Housing Complex

The Benefits (Mostly) of Moving Families From High-Poverty Neighborhoods

A map of D.C. incomes by neighborhood. Green represents high incomes, red low incomes.

A map of D.C. incomes by neighborhood. Green represents high incomes, red low incomes.

What happens if you move poor families into wealthier neighborhoods? The answer, three recent studies show, is complicated.

Today, the MacArthur Foundation's "How Housing Matters" initiative released 10 briefs summarizing its research on the impact that housing has on various elements of people's lives. Two of them address the effect that moving into a higher-income neighborhood can have on low-income residents.

In one study, low-income urban families were given vouchers to move to neighborhoods with less poverty as part of a program called Moving to Opportunity. Escaping a high-poverty environment led to improvements in physical and mental health and reported happiness. And yet the researchers found it had no significant effect on earnings, employment, or children's school performance.

A second study looked at the inclusionary zoning program, which is employed in Montgomery County and the District, although it's struggled to get off the ground in D.C. Inclusionary zoning requires developers of large new residential buildings to reserve a percentage of the units for low-income residents. The study found that inclusionary zoning gave participating low-income families access to more economically diverse neighborhoods and better schools: Nearly half were assigned to low-poverty schools, and three-quarters were in low-poverty neighborhoods.

Separately, a recent study in the city of Baltimore examined the same general issue, but with a more radical approach. The Baltimore Mobility Program, stemming from a court finding in a 1995 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that public housing was excessively segregated in the city, gave housing vouchers to low-income residents that required them to move to higher-income suburbs and remain there for at least two years. The participants were all black and current or former residents of public housing in Baltimore. They moved to neighborhoods in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties that were no more than 30 percent black, 10 percent poor, or 5 percent on public housing assistance.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, tracked 110 participants in the program. She found that they were overwhelmingly satisfied with the life change, and more than two-thirds had stayed in the suburbs one to eight years later.

"What we heard was a mom saying, 'I didn’t wanna go. I thought I’d stay for a year,'" she told me recently. "'And now it’s seven years later, and you couldn’t get me out of here if you had to pull me by the teeth.'"

Baltimore, though less expensive than D.C., has similarly struggled to house its low-income residents. The city's waiting list for public housing has been closed since 2003; D.C.'s closed last year after surpassing 70,000 names.

But would a similar program work in D.C.? Programs like inclusionary zoning, Hope VI, and New Communities have aimed to create mixed-income environments, although they've all struggled to do so efficiently. But moving people out to the suburbs would surely ruffle some feathers—both in the suburbs themselves, which would likely accuse the District of unloading its poor residents on them, and in the city, where people would charge the D.C. government with breaking up communities and sending its problems over the District line rather than addressing them directly. Still, as the racially and economically divided city works to increase diversity, through its housing programs and its ongoing effort to overhaul its school assignment policies, the lessons of these studies are worth keeping in mind.

Map from richblockspoorblocks.com

  • Typical DC BS

    Yes, liberal orthodoxy requires ignoring basic economics and common sense when advocating for "affordable housing" and wasting tens of millions of dollars keeping poor, unskilled residents in the city who can't afford to live there otherwise.

    Just like there was suddenly a "right" to healthcare, now there's a "right" to remain in an area you can't afford to live in anymore.

    Democratic party idiocy at it's finest.

  • Northwesterneer

    It is bizarre to suggest that healthcare, which is pennies compared to an aircraft carrier also purchased by the government, is somehow a "right" which I am not aware anyone seriously suggested, or is somehow Democratic in nature when it's offered by political parties throughout the world. And then to compare that to plans to keep poor people in areas they can't afford to live or work in, which is truly misguided... and if you look at the Baltimore Mobility Program, they're actually moving people out of the cities to other nearby jurisdictions... In DC, which is expensive to live in, it would be like moving people out of state to Virginia, where property is in less demand... not following your jumps in logic here.

