The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 3, 2018

Building the evidence on access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods

Living in low-poverty communities enables low-income people to improve their economic outlook. And housing vouchers, which provide assistance to families to rent from private landlords, are the most prevalent tools to enable residents to access low-poverty communities. We know vouchers can improve life trajectories, but we don’t know how best to help voucher holders access and stay in low-poverty communities. That’s where strategic research and evaluation can help.

In testimony delivered a few weeks ago to the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, made recommendations related to a legislative proposal that could build further evidence about vouchers and services to help families use them, often called mobility programs. The Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration Act of 2018 would give the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary authority to empower some public housing agencies to use vouchers and services to help families move to low-poverty areas in their region and then test those strategies’ effectiveness.

Several of Sard’s recommendations highlight how the proposal can build evidence about what works, including the proposed timeline for evaluating the programs and the importance of learning about the relative costs of various strategies. One of Sard’s key recommendations caught our eye: employing a tiered-evidence framework instead of a one-time demonstration.

Tiered-evidence grantmaking focuses funding on interventions with proven success while investing in new, innovative approaches. It does so through a tiered structure that expands the grant size by the rigor of the evidence backing a proposed intervention. Tiered-evidence grants require all interventions to be evaluated, which helps build their evidence base and test effective approaches in new contexts.

And while this approach could advance learning about mobility programs, it could also build the evidence base about other strategies that help families with young children access and stay in low-poverty, opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

To that end, Urban Institute staff and Ron Haskins of the Brooking Institution have coauthored the forthcoming paper “Supporting Access to Opportunity with a Tiered-Evidence Grantmaking Approach.” The paper proposes an “opportunity demonstration” at HUD that dovetails with Sard’s suggestions while including more interventions related to accessing and staying in low-poverty neighborhoods, such as project-based rental assistance, affordable housing preservation, inclusionary zoning, and community-based revitalization. (Sard provided feedback as part of a group of housing experts at a roundtable on the paper.)

Based on the work of other agencies, including the US Department of Education, US Department of Health and Human Services, and the US Agency for International Development, the paper outlines a tiered-evidence demonstration with three levels of funding to support interventions and evaluations. We look forward to sharing details about proposed funding levels, evidence standards, and implementation considerations when the paper is released.

This holistic tiered-evidence grant program would come with challenges; designing appropriate funding levels for each tier and evaluation requirements across such different interventions is difficult. The challenges to evaluating complex place-based, neighborhood-scale interventions are different than those for tracking the impact of receiving a voucher with supplemental assistance. Because of this variation, the approach described in our forthcoming paper would be less useful for comparing cost-effectiveness across interventions, which Sard notes as an important goal.

Investing in the development of a broader evidence base would expand our understanding of the mechanisms that most effectively provide stable access to low-poverty communities and would allow HUD and others to tailor investments to evidence-based programs that demonstrate the greatest impact.

Photo by Mint Images/Getty Images.

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