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"Housing Mobility: Why Is It So Controversial?,"

by Alexander Polikoff July/August 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

Origins: A Desegregation Remedy

Housing mobility dates to the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in BPI’s Gautreaux litigation. Lower courts had found the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guilty of knowingly funding racial discrimination in Chicago. The discrimination was that to prevent African Americans from entering white neighborhoods via subsidized housing, the Chicago Housing Authority was building virtually all of its thousands of public housing apartments in black neighborhoods. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the remedy for HUD’s wrongdoing could be metropolitan-wide and didn’t have to be confined within Chicago’s geographic boundaries.

In the wake of that ruling, rather than chance whatever remedial arrangement lower courts might order, BPI and HUD agreed on a settlement. In 1974 Congress had enacted a new form of subsidized housing called Section 8 Certificates, later renamed Housing Choice Vouchers. Vouchers pay a portion of a tenant’s rent in privately owned homes and apartments; instead of being confined to publicly owned housing, families with vouchers could—theoretically—move wherever they wished. For minority families in inner-city neighborhoods, however, a voucher by itself was not a ticket out of segregation. Under the Gautreaux settlement, HUD not only supplied vouchers to Gautreaux families but also paid for search assistance and counseling. The assistance was to make it realistically possible for inner-city families to move from segregated to integrated or predominantly white neighborhoods.

Which is what happened. During the next 22 years (the agreed life of the settlement), over 7,000 families, almost all African-American and very poor, were enabled to move out of segregated, inner-city Chicago. Some moved to outlying city neighborhoods, but most moved to suburbs that were predominantly white and had far lower poverty rates than inner-city Chicago. Housing mobility—vouchers plus counseling and search assistance—was born.

Moving to the suburbs appeared to be a good thing for most of the Gautreaux families who did it. Sociologists at Northwestern University, studying the experiences of both “suburban-movers” and families who remained in the city, came up with some startling conclusions. For example, children of suburban-movers were four times more likely than those of city-movers to finish high school, twice as likely to attend college, and far more likely to find jobs. Suburban-moving mothers were also more likely to be employed. A social scientist in the audience at one of the Northwestern presentations said that if by moving to suburbs inner-city black families could achieve the life-enhancing results being reported, policymakers should drop other initiatives and concentrate on housing mobility.

Why Didn’t Housing Mobility “Take Off”?

Given the Gautreaux program’s favorable results, why didn’t housing mobility “take off”? Why wasn’t the Gautreaux experience transformed into national policy? There are several reasons.

Moving to Opportunity. One was MTO—the letters stand for Moving to Opportunity—a ten-year (1994-2004) HUD demonstration designed to test Gautreaux results in which over 4,000 families in five different cities participated. When MTO was over and evaluated, its results were mixed. Although compared to non-movers the moving families showed improvements in physical and mental health, there were no short-term employment and educational gains beyond those experienced by the control group (it was not until recently, in Raj Chetty and colleagues’ research on long-term outcomes, that the powerful educational and income benefits for children were finally documented).

These early “non-results” cast doubt on the whole housing mobility enterprise for almost a decade. As Robert Sampson, a NYU sociologist, put it, “MTO publications and presentations appear to have cast doubt on the general thesis that neighborhoods matter in the lives of poor individuals” (Sampson 2008: 191). That thesis is of course the bedrock upon which housing mobility rests. MTO was not just a bump in the road; it was a dagger pointed at the heart of housing mobility. Why undertake the challenges of helping families escape severely distressed neighborhoods if moving to better neighborhoods doesn’t matter?

Later analyses, however, disclosed flaws in MTO’s structure and implementation that explained why MTO families didn’t experience Gautreaux-like results. For example, because (unlike-Gautreaux) the MTO demonstration did not employ a segregation/integration criterion for receiving neighborhoods, many MTO families moved short distances, often within the same school district, into heavily minority areas. Famed Harvard scholar William Julius Wilson concluded that MTO “tells us little about . . . the effect of neighborhood on the development of children and families” (Wilson 2010: 209). And two recent landmark studies demonstrate that neighborhoods matter a great deal in the lives of individuals, indeed across generations (Sampson 2012; Sharkey 2013). But the damage had been done, and for years conventional opinion held that MTO proved “mobility didn’t work.”

