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«Moving to opportunity voluMe 14, nuMber 2 • 2012 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and Research ...»

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182 Moving to Opportunity Constrained Compliance: Solving the Puzzle of MTO’s Lease-Up Rates and Why Mobility Matters In 2003 and 2004, just after the MTO followup survey for the interim impacts evaluation (Orr et al., 2003), our team entered the field in Baltimore and Chicago to study MTO adults and youth, using indepth qualitative interviews and neighborhood and classroom observations. We spent time in nearly all of the origin neighborhoods from which the MTO families hailed and many of the neighborhoods to which they moved with the voucher and in which they had ended up by the time we contacted them, 7 to 9 years after random assignment. We conducted another round of intensive qualitative work in 2010 and 2011, after the long-term survey for the final impacts evaluation (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011). In both rounds, we spoke at length with hundreds of MTO participants, both adults and teens, about their experiences in their origin, placement, and subsequent neighborhoods and the process through which they ended up where they were. Other MTO qualitative teams undertook similar studies in the other three MTO cities: Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City (Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010). These data, along with recent qualitative studies of the residential trajectories of families in other mobility programs and in the traditional Section 8 voucher program, offer powerful lessons about three factors that shape the residential trajectories of poor families: (1) the difficulty of using the voucher to navigate the private housing market in cities highly segregated by income and race, (2) problems with the voucher program itself, and (3) the beliefs and coping strategies—factors that economists might subsume under the label preferences— of the families MTO sought to serve. We argue that these forces, taken together, were likely a main cause of depressed lease-up rates (especially for low-poverty voucher holders, but also for the Section 8 group) and of returns to poorer neighborhoods after initial opportunity moves.

Where MTO Families Wanted To Live The conventional wisdom about why experimental group participants did not lease up or remain in what the MTO program called opportunity areas is that they wanted to live with others “like them” or in areas more like the neighborhoods they had moved from. Although some experimental group families might certainly have felt that way, the accounts from our interviews (and from the followup survey for the interim impacts evaluation) do not support this assertion. In fact, families often told us exactly the opposite. For most experimental group participants we interviewed, the contrast between public housing and their MTO placement neighborhoods was hardly lost on them (Turney, Kissane, and Edin, 2011).

Jacqueline said of her origin neighborhood, I was living [in] what they call the danger zone.... You don’t know how bad I wanted to get out of that place.... There was shooting and all that. By me living on the corner, all the junkies and all hung right on that corner.

Keisha, a participant in the experimental group, characterized her public housing neighborhood in this way: “It’s like they got you in a cage.... You are in this hole, where all these people cramped in.”

Tammy, a participant in the control group, recounted her time in public housing as follows:

That was the worst experience that I ever experienced, living in an environment which made you feel trapped, caged, and worthless—just stuck into the atmosphere of absolutely no progress. It was a whole little community of pure dissatisfaction.... No one encouraged no one.


–  –  –

These examples are in striking contrast to the way many movers in the experimental group described their new environments to Turney, Kissane, and Edin (2011).

Niecy said she could see grass, birds, and squirrels out the window of her new apartment; she felt she “had moved from night to day.” Amy said the change in the neighborhood’s physical environment had dramatically improved her

outlook on life:

You living in a high-rise, you got a lot [of] cement. And there’s something to that effect in the psychology…, the hardness you get from all that concrete. The greenery [here], it softens you. It’s just so beautiful and peaceful, the space, the open space.

Peaches’ account about her new place demonstrates how transformative a new unit in a better

neighborhood can be:

Oh God, when I first moved in…everything was just so neat, clean, and well kept and quiet and peaceful, I was like ‘Thank you God. This is what I have been waiting for,’ you know? And when I first moved in the house, I just cried. I just really cried. I was like ‘Oh my God… Now I can raise my family in the way I want to raise them,’ you know?

A Baltimore mover in the experimental group told us that her daughter’s asthma disappeared after the MTO move away from the projects in West Baltimore. Some parents who made it to Howard County, Maryland—which has some of the highest performing schools in the area—were impressed with how much attention their children received in school and how their children’s behaviors changed as they were exposed to new peers (DeLuca and Rosenblatt, 2010). Drawing from the followup survey for the interim evaluation and the various qualitative studies of MTO, we know of no evidence to suggest that experimental group families did not lease up or stay in opportunity areas because they wanted to live among fewer middle-class or White neighbors (Briggs, Popkin and Goering, 2010; Rosenblatt and DeLuca, forthcoming).

Problems With the Voucher Program and Private Markets in Segregated Cities MTO’s design was based on the best research available at the time. Concentrated poverty is associated with any number of deleterious outcomes for families and children, and the idea of giving families in some of the most highly distressed public housing in the country a chance to move to a low-poverty neighborhood made perfect sense. MTO did not occur in a vacuum, however; rather, a modified version of the Section 8 voucher program, a program that has limitations of its own, launched families on housing searches in metropolitan areas with significant structural barriers to residential mobility. Although MTO offered experimental group members modest counseling to help navigate housing markets (Feins, McInnis, and Popkin, 1997), MTO’s architects may have underestimated how weaknesses in the Section 8 voucher program and the power of highly segregated city housing markets would impede the movement of low-income families out of highpoverty neighborhoods. Over time, these same forces also served to bounce opportunity movers out of low-poverty neighborhoods and into neighborhoods that were similar to those of their counterparts in the control group.

