Philip Tegeler, Poverty & Race Research Action Council1
Excerpted from the AIR Equity Initiative: Integration and Equity 2.0, New and Reinvigorated Approaches to School Integration – A Collection of Essays
Our largest low-income housing program, the Housing Choice Voucher program, was originally conceived as an experiment to give families the ability to move to a privately owned apartment in a community of their choice in contrast to traditional public housing and other place-based federal subsidized housing, where acceptance of federal housing assistance was generally conditioned on acceptance of a specific, usually segregated, neighborhood and its local zoned school. However, for most of the voucher program’s 50-year history, the promise of community choice has not been fulfilled. The housing voucher program has often steered families into higher poverty neighborhoods,2 and further research has shown that the program exposes children to low-performing, higher poverty elementary schools at a rate similar to what we have seen with other major (place-based) low-income housing programs.3
Although these outcomes are largely influenced by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules and public housing authority (PHA) administrative policies,4 they are not inevitable. “Housing mobility programs,” developed originally as part of remedial orders in public housing desegregation cases,5 have shown great potential to assist families who want to move to safer, lower poverty neighborhoods through a combination of intensive counseling, housing search assistance, landlord outreach and incentives, and voucher policy adjustments. The continuing emergence of research showing significant health, educational, and economic benefits for children who move to low-poverty neighborhoods6 has led to increased funding for housing mobility by federal, state, and local governments. Housing mobility programs have now expanded to at least 20 metropolitan areas,7 and in the past 5 years, Congress has allocated $75 million to support housing mobility services,8 and several states fund their own mobility programs.9 Most of the federal funds have gone to build the Community Choice Demonstration in eight cities,10 and an additional $25 million is being disbursed 1.4-2 | AIR.ORG Chapter 1.4: Supporting School Integration Through the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program in 2023 through a competitive grants program to fund up to 30 additional programs.11 These programs have been bolstered by broader reforms to the Housing Choice Voucher program that support greater choice and mobility, including a 2016 Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule that has given families the potential to access higher cost rentals in previously inaccessible neighborhoods and communities.12
Housing mobility programs have a significant, but underutilized, potential to support school integration by providing access to high-performing, low-poverty schools for lowincome children of color. In this sense, housing mobility programs are like interdistrict (city-to-suburb) school integration programs, except that the entire family moves to the suburban school district and the children become resident students in the town. With continuing restrictions on race-based methods for achieving voluntary school integration,13 and growing uncertainty about the effects of the 2023 affirmative action cases on K–12 education,14 housing mobility programs may become an increasingly important part of the solution to interdistrict school segregation.
Although many housing mobility programs incorporate measures of school performance in the definition of targeted low-poverty “opportunity areas,” and lowincome children in mobility programs often move to lower poverty schools,15 school integration per se has not been an explicit goal of most programs. The goal of this paper is to explore how to incorporate school integration more explicitly into the design of housing mobility programs, both at the front end, in the selection of schools and school districts and in the pre-move counseling process, and then after the move, in the post-move counseling process to help families and children successfully transition to their new communities and schools. This exploration is based, in part, on prior and ongoing work with mobility programs in Texas, Ohio, Maryland, New York, and California, with the goal of developing a practice model for housing mobility programs across the country.
Assessing School Quality and Inclusion in Selecting Target Opportunity Areas As noted above, many mobility programs incorporate school performance data as part of a broader geographic analysis of opportunity that includes data on neighborhood poverty, access to employment, transit access, and health-related factors. These “opportunity maps” generally define targeted areas eligible for landlord incentives and 1.4-3 | AIR.ORG Chapter 1.4: Supporting School Integration Through the Federal Housing Choice Voucher Program individualized housing search assistance. The Child Opportunity Index,16 which is one nationally available mapping tool, weights school performance heavily. On Long Island, the state housing department uses its own two-factor index of “well-resourced areas” originally developed for siting Low Income Housing Tax Credit developments, where the eligible areas are low-poverty census tracts zoned to an elementary local school exceeding the 50th percentile of school performance on state tests.17 In assisting the launch of the Long Island program, we also modeled a more detailed “High Opportunity Index” for school districts with six indicators identified as determinants of education outcomes in education literature.18 School performance data have sometimes been criticized as the primary metric to evaluate school quality, largely because it reflects student demographics, and also because of its tendency to promote self-segregation of more affluent families in “higher performing” districts.19 However, because school performance is so closely tied to family income, high-performing schools are a useful initial screening tool for housing mobility programs seeking to help families with children move to areas with lower poverty schools.20 Once these lower poverty schools are identified, additional performance indicators—like year-to-year growth and performance of subgroups—can be assessed.21 Beyond these important contributors to academic achievement, it is also crucial to assess school climate in the school districts that receive children in housing mobility programs. Will children and their parents feel welcome in their new schools, and will they reap the benefits of interacting with children from different backgrounds? This question is closely related to growing concerns about school climate and student mental health,22 and it also comes out of Professor Raj Chetty et al.’s new research on social capital and the importance of cross-class friendships for long-term economic mobility for low-income children. 23
1. The author would like to acknowledge a number of important partners in this work who have helped develop the insights in this paper, and who will be instrumental in developing these ideas for more widespread use in practice: Shamira Lawrence of the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas; Jeanmarie Buffet with the Community Development Corporation of Long Island; Erin Boggs and staff at the Open Communities Alliance in Connecticut; Brian Knudsen, senior research associate at PRRAC; and the staff and board members of Mobility Works, a technical assistance collaborative that includes PRRAC, the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, Housing Choice Partners (Chicago), and the Inclusive Communities Project. Thanks also to Nina Todd, PRRAC policy fellow, for her helpful research assistance.