Entrenched exclusion of African Americans from privileged places. Fewer aspects of the American experience are more deeply ingrained than racial residential segregation, especially of African Americans. The story of how government policy (federal, state and local) and private prejudice have combined over generations—and still combine to this day—to keep black Americans from living in white neighborhoods is an oft-told tale that will not be repeated here. (See the references at the end of this article.) Because the thrust of mobility is precisely to enable poor families of color, particularly African Americans, to move into predominantly white neighborhoods, mobility confronts directly the powerful social and political forces in American society designed to “protect” against that happening.

Privileging Place-Based Strategies. The power of social exclusion has been abetted by the continuing debate between so called “place-based” strategies to improve severely distressed neighborhoods and mobility programs intended to enable families to escape from them. Place-based strategies seek to improve conditions within distressed neighborhoods, through economic development and upgraded facilities and amenities, in order to revitalize them. These strategies do not threaten white communities with incoming black families, and they attract constituencies, such as community development corporations and private developers, with financial stakes in the programs. The combination has led to over fifty years of focus on place-based programs variously called “community development,” “neighborhood revitalization,” and the like. (From this perspective, mobility, apart from enabling black families to move into white neighborhoods and lacking constituencies, is sometimes seen as undermining place-based initiatives by facilitating the departure of poor but motivated families from the very places to be revitalized.) Yet fifty years of place-based revitalization policies have yielded very little durable progress (to borrow Pat Sharkey’s phrase) and, even though many proponents of place-based initiatives agree that mobility should be a part of any strategy to improve the lives of families trapped in severely distressed neighborhoods (Goetz 2003: 237-319; Sharkey 2013: 172-179), a continuing bias in favor of place-based strategies has made it difficult for mobility to gain traction.

Gun-Shy Bureaucracy. In the face of these powerful sources of entrenched opposition to housing mobility, the HUD bureaucracy that sets rules for the voucher program has often feared charges of “social engineering,” in spite of many years of doing just that. Even in the relatively progressive Obama Administration, reform has been painfully slow (PRRAC, 2013), with HUD continuing to be gun-shy about encouraging a program that would facilitate the movement of poor black families into white neighborhoods. Moreover, the cost savings, realized when children and their families are healthier, better educated, and less likely to need public assistance or run afoul of the criminal justice system, accrue to other agencies, not HUD. So, with little to gain financially and risks to run politically, instead of mandating mobility services, HUD has maintained rules that favor speedy issuance and use of vouchers over finding good locations. For most African-American families, the rules typically mean a hurried rent-up—racing against expiration of the voucher search time (usually an inadequate 90 days)—in a familiar, black-segregated, high-poverty neighborhood.

Indeed, HUD rules actually incentivize administrators to shovel out newly issued vouchers as quickly as possible and shun mobility, for the latter takes more time (to find available dwellings in good neighborhoods) and costs “extra” money (for counseling, housing search assistance and higher rents in destination neighborhoods). HUD argues that because voucher funding is limited to what Congress appropriates (vouchers are not “entitlements”; there are long waiting lists), the extra costs mean that fewer families can be served. Serving fewer families is indeed HUD’s favorite reason for not fostering mobility. Why the reason is unpersuasive is explained below.

Mobility is Difficult. Finally, mobility is hard to do. It is hard for families to move into unfamiliar, distant, sometimes hostile neighborhoods, far from familiar support networks, and it is hard to find enough landlords in white working- and middle-class neighborhoods willing to rent homes and apartments to families of color. Even in a supportive environment, free of the attitudes spawned by MTO and the socio-political objection, no one really knows how much mobility would be possible in the real world of tight rental markets and racial prejudice.

The result has been that except for two large mobility programs in Baltimore and Dallas operating under court orders in Gautreaux-type lawsuits, and less than a dozen smaller (and intermittently funded) programs scattered across the country, mobility is an idea whose time has not yet come. Indeed, given the obstacles, one cannot but wonder whether it ever will. Why then are we engaged in what may seem a quixotic endeavor?

