“It’s not just about housing,” said Michelle Green. “They try to help low-income people branch out and do their best.” Green, who had moved to Columbia, Maryland from one of Baltimore’s most crime-ridden public housing projects in order to enroll her four sons in better public schools, was talking about Baltimore’s Housing Mobility Program.
After following 110 Baltimore Mobility participants since 2003, sociologist Stefanie DeLuca concluded that when housing choice vouchers are combined with sustained counseling, training and support, families will be more likely to move away from poor residential areas and not return. (DeLuca’s report on the program was published in the Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management.)
Previous studies suggested that even with substantial subsidies, poor families would not leave their impoverished communities. Yet with the Baltimore approach, more than two-thirds of the families that moved from the city to the suburbs remained there one to eight years later, and many mothers who previously expressed no interest in leaving the city later declared they’d changed their minds. The increased support helped individuals change their expectations of what different environments could provide for their children and themselves.
Unlike other housing experiments, Baltimore’s program is more than just a rent subsidy; it has provided more than 2,400 families with extensive support before, during and after their moves. (The program was created as part of a remedy for a lawsuit filed in 1995 by the ACLU in which the court ruled that HUD failed to provide housing residents equal access to integrated, low-poverty neighborhoods across Baltimore.) Accepted applicants who pass background checks and meet other eligibility criteria are given intensive counseling, financial literacy and credit repair training, and housing search assistance.
“I take my hat off to MBQ. [Metropolitan Baltimore Quadel is the company that oversees the program.] They let you know everything you need to know before they even let you sign on the dotted line of the lease. They’re helping a lot of lives,” said one participant.
Another key difference between Baltimore Mobility and traditional housing choice vouchers is that the Baltimore vouchers are regionally administered and therefore connect city residents to suburban housing options. If a Baltimore resident wants to move to the adjacent Anne Arundel County, she doesn’t need to apply to the suburban housing authority. This coordination between housing authorities offers significant bureaucratic relief.
Erika Poethig, a housing policy expert at the Urban Institute, says that regionally administered vouchers like those in Baltimore are rare but may become more prevalent in the future as policymakers search for ways to conserve a declining pool of financial resources. A 2013 Brookings report on the housing choice/housing voucher program argues that the current “balkanized system” of disparate housing authorities “creates duplication, overlap and inefficiency” while also “raising administrative costs.”
Of course, politics can get in the way. The creation of regionally administered programs would inevitably take some power away from local authorities. The shift would require that local agencies — with their separate boards and separate staffs — cooperate with neighboring towns and counties and have less control within their own communities. Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, believes such a change would require some serious incentives at the federal level. But moving in this direction “would also impact the idea of local housing authorities acting as a community gatekeeper,” said Tegeler. “If you had a much more fluid system regionally, I think it could overcome a lot of the segregation problems that we see now.”
Indeed, Baltimore’s encouraging results have the potential to change the way policymakers think about traditional housing choice vouchers. Tegeler says his organization regularly cites the success in Baltimore in its advocacy efforts with HUD.
Other cities are modeling elements of Baltimore’s success, too. In Philadelphia, HUD recently pledged $500,000 to develop a new mobility program, with goals to increase housing search assistance and to provide low-income families the chance to rent in higher-opportunity areas. In Seattle, the King County Housing Authority has launched a new mobility program aimed at providing families with more information about neighborhood and school quality as they move. Quadel played a direct role in helping programs get off the ground in other cities too.
DeLuca’s study suggests that with certain policy revisions, the housing choice voucher program could do more to overcome economic and racial segregation in U.S. cities and better assist the more than two million households that use the program. Moreover, it’s within HUD’s jurisdiction — Julian Castro take note — to make many of these policy changes independent of Congressional approval.
This wouldn’t come without a financial cost. Currently, a housing authority might have to choose between allocating resources to help fewer families move to low-poverty neighborhoods or helping more families move in general. Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority in Southeastern Pennsylvania explains that, “we receive a fixed dollar amount from HUD to support voucher participants, so that money can only go so far. If everyone moved to the [finest neighborhoods], we’d serve fewer people.”
The majority of housing authorities across the country already have long waiting lists, and money for low-income housing and voucher programs has been increasingly tight in recent years. Between 2005 and 2011, the average cost per voucher went up less than rents, and the sequestration cuts of 2013 were particularly detrimental.
Poethig notes that “unless the resource outlet changes, it will be really difficult to figure out how to get the significant investment.”
DeLuca doesn’t dispute the heft of the investment, but after her study, she’s a believer in Baltimore’s results. “If you want to have a housing voucher program that works,” she says, “this is what it takes.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Cohen is a D.C.-based freelance journalist and a contributing writer for the Intercept.