Dr. Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins University told members of the Economic Mobility Policy Forum this month that one of the most important aspects of improving housing assistance is choice.

“I think that the key piece of this is choice,” DeLuca said. “And I think if we look at the historical record on housing policy, that poor families and families of color have rarely had choice.”

Offering families that kind of choice – the choice to stay in their lneighborhoods or to move somewhere with more opportunity – is the idea behind the research project DeLuca collaborated on in Seattle.

Stefanie DeLuca

In the project, Creating Moves to Opportunity, researchers found that simple interventions dramatically increased the likelihood that housing voucher recipients would choose to move to “high opportunity neighborhoods.”

“We know that the roots of the American Dream are more spatial and local than we realize,” DeLuca said. “There are ways to take this knowledge and act on it, to translate the importance of place into practice and policy.” 

The Seattle study builds on earlier research finding that growing up in certain neighborhoods – particularly those with concentrated poverty – results in poorer outcomes compared to children who grow up elsewhere, even those in families at the same income level. Living in a low-opportunity area can have the same impact as missing a year of school, DeLuca said, and also has deep psychological impact. 

Although moving to a higher opportunity neighborhood can improve a child’s economic mobility, most recipients of housing vouchers live in low-income neighborhoods. The goal of Creating Moves to Opportunity was to determine why that economic segregation persists and whether interventions can affect it.

Researchers worked with Seattle and King County to provide the following interventions to housing voucher recipients:

  1. Search assistance, including education about neighborhoods, rental application coaching and housing locator services
  2. Landlord engagement and assistance to encourage landlords to rent to people with housing vouchers
  3. Short-term financial assistance with moving expenses

Compared to a control group, voucher recipients who received the intervention were 40 percent more likely to move to a high-opportunity area. With intervention costs of between $2000 and $4000 per family, DeLuca said the program can more than pay for itself given the higher incomes of a family’s children later in life.

DeLuca told the Policy Forum that there are currently expansion partners across the country in different stages of implementation, from San Diego to Minneapolis to New York City. The effort has also gotten federal funding in previous fiscal years.

The potential for such projects is drastic for regions and for individuals. DeLuca relayed an interview with someone who grew up in a high-crime, high-poverty area in Baltimore who described the experience as feeling “trapped, caged and worthless.” Interviewees who were able to move, DeLuca said, described the experience as “leaving Hell and going to Heaven.”