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"Regional Housing Mobility: A Report from Baltimore,"

by Lora Engdahl & Philip Tegeler November/December 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

For more than six years, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program has been patiently moving families into lower-poverty, less segregated neighborhoods as part of a 1996 partial settlement of the landmark Thompson v. HUD public housing desegregation case. The benefits for the more than 1,500 families finding new homes under the program to date underscore the need to revamp the Section 8 “Housing Choice Voucher Program” to permit many more families to move to less segregated, higher-opportunity areas.

A new report, New Homes, New Neighborhoods, New Schools: A Progress Report on the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (available at, draws on administrative data, feedback from surveys of participants by the Maryland ACLU, and interviews with program staff and participants to provide the first-ever comprehensive picture of families’ experiences under the program.

Unlike the regular Housing Choice Voucher Program, participants in the Baltimore mobility program volunteer for geographically targeted moves. Vouchers in the program must be used in areas where less than 10% of the residents are in poverty, less than 30% of the residents are minority, and less than 5% of all housing units are public housing or in HUD-assisted housing. The neighborhoods targeted under these criteria, developed in the 1995 partial settlement, align strikingly well with those that would later be designated under a sophisticated geographical “opportunity analysis” conducted by Professor john powell in 2006. With an eye to maximizing the life-enriching resources accessible to program families, powell proposed a 10-year extension of the program that would use a combination of education, employment, transportation, recreation and poverty indices for targeting neighborhoods.

Metropolitan Baltimore Quadel (MBQ) currently administers the program under contract with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) with oversight by HABC, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Maryland ACLU. (The Innovative Housing Institute also administered a portion of the mobility program for the first several years.) The Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign (BRHC) has been a critical partner in this process, helping to attract philanthropic investment from a number of regional and national foundations.

Program results to date confirm the value of a specialized regional voucher program that seeks to expand fair housing choice by offering access to high- opportunity environments. By providing vouchers and assistance to families in order to establish and sustain homes outside of the typical high-poverty, racially concentrated “voucher submarkets,” the program is successfully answering a real need—and providing real benefits.

New Homes, New Neighborhoods, New Schools

As the surveys show, a large percentage of heads of household seeking to participate in the program are looking for better and/or safer neighborhoods and better and/or safer schools—desires that outrank bigger and/or better housing as a draw of the program. For example, 86% of recent movers surveyed in 2007 said they applied to the program to gain access to better and safer neighborhoods, and 67% cited the desire for better and safer schools. While some families are finding the better environments they seek within the city, 89% have used their initial voucher to move to suburban counties, program administrative data show.

According to a review of the program administrative data by Johns Hopkins researchers Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, families moving under the program draw from some of the most highly segregated and disadvantaged neighborhoods in the metropolitan area. On average, in the neighborhoods that these families left, 80% of residents were African-American, 17% were unemployed, 33% were living in poverty, and the median household income was $24,182. Twelve percent of them were on public assistance. Only 61% of adults had a high school diploma, and only 6.3% had a bachelor’s degree.

When they moved, program participants went to neighborhoods that, on average, were 21% black and 69% white, had an unemployment rate of just 4.4%, a poverty rate of just 7.5%, and a median household income of $48,318. Only 1.6% of the households were receiving public assistance. Eighty-five percent of the neighborhood’s residents graduated from high school and 19% graduated from college.

Rather than being unsettled by the marked contrast between their old and new neighborhoods, a substantial number of families rank the racial and cultural diversity of their new neighborhoods as one of the best things about their moves. Participants who were still in their initial program placement for 14 months or more were asked in 2007 to cite the positive aspects of their new neighborhood. (These respondents include families who did not exercise their option to move again at the end of their first-year lease.) The top-ranking answer, cited by 80% of respondents, was a “different mix of races and cultures,” followed closely by better schools and improved public safety. In fourth position in this survey, cited by 72% of respondents, was the friendliness of people and neighbors, just ahead of a quiet and clean neighborhood.

Given the range of positive neighborhood features cited, it is not surprising that families have been very satisfied by their experience on a range of measures. Almost all (95%) of new movers surveyed in 2008 said their new neighborhood is better or much better than their old neighborhood, and families consistently report high levels of satisfaction with both their new neighborhood and their home.

Importantly, benefits to program participants go beyond access to better housing in a safe and diverse environment, encompassing improved quality of life and new health, educational and employment opportunities. In their new neighborhoods, participants say they feel safer, healthier, less stressed, more motivated, and more confident in the future facing their children. Parents also report that their children are doing better in school. Ninety-three percent of recent movers responding to a 2007 survey said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the schools in their new community. Nearly as many longer-term residents (89%) said that their children appeared to be learning better or much better in their new schools.

The high degree of satisfaction among program participants is consistent with DeLuca and Rosenblatt’s analysis of administrative data tracking origin and destination neighborhoods, cited above. Their analysis of families who first moved as of September 2007 also shows significant changes in school conditions for movers. Elementary schools in the new neighborhoods had 25% more students who were scoring proficient or higher in state achievement tests than the schools serving the families’ original city neighborhoods. These schools also had fewer poor students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program: Before moving, an average of 84% of the student body was eligible for free or reduced lunch; after moving, this average dropped to 33%.