2. Mazzara, A., & Knudsen, B. (2019). Where families with children use housing vouchers: A comparative look at the 50 largest metropolitan areas. PRRAC. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/where_families_use_vouchers_2019.pdf
3. Gould Ellen, I., & Horn, K. (2018). Housing and educational opportunity: Characteristics of local schools near families with federal housing assistance. PRRAC. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/HousingLocationSchools2018.pdf
4. Tegeler, P. (2020). Housing choice voucher reform: A primer for 2021 and beyond. PRRAC. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/housing-choice-voucher-reform-agenda.pdf
5. For example, Gautreaux v. HUD (Chicago), Walker v. HUD (Dallas), and Thompson v. HUD (Baltimore).
6. For an excellent short summary of the research, see Fedorowicz, M., & Brennan, M. (2020). As HUD prepares a new demonstration, what do we know about housing mobility and kids’ outcomes? Urban Institute. https://housingmatters.urban.org/articles/hud-prepares-new-demonstration-what-do-weknow-about-housing-mobility-and-kids-outcomes
7. PRRAC & Mobility Works. (2022). Housing mobility programs in the U.S. 2022. https://www.prrac.org/pdf/prracHousingMobilitySurvey2022.pdf
8. This total includes $25 million in the 2019 and 2020 federal budgets, respectively, for the Community Choice Demonstration (formerly called the Housing Mobility Demonstration), currently funding programs in eight regions, and an additional $25 million in the 2022 budget for Housing Mobility Services, to be allocated through a competitive grants program in 2023.
9. States supporting housing mobility programs include Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.
10. HUD. (n.d.). Housing Choice Voucher mobility demonstration. https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/communitychoicedemo
11. PRRAC. (2022). Mobility Works praises inclusion of $25 million for housing mobility services in bipartisan FY 2022 omnibus spending bill. https://www.prrac.org/mobility-works-praises-inclusion-of25-million-for-housing-mobility-services-in-bipartisan-fy-2022-omnibus-spending-bill/
12. The SAFMR rule, Establishing a More Effective Fair Market Rent System, 81 F.R. 80567 (November 16, 2016), replaced regionwide rent caps based on the 40th percentile of metropolitan rents with ZIP code–based rents at the 40th percentile in 24 metropolitan areas. In other parts of the country, adoption of SAFMRs was voluntary, and many public housing agencies (PHAs) have adopted these higher rent caps in more expensive, higher opportunity neighborhoods and communities. Other potential program reforms to expand families’ ability to access high-performing, less-segregated schools may include changes to the way that HUD evaluates PHA performance, and streamlining movement of vouchers across PHA jurisdictional lines. See generally Tegeler, P. (2020). Housing choice voucher reform: A primer for 2021 and beyond. PRRAC. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/housingchoice-voucher-reform-agenda.pdf
13. See Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
14. See, for example, Starr, S. B. (in press). The magnet-school wars and the future of colorblindness. Stanford Law Review, 76(1).
15. DeLuca, S., Rhodes, A., & Garboden, P. M. E. (2016). The power of place: How housing policy can boost educational opportunity. Abell Foundation. https://abell.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/ed-powerplace31516.pdf
16. Developed by researchers at Brandeis University, the Child Opportunity Index uses multiple indicators associated with child well-being and economic mobility to construct a national geographic database. The index has been used by several housing mobility programs in the United States. Child Opportunity Index (COI) | diversitydatakids.org
17. New York State Homes and Community Renewal. (n.d.). Map. https://nyshcr.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=b0ca4a8432104bb4ac71fb576ee 51175
18. The indicators, in a paper prepared for us by Olivia Ildefonso (PhD, CUNY 2021), include per-pupil spending, graduation rate, dropout rate, percentage of economically disadvantaged (poverty rate), percentage receiving an advanced Regent’s diploma, and mean classroom size. This index was not used to select areas of opportunity, but it was shared with counseling staff.
19. See Hasan, S., & Kumar, A. (2019, December 5). Digitization and divergence: Online school ratings and segregation in America. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3265316
20. There is a strong body of evidence that low-income children benefit from attending lower poverty schools. See Ayscue, J., Frankenberg, E., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2017). The complementary benefits of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. National Coalition on School Diversity. https://www.school-diversity.org/pdf/DiversityResearchBriefNo10.pdf
21. The GreatSchools app now helpfully tracks year-to-year growth and the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups. See Barnum, M. (2020, September 24). GreatSchools overhauls ratings in bid to reduce link with race and poverty. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2020/9/24/21453357/greatschoolsoverhauls-ratings-reduce-link-race-poverty
22. See American Civil Liberties Union. (2021, July 29). ACLU comment on school climate and discipline (in response to DOE Request for Information ED-2021-OCR-0068). https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclucomment-school-climate-and-discipline. See also Aspen Institute. (n.d.). From a nation at risk to a nation at hope. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED606337.pdf; and Pennsylvania State University. (2018). School climate and social and emotional learning: The integration of two approaches. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/School-Climate-and-Social-and-Emotional-LearningIntegrative-Approach-January-2018.pdf
23. Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O., Kuchler, T., Stroebel, J., Hiller, A., Oppenheimer, S., & The Opportunity Insights Team. (2022, August). Social capital and economic mobility. Opportunity Insights. https://opportunityinsights.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/socialcapital_nontech.pdf