Housing Mobility and Concentrated Poverty

The multiple reasons we support housing mobility programs include: fairness to African-American families trapped in segregated high-poverty neighborhoods; remedying, in however limited a way, generations of government-fostered segregation; and benefiting the larger society by enabling more children of color to become productive citizens instead of victims caught in the welfare and criminal justice systems. In recent years, post-Gautreaux research on the effects of concentrated poverty on young children has deepened understanding of this last reason.

At least since Dickens indelibly rendered Oliver Twist’s searing experiences, policymakers and social scientists have been thinking about poverty. But focused thinking about concentrated poverty did not begin until the 1987 publication of William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. In the ensuing years society has learned a great deal about the effects of concentrated poverty.

The challenges of being poor are familiar and can be summarized in a phrase—the daily struggle for survival. But the challenges of being poor and living in a really poor place are worse, a kind of “double jeopardy.” A study by that very name cites research showing that even if children live in a high-poverty neighborhood for a limited time, negative effects on verbal ability linger after departure from the neighborhood (Hernandez 2012: 10). A Brookings Institution Study asks, “Why Does Concentrated Poverty Matter?” and answers with a list that includes limited educational opportunity, high crime, poor health, and many more (Kneebone et al. 2011). Recent research is showing that the worst of these negative effects is visited upon young children.

The ACE Study. The Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Study, is the largest examination ever conducted of the effects of childhood abuse, neglect and other stressors on adult mental and physical health (Felitti et al. 1998). The results demonstrate an astonishing correlation between childhood adversity and adult well-being. As a result of the ACE Study, childhood adversity is often termed America’s most important public health issue.

Although the ACE Study establishes correlation, not causation, medical research is exposing the causal links. For example, one study finds that early, repeated activation of the body’s stress system actually alters brain chemistry. A consequence is that adults who have experienced early trauma often show increased aggression, impulsive behavior and weakened cognition.

From countless sources in the literature, but also from common sense, we know that severely distressed neighborhoods are places where stress and trauma are pervasive. We know therefore that high “ACE scores” are likely to be accumulated not only within households—the focus of the ACE Study—but also within the geography of concentrated poverty.

But a high ACE score is not just a number. Children with a score of four or above are more than twice as likely as those with a score of zero to have heart or lung disease in adulthood, and over four times more likely to suffer depression. A male child with an ACE score of six is forty-six times more likely than one with a zero score to use drugs intravenously as an adult. Children with a score of six or more die on average two decades earlier than those with zero scores.

Statistically speaking, therefore, children growing up in concentrated poverty neighborhoods face a high risk of blighted adulthoods. Hundreds of studies, writes William Julius Wilson, suggest that concentrated poverty increases the likelihood of “joblessness, dropping out of school, lower educational achievement, involvement in crime,” and so on (Wilson 2010: 46).

That conclusion comes from an academic. Around the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin wrote in non-academic language to his nephew and namesake that he had been “set down in a ghetto . . . born into a society in which your countrymen have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives” (Baldwin 1962).

Getting Worse? Concentrated poverty in the social science literature is generally viewed as a neighborhood—a census tract—with a poverty rate of 30 or 40% or more, although 20% is the threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty are said to appear. Social scientists generally view the poverty rate as a rough proxy for the characteristics associated with severely distressed neighborhoods.

 Recent data tell us that we have more of such places than ever before. Since 2000, both the number of concentrated poverty census tracts and the number of poor people living in them has increased by some 50% (Jargowsky 2013: 3). Despite some geographic spreading out, the tracts are predominantly in a small number of cities within large metropolitan areas. For example, in the Chicago area, 97 of 115 concentrated poverty tracts and 88% of persons living within them are in the city of Chicago (Jargowsky 2013: 15).

Nationwide, nearly 8 million children live in concentrated poverty census tracts, over half of them in “double jeopardy” because in addition to living in very poor places, their families are in poverty (Casey 2012: 1). In some large cities, over half the entire child population lives in concentrated poverty neighborhoods (Casey 2012: 2). For African Americans, the statistics are especially sobering—nearly half of poor black children (45%) live in concentrated poverty tracts, nine times the rate for poor white children (Casey 2012: 2).

