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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 31, No.2 (Oct-Dec 2022)
Adria Crutchfield, Ann Lott, and Valerie Rosenberg
Housing mobility programs provide support and information that fundamentally increase choice and self-determination for voucher holders. This is a benefit in and of itself, but we know, too, that such choice is instrumental in enabling voucher holders to move to neighborhoods with high-performing schools, minimal crime, and low rates of poverty. For years, we have been talking about the very tangible positive effects on future educational attainment and income of such moves during childhood. The 2022 research on social capital and economic mobility from Raj Chetty and colleagues presents a compelling argument that economic diversity should be among our top priorities in fighting generational poverty – and gives us new insights about how we can help families make their moves even more successful.
According to Chetty et al, friendships across class are the single greatest determinant of whether low-income children will improve their socioeconomic status, and for the lowest-income people, friendships are most often forged within neighborhoods. To create the conditions where their children can interact with and befriend people in higher-income groups, voucher families must be able to relocate to and remain in neighborhoods with higher-income households. All housing mobility programs provide information and assistance to families seeking to locate units in “high-opportunity neighborhoods,” but only a subset provide robust post-move support to help movers settle into and, crucially, remain in these neighborhoods. The Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas and the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership are two such providers.
We recommend an active posture regarding post-move services in all housing mobility programs. Rather than waiting for mobility participants to contact the program, BRHP and ICP program staff make calls, send emails, administer surveys, and conduct both in-person and periodic virtual home visits. When we open the lines of communication in this way, we invite participants to raise concerns before they develop into intractable problems, and we address them to minimize stress on the family. When checking in, we also ask about any feelings of increased safety, comfort, or happiness. It is important to celebrate success directly with participants and to develop a communications strategy to share such positive testimonials with the public, particularly policymakers, philanthropists, and prospective program participants. Narrative change and reduction of the stigma attached to the voucher program require continual effort.
At the same time, it is important to acknowledge challenges and develop practices to support voucher families who face discrimination. Voucher holders report feeling this stigma in the form of discrimination by landlords, even in jurisdictions where source of income discrimination is prohibited, and even with support from a mobility program. Families endure the pain and indignity of such discrimination in their housing search, and then sometimes find, once they have moved, that some of their new neighbors are less than enthused about having a family with a voucher next door. Although many families make the transition with little drama, we also hear about everything from microaggressions to outright harassment from homeowner associations, police, and school communities. In a recent survey of ICP families living in higher-opportunity areas, more than one-third of respondents reported experiencing racial discrimination or bias during the prior year, and some of these incidents involved teachers at their children’s schools. For these families, who usually want to stay in their new neighborhoods, post-move support from the mobility program is crucial to help parents and children make a successful transition.
In our ongoing fight against the stigma often associated with the housing voucher, one component of post-move services at BRHP and ICP is support for participant leadership, which both organizations are in the process of deepening and expanding. Mobility Works collaborates with mobility participants to bring their experience to more audiences, and presents it as valued, vital expertise in conference presentations, conversations with policymakers, and instruction for trainees. We also help our member organizations and technical assistance clients expand opportunities for participant leadership at their agencies. Leadership programming can support voucher holders to develop their self-advocacy skills, present opportunities for participants to make an impact on programs and policies, and foster fellowship among people with similar experiences. For example, ICP recently worked with participants to testify at a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing in favor of a proposed affordable housing development in Plano, TX. The proposal was denied by the Commission and appealed to the City Council, where the participants again testified, and the proposal was ultimately approved. This kind of activity and outcome can help participants build confidence and a sense of efficacy and teach them about the mechanics of advocacy for use in other contexts. Members of BRHP’s Client Advisory Board are working with their liaison to create a peer-led support group. They hope to exchange tips and resources and provide mutual emotional support. Black women with children head 98 percent of BRHP and 90 percent of ICP households, and while past research suggests that a move to a lower-poverty neighborhood can result in mental health improvements for these women, the stress of being the only Black household on the block has the potential to negate this benefit entirely. Participation in a community of people with similar experiences can help fight feelings of isolation and engender a sense of belonging.
Unclear expectations, cultural differences, and miscommunication can also lead to challenges for participants in their new communities. BRHP has a landlord-tenant mediation process that focuses on collaboration, mutual accountability, and problem-solving. Common issues addressed via mediation include access to the property, pet policies, relationships with neighbors, and property upkeep. Tenants most frequently request mediation when there is a maintenance issue, whereas landlords request mediation when the tenant has not maintained the property as expected. Mediation can clarify the problem, determine responsibility for curing it, and create a mutually agreed upon timeline for remediation.
Preserving the tenancy is the primary goal of mediation, but this is not always possible or even desired by the parties. When the tenancy cannot or should not be preserved, the mediation process serves as a space for negotiating the terms and timeline of a mutual lease rescission, and the mobility program can assist the household in identifying and relocating to a different unit in a high-opportunity neighborhood. Funds for back rent, overdue utilities, and damage mitigation can also help households remain in their units or ensure that properties remain available to other mobility participants.
Finally, we recommend that mobility program leaders think about how to support the children of families that have moved to high-opportunity neighborhoods. We equip our staff to make referrals to educational and mental health supports, where needed, to ease children’s transition to their new schools. It is also important, keeping in mind the goal of cross-class interaction, to help families select and pay for afterschool and summer activities in their new communities. We ensure access to such programs by building relationships with individual donors and partner organizations that can provide the necessary funding and in-kind resources.
We hope that as other organizations and agencies develop housing mobility programs, they will incorporate the types of post-move services we have described, and we urge them to customize the manner of service delivery according to the needs expressed by their participants. In several years, we expect that HUD’s new Community Choice Mobility Demonstration will yield insight into the types of services that are most important to enable families to move to high-opportunity areas, but there is also a great need for research that can help us better understand and demonstrate the facets of services that ensure families can stay and thrive in such areas. To that end, we hope that social capital researchers and mobility program leaders will pursue collaborations with each other.
Adria Crutchfield (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, Ann Lott (email@example.com) is the executive director of the Inclusive Communities Project, and Valerie Rosenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of Mobility Works.