For more than a decade, Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist, has studied the impact of housing mobility programs on social inequality: Can families living in impoverished communities improve their situations if they receive assistance to move to better neighborhoods?
Almost since the start of the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) in the 1970s, the assumption has been that people would jump at the opportunity to move to a neighborhood with better schools, less crime, and safer streets. Over the past 40 years, though, voucher programs have seen poor people simply move from one bad neighborhood to another.
In 2005, DeLuca, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, and her research team began following more than 2,000 families relocated through the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (BHMP), a private contractor-managed, federal court-awarded remedy intervention. BHMP requires families to move to communities where the poverty rate is below 10 percent, the population is less than 30 percent African-American, and less than 5 percent of the population is already participating in housing assistance. BHMP offers tours of the neighborhoods and walk-throughs of available apartments, credit counseling services, and introductions to others who have participated in the program. It also requires that families stay in the new neighborhood for at least two years.
As DeLuca documents in a paper titled “‘Living Here Has Changed My Whole Perspective’: How Escaping Inner-City Poverty Shaped Neighborhood and Housing Choice,” co-authored with Jennifer Darrah, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one to eight years later, more than two-thirds of BHMP families were still living in their new neighborhoods. “Once they had a chance to live in high-performing school districts with low crime rates, there were some pretty profound changes in how these parents thought about neighborhoods and schools and what was best for their kids,” says DeLuca, who conducted the research with Darrah.
DeLuca believes BHMP’s success can teach us how to improve voucher programs in the future. But she also thinks the study tells us something important about the way people make choices about their lives. “There’s this implicit assumption [in public policy] that if you give people choice, that reduces inequality,” DeLuca says. “And then we make assumptions about the choices poor people make, that they make bad ones”—like choosing to stay in a bad neighborhood—“as if they exist independent of social structure.”
Her study suggests that offering a different set of experiences, including a better social structure, enables people to make better choices instead of just following old patterns. “Whether it would help all outcomes—health, mental health, employment—is still a mixed bag of answers,” she says, adding that this paper is neither the first nor the last set of results coming out of her study. “I think we know, given the status quo [housing] policies, if we gave them some of the features of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, it would help families increase their opportunities to live in neighborhoods that are better for them and their kids.”
DeLuca drawing by Caroline Andrieu; image above by Jean-Francois Martin
DeLuca’s study suggests that offering a different set of experiences, including a better social structure, enables people to make better choices.