184 Moving to Opportunity Constrained Compliance: Solving the Puzzle of MTO’s Lease-Up Rates and Why Mobility Matters Baltimore and Chicago, two of the MTO sites, serve as good examples. In Baltimore, a crisis of available affordable housing arose in the metropolitan area just at the time when low-poverty and traditional Section 8 voucher holders were trying to lease up. The rental market was very tight, and few units with more than three bedrooms were available. Families were subject to all the choicelimiting aspects of the traditional Section 8 voucher program. For example, MTO did not provide relief for the burdensome portability procedures that would have more easily enabled movers in the experimental group to use their vouchers outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore City’s (HABC’s) jurisdiction. In Baltimore, landlords may have been hesitant to participate because the administrator of the larger voucher program, HABC, had become notorious for late payments and inspection delays. In addition, Baltimore and most of its adjacent counties did not have source-ofincome protection that could have prevented landlords from refusing to lease to voucher holders.1 As in other cities, Fair Market Rent (FMR) levels were tagged to the 40th percentile of the metropolitan area median rent, not to the median rent of a smaller geographic unit, and thus were much less than the median rents in many mostly White and affluent areas in the city and suburbs, further restricting the scope of possible units to which families could move.

Chicago’s Cook County, which encompasses Chicago and some of its inner suburbs, does have source-of-income protection, but that did not eliminate all the barriers to lease up there (and the protection does not apply outside of Cook County). Navigating the private housing market was still enormously difficult for voucher holders. In 2002, a 3-year longitudinal study of roughly 100 participants in a new wave of Chicago’s Gautreaux program (Gautreaux Two) recruited families at the first orientation session so researchers could observe the process of lease up. Virtually every client wanted to leave public housing behind, but many struggled mightily to secure a unit within program guidelines. Families often visited dozens of units over several months that subsequently failed to qualify, either because they were not in census tracts that met program rules or because they did not pass Section 8 inspection. In the tight housing market of that time, larger families had a particularly hard time leasing up within the prescribed time limit, as did families headed by an adult who was working full time or was both working and going to school. For these busy families, the time and energy involved in mounting a housing search in opportunity neighborhoods, with which they may have had limited familiarity, were simply too much, even with the modest counseling the program provided. Similarly, families with physical or mental health problems also often found the process too onerous (Pashup et al., 2005).

In both MTO and Gautreaux Two, families often moved on from their placement neighborhoods after 1 year, when the voucher became portable, often moving to higher poverty neighborhoods.

Retrospective interviews of adults in Baltimore (Rosenblatt and DeLuca, forthcoming) and in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York (Briggs, Comey, and Weisman, 2010; Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010) suggest that unit and landlord problems—everything from units failing their annual inspection to landlords raising the rent to greater than the FMR or failing to respond to a major maintenance problem—played leading roles in prompting these subsequent moves. This finding The Public Justice Center in Baltimore contacted 42 apartment complexes located in areas of adjacent Baltimore County that have few voucher holders. In 34 of the 42 complexes, amounting to 12,000 total units, property managers reported that they did not accept vouchers. Some of the same owners, however, do accept vouchers in complexes located in predominantly African-American or lower income neighborhoods (Samuels, 2012).

Cityscape 185Edin, DeLuca, and Owens

is consistent with the prospective research on the experiences of families who moved through Gautreaux Two; one-half moved at the 1-year point, with unit and landlord problems cited as the leading reasons prompting the moves. Fieldworkers often witnessed these unit problems first hand—leaking roofs, ill-fitting windows that let in moisture and cold, broken plumbing or heating systems, and rodent infestation— as well as conflicts with landlords (Boyd et al., 2010).

In particular, the unit problems were often quite severe, suggesting that, when used in a neighborhood that qualified as an opportunity area, the voucher often afforded a family units and landlords at the very low end of the quality scale. Wood’s (2011) indepth interviews with African-American participants in Baltimore’s Section 8 voucher program showed that voucher holders were very sensitive to the fact that poorer neighborhoods with lower rents often offer more “bang” in terms of unit quality and size for the voucher “buck” than less poor, less African-American neighborhoods.

DeLuca, Wood, and Rosenblatt (2011), who studied African-American voucher holders in Baltimore and Mobile, Alabama, found that the program limitations on time to lease up (in general, 60 days) conditioned families’ choices when moving. When units failed physical inspection, or when landlords failed to respond to maintenance requests or raised the rent, families under pressure often took the first or second unit they looked at, afraid they would lose their voucher or even end up homeless. These dynamics led them to move to mostly poor and racially segregated neighborhoods, where qualifying units are more plentiful and landlords are typically more eager to take a voucher.

World Views and Preferences The MTO program left families to choose their own units and neighborhoods as long as they met the criteria of being located in a census tract that was less than 10 percent poor. After 1 year, the low-poverty voucher became fully portable; it could be used in any neighborhood. MTO’s design, however, was predicated on the idea that the housing authority could not leave mobility decisions up to choice alone—at least not at the outset—because participants would be unlikely to move to an opportunity area on their own. To this end, each site engaged in some level of housing counseling to aid clients as they tried to lease up in low-poverty neighborhoods, but no ongoing counseling was available to help families stay in these neighborhoods when a unit failed annual inspection, the landlord raised the rent or was unnecessarily intrusive, or broken pipes spilled sewage into the basement (a condition we observed more than once).

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