In a speech at the Urban Institute today, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan made a compelling case that federal housing policies should expand affordable housing choices for poor families in thriving neighborhoods with good schools, safe streets, parks and playgrounds, and well-stocked grocery stores. He argued that the principle of housing choice infuses all of HUD’s programs—whether they offer portable housing subsidies, revitalize distressed neighborhoods, or promote sustainable regional development.
Donovan spoke to a room-full of housing practitioners, advocates, and researchers gathered for the 5th national conference on assisted housing mobility (cohosted by the Urban Institute and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council). Assisted housing mobility programs constitute one of HUD’s most effective tools for promoting choice—offering counseling and search assistance along with housing vouchers to families that want to escape from dangerous and distressed neighborhoods and move to better, safer, more opportunity-rich locations.
These programs typically include outreach to landlords who own rental properties in desirable neighborhoods; individual or group counseling to help families plan and prepare for their search; information about unfamiliar neighborhoods, schools, shopping, and transportation access; hands-on help with housing search; and follow-up counseling and supports.
From the outset, policymakers, advocates, and on-the-ground practitioners working on assisted housing mobility have taken research seriously. Their work is motivated by compelling evidence that living in severely distressed neighborhoods—with high crime, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and no place to shop for healthy food—inflicts lasting damage on kids and families. They’ve been open to learning from research about what tools work—or don’t work—to help families find and lease housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods. And they continually refine and strengthen their strategies to reflect emerging insights from research.
Partnering with researchers can be uncomfortable for advocates and program administrators. Honest research doesn’t always confirm initial expectations about what families need or how programs perform. It may conclude that programs need redesign, retargeting, or even replacement. But even if the partnership is sometimes rocky, I believe it’s been hugely valuable.
As a researcher, I’m always inspired by the commitment of advocates and practitioners to empower families to move to communities that offer health, safety, and access to opportunity. And I hope that—over the long haul—rigorous, independent research is helping make that work stronger and more effective, because in my view, the evidence is undeniable that past policies reinforcing residential segregation and poverty concentration produced terrible consequences—for kids, families, communities, and our society as a whole.