To repeat that startling statistic for emphasis, nearly half of poor African-American children live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods. Given that we now know that, with high statistical likelihood, these children will suffer blighted adulthoods, this is a shocker.  We are talking about the appalling fact that nearly one of every two poor African-American children in this country faces a high risk of a blighted adulthood. Though he lacked the data we now possess, that is what James Baldwin may well have meant when he wrote fifty years ago of the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives.

What to Do?

What can society do about this ongoing destruction of the lives of African-American children? Here are some possibilities, and the difficulties each faces.

(1) Undo the residential segregation that is the root cause of the problem? Volumes of history explain how deeply entrenched and intractable is this root cause. Data show that for decades there have been only very modest changes in the segregation of African Americans, and virtually none at all in the big cities in which most African Americans live. Segregation in schools, closely linked to residential segregation, is actually increasing.

(2) Revitalize concentrated poverty neighborhoods? Despite often heroic efforts, multiple studies show that after a half century of trying, precious few revitalizing initiatives have been successful. HUD’s recent Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is trying to learn from some of these past efforts, and reinvest in more carefully targeted ways. But even if this new approach proves to be more successful, we need to recognize that revitalization takes a long time and doesn’t necessarily have the potential to benefit current generations of children. To pursue neighborhood revitalization without at least an equal commitment to housing mobility means writing off the great potential of many of these children.

(3) Enable African-American children to attend middle-class schools? Though this approach can be successful in some segregated metropolitan areas (see accompanying article, page 13), it is less feasible in the largest segregated cities in which most African Americans live.

(4) Housing mobility? We’ve described the challenges and they are considerable. But Gautreaux, Baltimore and Dallas mobility programs show that it has been and can be done at the scale of thousands of families.

Which is to say that of the four remedial approaches listed, mobility is the most “practical.” As to the objection that spending money on mobility means serving fewer families, there are these answers. First, vouchers may be viewed as serving two groups of families: those in desperate need of shelter, any shelter; and those in desperate need of escaping concentrated poverty. Given what we now know about the grievously harmful lifelong effects of growing up in concentrated poverty, it is not sound policy to structure the voucher program to serve only the first group. Second, setting realistic ceiling rents to avoid overpaying in distressed neighborhoods will ameliorate some of the “extra cost”.

Third, the concern about maximizing the number of families served must be tempered by HUD’s basic goal of providing decent housing in a decent environment. A recent study, examining voucher programs in the fifty most populous metropolitan areas, comes to the disheartening conclusion that “vouchers have actually perpetuated the concentrated poverty and racial segregation that they are intended to challenge.” (Metzger 2014: 544)

Finally, apart from the moral imperative to avoid “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives,” enabling children to grow up in safe neighborhoods with good schools and working families is likely to reduce health, welfare and criminal justice costs and in the long run to be beneficial, even in a narrow fiscal sense, to the larger society.

Getting Children Out of Harm’s Way

In the Baltimore mobility program, families with children under age eight who live in Baltimore City’s concentrated poverty census tracts are being given a priority for available vouchers, accompanied by high-quality counseling and housing search assistance. The results, as in Gautreaux years ago, are beginning to come in. One mother, enabled to move to a Baltimore suburb, puts it succinctly: “I think moving saved my family’s lives.” (McDaniels 2014)

Our national voucher policy can and should include Baltimore-style initiatives, which set aside some of HUD’s scarce housing vouchers for distribution to those willing and able (with counseling and search assistance) to use them in safe neighborhoods with good schools. The aspirations—and rights —of these families and children are why the seemingly quixotic mobility objective remains high on our agenda.


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Alexander Polikoff is staff attorney and former executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), a Chicago public interest law and policy center. He is also lead counsel in the Gautreaux litigation. This article is adapted from the final chapter of Polikoff's forth-coming book, Waiting for Gautreaux: The Slender but Precious Hope for Racial Equality.

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