  • Froggie

    What happens when you move poor people into wealthy neighborhoods? The crime rate goes up, full stop.

  • markus

    Northwesterner: " healthcare, which is pennies compared to an aircraft carrier"

    Fed Govt spends 1.3 trillion on healthcare each year, and .0013 on aircraft carriers?

  • Typical DC BS

    Uh Northwesterneer, do you have ANY idea what you're talking about with that opening comment? You do realize that almost 50% of federal spending goes toward social spending and medical care, while only 25% goes toward defense, which is a whole other issue in that that ratio between defense and social/medical spending has reversed over the past 50 years?

    Healthcare is "pennies" compared to an aircraft carrier? Right.

    By the way, the federal government is tasked with defense of the nation as one of it's main functions, per the Constitution, NOT to become the nanny to it's citizens.

    Funny you seem to think that because other political parties throughout the world are as idiotic with their assumptions about what the government's role in our society should be (guess you're missing the whole point Russia's making by taking advantage of our dimwitted president and his "allies" in Europe who are afraid to stand up to a "third rate power" in our president's own words). When you let your guard down, the rest of the world will eat your lunch.

    Even Jesus knew "the poor will always be with us". Time to stop trying to take care of people not bright enough to know they HAVE to either move to where they can afford to live or acquire the skills they need to get jobs where they want to live.

  • Strange

    @Typical DC BS It's easy to say gentrification is a natural effect of an evolving market when you're on the upside of it, or just not bothered by it. ("basic economics and common sense")However, if you account for a society that has historically marginalized and specifically disenfranchised Washington DC's people of color, you'll see why government spending on public housing and other social support programs is necessary. Simply put, its a pathetic attempt to right a past wrong, but an attempt none the less. If this were a society where historical racism and discrimination did not breed a self reinforcing culture of poverty, then sure, let the markets have their way and while we are at it lets cut welfare and food stamps. But to suggest that creating more affordable housing in neighborhoods that WERE PREVIOUSLY AFFORDABLE is a waste of taxpayer money because if they were "bright enough to know they HAVE to either move to where they can afford to live or acquire the skills they need to get jobs where they want to live." is extremely naive. You're looking at this situation too simplistic. These are peoples homes, their neighborhoods, their communities that they are being forced out of because of a cultural shift back to urban areas. Yes they may have been poor, the communities might have been violent and dysfunctional, and by no means am I discarding that as irrelevant, but at the end of the day all they had was their "hood". To see that snatched away because some people with more money want to "be close to the action" is a pain that no one would expect a privileged and elitist mentality to be able to grasp.
    Am i against disrupting chronic and concentrated poverty, no, I'm simply stating it must be done carefully.

  • DCWeary

    The theory that you can do away with poor communities by integrating them into upper middle class neighborhoods is crazy. We live in a capitalist society where your housing is determined by what you can afford to pay. Duh. So you will always have neighborhoods classified by income. I live blocks from public housing because that's where I could afford to buy a house. Do you think that's my ideal neighborhood? Hell, no. I would like to live on the water in San Diego, but can't afford it. Please stop thinking that you can eliminate poverty by setting a family in the suburbs, particularly if you place a few uneducated families in a newly-developed area. The result will be that the middle-class and upper-middle class will sell their houses as soon as possible, even taking a loss, and get the hell out of dodge. And if you try that in Georgetown or Wesley Heights, then you will see how fast those properties will be devalued, and your upper class will flee faster than you can say pack up my house.
    The only means to uplifting and sustaining the chronically poor is through education. You won't save everyone. There will always be the poor among us. But you will reach some. Education should be the ticket. Enough already with these ideas about integrating neighborhoods unless we implement a socialist system. Money talks;b...s walks.

  • james inist

    Can we please get past the idea of someone having claim to a neighborhood? The one I'm in was immigrant, then white, then black, and now is turning.. well, mostly asian. Who's to say whose neighborhood it is?