Program data also show considerable housing stability among movers, with 62% of families who had initially moved more than a year previously still in their original unit as of September 2007, before the implementation of the “second-move” counseling lies who voluntarily move after a year or so, the second moves are usually to obtain a larger unit and involve relocating either within the new suburban area, or to areas of the city that are less poverty concentrated and more racially diverse than the neighborhoods occupied before joining the program. Of all of the families who could have moved at some point after the end of their first-year’s lease, only 19% moved from the suburbs back to the city.
One group of program participants whose moves were not as stable—and who are not counted in the general survey and research findings noted above—were those forced to move en masse from units in several large apartment complexes whose new owners opted out of the voucher program. To prevent this from happening again, program officials are limiting the number of families leasing units in any one building. Still, this disruptive loss of housing emphasizes the need for stronger national and state legal protections against source-of-income discrimination.

Best Practices in the Baltimore Program

The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program is helping poor African-American families seeking to change their circumstances move beyond the confines of traditional public housing neighborhoods to low-poverty and predominantly white neighborhoods. In turn, the neighborhoods are proving able and willing to enfold the new families into the fabric of the community. The new environments are producing a range of quality-of-life benefits, and initial reports of health, educational and employment are expected to translate into measurable outcomes in the years ahead. The program works so well because it includes key policy enhancements that are not yet part of the regular Section 8 program:
  • Race- and poverty-based geographic targeting of eligible neighborhoods to ensure that families are moving to neighborhoods with the true potential to change lives.

  • Regional voucher administration with higher exception-payment standards, so that participants can overcome Section 8 barriers to true mobility and actually move to units in opportunity neighborhoods.

  • Financial literacy, credit repair and life counseling to create competitive rental applicants and successful tenants. The program can take up to two years to get participants “voucher ready,” which includes raising credit scores and saving money for a security deposit.

  • Housing search assistance and outreach to both “mom and pop” landlords and apartment management companies, stressing the timely voucher payments, ongoing counseling, and other positive and unique aspects of the program which make it a good business proposition for property owners.

  • Monitored placements with data and maps to avoid over-concentration in any one neighborhood or building, and thus to preserve residential diversity, stability of housing and neighborhood receptiveness.

  • Two-plus years of post-move counseling to help families adjust to and attach to their new communities and sustain successful tenancy.

  • Second-move counseling to encourage residential and school stability and minimize unwanted moves out of opportunity neighborhoods due to market barriers.

  • Security deposit assistance for eligible families.

  • Employment and transportation assistance to help families access the rich employment resources of suburban areas despite the sometimes weaker public transit systems of those areas.

Toward a National Housing Mobility Policy

The lessons of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program come at an important time. While the housing mobility programs created in the 1990s to remedy systemic, government-sponsored concentration of poor black families in failing neighborhoods were ended after 2000 or have largely wound down, the experience gained through these programs has generated greater consensus around the elements of success. Building on that knowledge base, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program has overcome some of the issues that undermined programs such as the federally-sponsored Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, whose well-publicized shortcomings overshadowed its successes in the public eye.

MTO, which focused solely on moves to low-poverty areas, did provide families with significant improvements in neighborhood safety and mental and physical health (no small matter for the families involved). But most MTO families never left their original urban school district, did not move very far from their old neighborhood, and never had access to higher-performing suburban school districts. Among other things, MTO’s failure to move families to racially integrated neighborhoods contributed to the false assumption that poor Black families can’t or won’t move to more affluent, white communities and that if they do they will soon “give up” and flock back to their old neighborhoods. Another stereotypical idea cited in arguments against mobility is that suburban communities will reject the families. These arguments are not supported by the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program administrative data or ACLU surveys. Rather, the program’s use of both poverty- and race-based criteria is getting families and children into higher-opportunity communities and higher-performing school districts, where they by and large remain.

The Baltimore Program design is similar to a proposal for a new national “Opportunity Voucher” program that was recommended last year by the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and that has been pursued in one form or another by fair housing and civil rights advocates for years, notably by Alex Polikoff, who developed the approach in Chicago’s Gautreaux litigation in the 1970s.

The “Opportunity Voucher” program concept, as currently framed by PRRAC and other advocates, would set aside a minimum of 50,000 vouchers annually to help low-income families in high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods in the 30 most segregated metropolitan areas move to communities with low poverty and high-performing schools. These vouchers would be administered by regional agencies authorized to provide exception rents up to at least 120% of the HUD Fair Market Rent. The vouchers would come with a full complement of mobility counseling services similar to those offered by mobility programs in Baltimore, Chicago and Dallas. Opportunity vouchers would be targeted for use in communities with schools that have low rates of student poverty and a percentage of minority residents that falls below the regional average. The program would be voluntary and would give families an alternative to the geographically constrained choices available in other housing programs.

If the Obama Administration is looking for a proven model to link families and children to higher-performing schools, and to lessen segregation in our metropolitan areas, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program would be a good place to begin.

Lora Engdahl is a Washington, DC-based writer, editor and housing consultant. This article is adapted from the October 2009 report by Lora Engdahl cited in the Resources Box at the end of the article, co-published by PRRAC and the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign, a coalition dedicated to inclusive regional housing opportunity, which includes the Citizens Housing and planning Association, the interfaith coalition BRIDGE, the Greater Baltimore Urban League, the Innovative Housing Institute, the ACLU of Maryland, Metropolitan Baltimore Quadel and PRRAC. A full-color, 52-page hard copy of the report is available ($10) from PRRAC.
Philip Tegeler is Executive Director of PRRAC.

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