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«Mixed Messages on Mixed incoMes Volume 15, Number 2 • 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and ...»

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Abstract Low-income housing policies seeking to deconcentrate poverty and increase opportunities through mobility have produced mixed results. The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, for example, resulted in some beneficial outcomes for low-income households moving from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods, but it did not produce the widespread positive effects anticipated by many policymakers and researchers. The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) does not require moves to low-poverty neighborhoods, as MTO did, but rather it relies on a weaker policy of choice to achieve more income-diverse neighborhoods. As compared with what researchers have learned about the MTO participants, less is known concerning the mobility behavior and outcomes of HCVP recipients.

Using survey data from voucher holders under the jurisdiction of two local housing authorities in California combined with secondary data from multiple sources, this article examines a range of outcomes, including neighborhood poverty rates, employment, and school quality, associated with mobility in the HCVP. The results of the analyses show that movers did not have better outcomes than nonmovers but, compared with conditions in their previous residence, movers lived in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and better school quality after they moved. By contrast, employment for movers dropped significantly from before to after their moves.

Cityscape 135 Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research • Volume 15, Number 2 • 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development • Office of Policy Development and Research Basolo Introduction Compelling arguments about the harmful effects of poverty concentration contributed to a shift in federal policy during the past two decades. Support for the development of large public housing projects, common before 1970, faded, and approaches to promoting mixed-income environments were at the center of the policy discourse. The rehabilitation of public housing through Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) and policies aimed at discouraging poverty concentration in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) emerged as strategies to thwart the replication of social problems in impoverished communities. Strong empirical evidence of the effects of these policies was notably limited at the time of their initial implementation.

Debates about policies promoting poverty deconcentration and mixed-income living environments are informed increasingly by empirical research in the United States and abroad; however, the research evidence as a whole remains mixed, with some purported benefits unsupported by the research (see Bolt and Van Kempen, 2011; Joseph, Chaskin, and Webber, 2007; Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011; and Sautkina, Bond, and Kearns, 2012). Much of our recent knowledge about poverty deconcentration comes from research on the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, a long-term, five-site experiment designed to discern the effects on low-income households of moving with housing assistance from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods. Researchers considered a wide range of potential MTO effects, including on individuals’ mental and physical health, employment and economic conditions, educational attainment, criminal and risky behavior, social networks, and living environments (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011).

MTO provided a wealth of information about the effects of mobility from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods within the context of a carefully designed experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to identify cause-and-effect relationships more clearly. In the social world, however, it is difficult to design such a policy experiment without limitations and to account for all, even most, possible influences on the variable of interest. Researchers have documented these shortcomings for MTO, which among others include the use of neighborhood poverty rate alone to capture troubled living environments, a lack of initial attention to proximate neighborhoods that might affect a target neighborhood, the number of participants, and the differences in site contexts and study designs that muddle the generalizability of the findings (see Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010; and Goering, Feins, and Richardson, 2003). Despite these limitations, MTO offers valuable results that indicate that neighborhood poverty levels matter for some social outcomes, and it raises questions and motivates discussion about future housing policies and research evaluation designs.

MTO, by virtue of its design, operated differently than does the regular HCVP. The HCVP policies support residential mobility with the hope that voucher holders will improve their circumstances by moving, but it does not require any subset of clients to locate in lower poverty neighborhoods.

Federal performance assessment of local housing authorities (LHAs), the agencies charged with local administration of the voucher program, explicitly values poverty deconcentration as part of the program. As a result, LHAs may set payment standards to try to encourage voucher holders to locate in low-poverty areas; nevertheless, voucher holders may choose neighborhoods for personal reasons rather than poverty levels (Basolo and Nguyen, 2009, 2005; Williamson, Smith, and Strambi-Kramer, 2009). These policies appear too weak to greatly influence voucher holders’

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residential location decisions and noticeably affect poverty concentration among voucher holders at the regional scale. That is, they are very unlikely to produce mixed-income neighborhoods on a widespread basis.

Housing policy researchers support the conclusion that the HCVP does not induce significant poverty deconcentration (McClure, 2008; Varady, 2010). The HCVP has been studied far less intensely than the MTO program, however, with little attention to the range of possible outcomes associated with voucher-holder mobility. This article examines a set of outcomes using unique microlevel data for voucher holders under the administration of two LHAs in the same California county. In addition to considering the poverty rate in voucher neighborhoods, this research also investigates employment outcomes for voucher holders and school quality, a potentially key factor in the prospects for children of voucher holders. Specifically, the research explores the following questions.

1. What factors are associated with neighborhood poverty levels, employment status, and school quality? Particularly, are these outcomes different for movers versus nonmovers in the voucher program?

2. Are neighborhood poverty levels, employment status, and school quality different before and after residential relocation for the movers in the voucher program?

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