves to Opportunity is perhaps the most rigorously designed of the voluntary mobility programs and uses random assignment to connect eligible voucher holders to individualized mobility services. Early results show that participants were significantly more likely to move to opportunity neighborhoods than voucher holders who lacked access to mobility services.
Evidence and Challenges
An abundance of evidence shows that housing vouchers—regardless of whether they are linked to mobility services—have a range of individual and family benefits, including reductions in overcrowding, in doubling up, in homelessness, in food insecurity, and in child separations and domestic violence. Vouchers have also led to improvements in adults’ mental and physical health and in children’s educational and behavioral outcomes.
Vouchers on their own, however, have been less successful at providing access to high-opportunity neighborhoods, and most voucher holders never move to low-poverty areas. Nevertheless, even absent mobility services, voucher use helps reduce racial disparities in access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods: on average, Black and Latinx voucher holders live in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates than other households of the same race/ethnicity that do not have vouchers. White voucher holders remain more likely to live in low-poverty areas than Black or Latinx voucher holders, but vouchers help narrow the gap in access to low-poverty neighborhoods.
These outcomes are tied partly to challenges that voucher holders face searching for housing on the private market and finding landlords that will accept them. Landlords commonly refuse vouchers, and in some places discrimination can be extreme, especially in lower-poverty areas with higher-performing schools. Because voucher rent caps are typically set at the regional level, they may be below market in higher-rent areas and exclude voucher holders from those areas. But voucher discrimination may also mask racial discrimination, with landlords denying vouchers in an effort to avoid renting to Black or Latinx families. Or, landlords may have negative stereotypes of low-income voucher holders. In addition, voucher holders often face financial constraints and personal challenges that can complicate their housing searches—which are typically conducted with minimal support and often under tight PHA timelines.
Research has found that programs that combine vouchers with services intended to help voucher holders navigate their housing searches have had success facilitating moves to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and that they have had profound benefits for people who have moved from high-poverty areas to lower-poverty, opportunity-rich neighborhoods. For example, early evidence from the Gautreaux program found that adults who used vouchers to move from distressed public housing communities to suburban neighborhoods were more likely to be employed than those who remained in the city, and that their children were doing better in school.
These promising findings motivated the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing demonstration, launched in the mid-1990s, which rigorously tested the effects of offering portable vouchers to residents of high-poverty public housing in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) using a random-assignment design. A share of participating families used vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods, and in some cases vouchers were coupled with services.
The demonstration’s long-term results, which continue to emerge, show that families who used vouchers to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to lower-poverty areas experienced improved health outcomes, educational outcomes, and economic outcomes, with young children experiencing the largest benefits. Findings are more complex for older children, and more research is needed to understand how to mitigate the potential disruptions to school and social networks from moves.
Next Steps for Vouchers as a Mobility Tool
Neighborhood mobility programs offer an evidence-based strategy to counteract the legacy of structural racism in the rental housing market. Programs continue to evolve, and questions remain about which program models work best and in which contexts, and about how to scale services and improve location outcomes for voucher holders beyond the limited pool of PHAs implementing them. More work is also needed to understand how to support families to remain in opportunity neighborhoods, and to mitigate the challenges of changing neighborhoods and schools so families can maximize the benefits of moves to resource-rich neighborhoods and minimize disruptions. To that end, research continues to examine mobility programs and track participants’ long-term outcomes (this includes a $50 million federal investment to rigorously test mobility services in up to 10 jurisdictions over the next decade). Although mobility programs cannot correct all of the underlying structural constraints that limit housing options for low-income families of color, they are a valuable part the portfolio of solutions available to ensure all families can exercise agency and choice in their housing and neighborhood decisions.
Bergman, Peter, Raj Chetty, Stefanie DeLuca, Nathaniel Hendren, Lawrence F. Katz, and Christopher Palmer. “Creating Moves to Opportunity: Experimental Evidence on Barriers to Neighborhood Choice.” Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020.
- Presents results from a randomized controlled trial in the Seattle/King County area coupling housing vouchers with mobility services (customized search assistance, landlord engagement, and short-term financial assistance) intended to reduce barriers to Moving to Opportunity neighborhoods.
Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. “The Gautreaux Lawsuit.” Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.bpichicago.org/programs/housing-community-development/public-housing/gautreaux-lawsuit/.
- Brief overview of the history and timeline of the Gautreaux desegregation lawsuit and remedies.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Policy Basics: The Housing Choice Voucher Program.” Updated May 3, 2017. https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/the-housing-choice-voucher-program.
- Provides an overview of the Housing Choice Voucher program.
Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment.” American Economic Review 106, no. 4 (April 2016): 855–902.
- Identifies the long-term benefits to adults and children who moved from high-poverty neighborhoods to low-poverty, opportunity-rich areas through the Moving to Opportunity demonstration.
Cunningham, Mary K., Martha M. Galvez, Claudia Aranda, Robert Santos, Douglas A. Wissoker, Alyse D. Oneto, Rob Pitingolo, and James Crawford. A Pilot Study of Landlord Acceptance of Housing Choice Vouchers. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2018.
- Documents landlord discrimination against voucher holders in five metropolitan areas (Newark, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and Philadelphia) through field testing, finding discrimination to be common and in some places extreme.
Galvez, Martha M., and Sarah Oppenheimer. Taking Neighborhood Mobility to Scale through the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2020.
- Outlines challenges to using vouchers to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods and administrative policy changes that might improve neighborhood mobility outcomes.
Ellen, Ingrid Gould. “What Do We Know about Housing Choice Vouchers?” Regional Science and Urban Economics 80 (January 2020). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2018.07.003.
- Reviews literature about the impacts of voucher use on housing outcomes, showing positive benefits on rent burdens, crowding, and homelessness but less success providing access to low-poverty or opportunity-rich neighborhoods.
Kurniawan, Heidi, and Philip Tegeler, eds. Housing Mobility Programs in the U.S. 2020. Washington, DC: Poverty & Race Research Action Council, 2020.
- An overview of neighborhood mobility programs in place or in development nationally as of 2020.
National Bureau of Economic Research. “Moving to Opportunity.” Accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.nber.org/programs-projects/projects-and-centers/moving-opportunity?page=1&perPage=50.
- Provides an overview of the Moving to Opportunity experiment and access to a range of research studies on outcomes over the past two decades.
Urban Institute. “Why Schools Should Care About Housing Voucher Discrimination.” August 12, 2020. https://housingmatters.urban.org/feature/why-schools-should-care-about-housing-voucher-discrimination.
- Explores how discrimination may impact access to high-performing schools.