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Housing Mobility


With federal rent vouchers and ancillary services, housing mobility programs help families move to areas of increased opportunity, with safer environments, improved schools, and better employment opportunities.  First pioneered as a remedy in the Gautreaux case, housing mobility programs are in our view one of the best tools for increasing life opportunities for the most disadvantaged.

The Gautreaux Asssisted Housing Program

“Housing mobility” emerged as a result of the unanimous 1976 United States Supreme Court decision in Hills v. Gautreaux.  In that case, argued by BPI’s Alexander Polikoff, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could be required to offer a metropolitan-wide housing mobility program to Chicago public housing residents who had been subjected to racial discrimination.  As a result, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program was created and continued to serve public housing families in Chicago for 22 years (until it ended in 1998 under the terms of a consent decree with HUD).  Families who were part of the Gautreaux plaintiff class received special Section 8 rent certificates, enabling them to move to private apartments in neighborhoods where no more than 30 percent of residents were African-American. Participants received counseling assistance from the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a fair housing organization, to find homes in racially diverse neighborhoods in the city or the suburbs. Through the Gautreaux Program, some 25,000 individuals (in over 7,500 families) were enabled to move voluntarily out of racially segregated, high poverty areas of Chicago to other Chicago neighborhoods and over 100 suburbs.

The experiences of moving families were examined by a team of sociologists from Northwestern University headed by Professor James Rosenbaum.  The team’s reports, which began in the early 1990s, showed astonishing improvements in life circumstances for many moving families, measured by employment, safety, children’s schooling, and the like.

The Gautreaux Program, the Rosenbaum studies, and the ensuing national publicity gave rise to a housing mobility movement that has generated a considerable literature, six national mobility conferences, a number of smaller housing mobility programs, two major ones (continuing today in Dallas and Baltimore, both outgrowths of Gautreaux-type lawsuits), and a national ten-year-long demonstration, Moving to Opportunity (MTO) which involved over 4,000 families in five cities and is still being intensively studied.

Backed by Research

The years following the Gautreaux Program (which ended in 1998 under the terms of a consent decree with HUD) saw an explosion of research on the high statistical probability that adverse experiences in early childhood lead to adulthoods constrained by emotional, cognitive, and physical issues, and on the linkages between severely distressed neighborhoods and such lifetime, intergenerational effects. Based on this newer knowledge, it is possible to summarize the need for and importance of effectively designed housing mobility programs as follows:

  • Continuing stress and repeated trauma in early childhood lead with high statistical probability to blighted adulthoods.
  • Severely distressed neighborhoods, characterized by high poverty, chaotic, violent conditions, and poorly performing schools correlate with adverse childhood experiences.
  • The effects of spending one’s formative childhood years in such environments are not only statistically likely to have detrimental consequences for adulthoods, but are likely to be passed on to subsequent generations.
  • The record of the Gautreaux Program was one of astonishing benefits for those children and families who succeeded in making true “opportunity” moves — moves of considerable physical distance to different school districts in racially integrated, low poverty communities. Although not designed as research demonstrations, mobility programs in Dallas and Baltimore (both outgrowths of Gautreaux-type lawsuits) continue to show that the housing voucher program, properly deployed, is one way to get children to communities that provide improved life opportunities.
  • Compared with neighborhood “in-place” transformation efforts, mobility programs have the great advantage of immediacy. Rather than waiting years for uncertain benefits, while accumulating high “ACE scores” in their toxic environments, children can be transported, instantaneously so to speak, out of harm’s way and into substantially improved environments.
  • Society should, therefore, ramp up support for mobility programs as a way, simply put, to save children’s lives.
  • Childhood adversity and its lifetime effects are often cited as America’s number one public health issue. Housing mobility should come to be understood as one of the best weapons America has to deal with its number one public health issue.

Moving to Opportunity (MTO)

MTO was a Congressionally authorized (at BPI’s urging) ten-year demonstration involving over 4,000 families in five cities.) A direct result of the Gautreaux Program and its positive and widely publicized outcomes, the point of MTO was to see whether the Gautreaux outcomes could be replicated in multiple locations.

They were not. Although significant positive health outcomes were recorded and MTO families were pleased with the relative safety of their new neighborhoods, no economic or educational benefits were discerned. As a result, Gautreaux — indeed, the whole idea of housing mobility — came to be viewed with scholarly skepticism. As Professor Robert J. Sampson observed in the July 2008 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, “MTO publications and presentations appear to have cast doubt on the general thesis that neighborhoods matter in the lives of poor individuals.”

In fact, there were serious problems with MTO as a “test” of Gautreaux, among which were these:

  • In Gautreaux, treatment families moved long distances, putting themselves at a considerable remove from their neighborhoods of origin. In MTO, the vast majority of all families who used their MTO voucher remained within a relatively short distance of their original neighborhoods moving to neighborhoods that were very similar to the ones in which they started.
  • In Gautreaux, these long distance moves put families into different school districts with higher performing schools. In MTO, children in the MTO experimental group attended schools that differed little from those of children in the control group.
  • In Gautreaux, treatment – but not control – families made significant jumps into very low poverty neighborhoods. In MTO, the average poverty rate was greater than 30% for both experimental and control families.
  • Finally, Gautreaux treatment families moved from heavily black segregated neighborhoods into mainly white or integrated ones. In MTO, segregation was barely touched. Both experimental and control families resided in areas that were almost 90% black.

The examples given serve to explain why there is little basis for concluding that MTO “disproves” Gautreaux, or shows that housing mobility “doesn’t work.” Indeed, two scholars, in analyses of the few MTO families who actually moved to and spent considerable time in advantaged neighborhoods have concluded that these MTO family experiences closely mirrored those of Gautreaux families.

Recipient of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions

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