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How can we ensure Housing Choice Voucher holders have the resources they need to move to low-poverty neighborhoods?
If you had a subsidy to help pay for your rent and you wanted to move, what would most influence where you looked and where you ended up? A study published in last week’s Housing Policy Debate suggests that we have a ways to go to figure that out.
Chicago is the birthplace of housing mobility: the practice of using a tenant-based subsidy (formerly known as Section 8, now a Housing Choice Voucher) to move from a high-poverty area to a lower-poverty neighborhood. After pivotal lessons from Chicago thanks to the historic Gautreaux lawsuit and the subsequent Moving to Opportunity experiment, Chicago was again in mobility news last week with the results of this latest study published in Housing Policy Debate: Encouraging Residential Moves to Opportunity Neighborhoods: An Experiment Testing Incentives Offered to Housing Voucher Recipients.
In short, the study found that neither the offer of counseling to help with a move, nor money for moving or both, was a sufficient incentive for voucher holders to make a mobility move they otherwise wouldn’t have made. However, those who actually received the counseling did move to more economically prosperous areas than those who did not. We'll dive more into the differences between the offer and receipt of counseling later.
First, here’s more on the study background:
Conducted by the RAND Corporation with support from the MacArthur Foundation, the study examines aspects of the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative, which the Metropolitan Planning Council helped design. The question researched was essentially this: When voucher holders indicate they want to use their voucher to move, what interventions are most efficient and cost-effective at helping them move to “opportunity areas,” those with high-performing schools, access to jobs and transit and low poverty rates?
Here’s how it worked: Building on an initiative developed collaboratively by regional public housing authorities and Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)—with the program now managed by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning—to increase the supply of affordable rental options in opportunity areas, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development supported an expansion of that effort which included a tenant-based regional mobility strategy.
For a two-year period from Fall 2012 to Fall 2014, seven public housing authorities in the Chicago region held in-person briefing sessions for voucher holders who had requested a move. Voucher holders were randomly assigned to one of three types of briefings: (a) business as usual, which covered the standard information about moving with a voucher; (b) standard information plus the offer of a $500 grant if households used their voucher to move to a home in an opportunity neighborhood; or (c) standard information plus the offer of both a $500 grant and free mobility counseling. The counseling consisted of assisting households in identifying their housing and neighborhood needs, as well as with locating a unit in an opportunity area; as we will examine, mobility counseling can range from light-touch to very extensive.
Over the two-year period, 2,005 voucher holders were deemed eligible participants in the study, and researchers learned that:
Neither the offer of a $500 grant nor the offer of a $500 grant coupled with free mobility counseling induced opportunity moves. The receipt of mobility counseling also did not boost opportunity moves. Regardless of the type of offer, 11%–12% of participants moved to opportunity neighborhoods. Despite requesting a moving voucher, half of the study participants remained in place, indicating significant barriers to moving.
What to make of this? If voucher holders generally moved to opportunity areas at 11 or 12 percent regardless of the level of assistance—financial assistance, counseling or neither—does that effectively deem both useless? We don’t think so. Here’s why:
Those who received mobility counseling moved to areas with even lower poverty and higher incomes than those who moved without counseling.
Consider that of that 11 to 12 percent who did move to opportunity areas, those who received mobility counseling moved to areas with even lower poverty and higher incomes than those who moved without counseling (6.5 percent poverty rate compared to 8.24 percent and median household incomes of $72,899 compared to $64,523, respectively). In other words, for those who were ready to make an opportunity move, counseling did help them get to more economically prosperous options.
Second, many of the barriers to making an opportunity move in the Chicago region may be too great for counseling and financial assistance to overcome at this “light-touch” level, which is different than deeming them inherently ineffective.
Due to a variety of factors, Chicago has what the study authors call “a particularly formidable set of barriers to opportunity moves.” These barriers include high levels of economic and racial segregation, uneven source of income protection around the region—Chicago and Cook County have it, most of the rest of the region does not—well documented discrimination against voucher holders in opportunity areas, well documented luring of voucher holders to high-poverty areas and lower than national average rental vacancy rates.
We mentioned earlier that mobility counseling has a broad range of intensity; given Chicago’s unique cocktail of challenges, higher-intensity counseling with an emphasis on landlord recruitment and a longer period of time to find a unit is likely needed. In fact, the organization that provided the mobility counseling for this study, Housing Choice Partners, considers comprehensive mobility counseling services to be best practice and now recommends this “high touch” level as it consults on mobility programs around the country.
Chicago has “a particularly formidable set of barriers to opportunity moves.”
As we’ve argued before, effective landlord recruitment may need to include funding designated to help with higher security deposits and a “hold fee” to encourage landlords to hold a unit while necessary inspections take place. It’s not news that it is much harder to use a housing voucher in strong markets; if housing vouchers are going to continue being our main public housing play, and if we want mobility to help voucher holders make opportunity moves, then we have to better help them compete in the private market.
The study’s authors recommend as much when they suggest a mobility counseling program that would target high-priority households—those who’ve signaled they want to move, have children between the ages of zero and 13, are currently living in the highest-crime areas, etc. They also suggest offering counseling well before the household’s lease is set to expire and providing longer-term, high-intensity counseling as needed (such as starting with budgeting and credit repair, shifting to arranging unit tours and negotiating with landlords and finally, offering post-move support, connections to local services, etc.).
The good news is that there is progress on housing mobility, even since the study was completed.
- On the national level, just this year, President Obama signed into law The Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act. According to Barbara Sard of Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who chaired the national advisory panel for the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative, the housing opportunity act
provides the first comprehensive update to the nation’s low-income housing programs in 18 years, [and] will improve federal rental assistance programs while retaining the core characteristics that make them effective – such as income-based rents that ensure that even very poor families can keep a roof over their heads…
- The Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act reduces administrative burdens, increases work incentives and enables state and local housing agencies to improve the access of low-income tenants to areas with low poverty and crime and well performing schools.
- Looking forward, the 2017 budget proposes a line item for a Regional Mobility Demo to allow more regions to learn from lessons in Chicago and elsewhere, and pilot their own solutions to these challenges while further encouraging policy innovation at every level of government.
- And on the ground, our friends at the Brookings Institution, along with BRicK Partners, are launching a Community of Practice with regions like Chicago where regional public housing authorities are working with their metropolitan planning organizations to increase and diversify the housing supply in priority areas. These peer exchanges offer a critical opportunity for innovators to surface best practices as well as common policy barriers and proposed solutions.
The Chicago region continues to be at the forefront of these issues both in terms of pilot programs and public policy. We learned a great deal from the Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative mobility pilot; trial and error is inevitable given the range of market and systemic barriers involved.
This particular pilot has concluded, with many public housing authority partners already incorporating lessons learned into their own mobility programs, such as this example in Lake County. While regional public housing authorities continue to explore their next collaboration related to this tenant-based mobility work, they continue to work with Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, BRicK and other partners on the Regional Housing Initiative, which focuses on increasing and diversifying the supply of rental housing options in priority areas regionwide.
From MPC’s perspective, it’s worth emphasizing that the goal of these types of mobility programs is not for every voucher household to make an opportunity move. There are many reasons why voucher holders may choose to use their voucher in a non-opportunity area; our interest is simply that all households—regardless of their income source—have the greatest range of options possible and that for those who do want to make an opportunity move, we remove as many barriers as possible.