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  • ThirdWay

    How is this about keeping people where they have claims? Its about the benefits of deconcentrating poverty. The goal is not to have poor people live together, or have them live with the uppper middle class - its to have them be LESS POOR. But keeping them apart from everyone else (including the market doing that) makes it harder for them to become less poor. That is a market failure.

    If we can use govt policy to mix them around we should. If we can do that and also give the market more freedom (by giving density bonuses in return for affordable units) thats even better.

  • ThirdWay

    "And if you try that in Georgetown or Wesley Heights, then you will see how fast those properties will be devalued, and your upper class will flee faster than you can say pack up my house."

    There are low income pocket across the most desirable parts of DC, from H Street to U Street. Who wants to be in boring old Wesley Heights when they can live in Logan Circle? And there are affordable units tucked in where you don't think they exist - like in the new EYA townhouses in Navy Yard. Yet thats one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

    And its not only in DC. There are pricey condos across the street from a homeless shelter in Arlington, and brand new townhouses and apts all around an old Alexandria housing project in Old Town.

    Living near an apt complex thats, say, 10% units with 30% AMI, and 20% units with 60% AMI, is not like living next door to Cabrini Green.

  • Alger

    The finding presented here are neither new or particularly useful. A major motive behind the HOPE VI program in the 1990s was the expectation that moving the poors out to wealthier neighborhoods would somehow, magically, get them jobs in IT and they would stop acting out and instead make the right kinds of friends.

    Twenty years later there is a full body of literature that demonstrates that those who take best advantage of the program are most highly correlated to high-achievers who would have left the impoverished neighborhood anyway. For them the program was a boost in a direction they were already heading. For the rest, who are the majority, removing them from their old neighborhood entirely disrupted their social network and they reported feeling isolated and the targets of neighborhood suspicion. Also important was that they lost their access to the part time and grey market jobs that sustained them before they moved. As a result, many of the HOPE VI relocation efforts failed entirely and most relocated residents of public housing moved back to their old neighborhood.

    So what our intrepid MacArthur Foundation scholars did was drop the historical trajectory and made a happy self-congratulatory story out of a much more complicated situation. What very much bothers me about this is that this kind of 3rd tier 'research' simply re-enforces people's worst prejudices if you accept the premise of the work. Either proximity to Whites is good for minorities because it stamps out their bad habits and gives them aspirational role models (Ick), or too many minorities will destroy a neighborhood (Again: Ick). [Before you disagree with the previous sentence, please read the previous comments.]

    The real problem is not the "poor neighborhoods", the problem is our simpleminded conceptions of what poverty is and stereotypes of who are poor. Fortunately there are people out there, who are emphatically not at the MacArthur Foundation, working on this.

  • Thirdway

    Note its not about proximity of minorities to whites, but about the proximity of the poor to the middle class. DC may not have many poor whites, but Baltimore does, and greater Washington certainly has many middle class blacks.

    being the target of neighborhood suspicion may well depend on the neighborhood they move to (a white suburb, vs a black or mixed suburb, or an urban area) and of how the program is managed. Social networks can vary with how many move to a particular place - note that if its a housing project replaced by high density mixed use with one for one replacement of affordable units, the social ties should be capable of being maintained. I presume there were not many of those in the studies (note they are only possible where demand and zoning make possible significantly higher density.)

    Im also not sure how the part time and grey market jobs argument applies to DC suburbs. AFAICT there are many such jobs in the suburbs here, mostly taken by recent immigrants.

  • Alger

    @Thirdway: It is virtually impossible to separate White from Suburban Middle Class in these discussions, especially because we are contrasting that to Urban Poverty. I attend conferences and edit papers in Urban Studies, and you would be surprised how many assumptions and stereotypes crop up even among people who are actively trying to avoid them.
    Although, as you suggest, there are places of racial, ethnic and income diversity in the suburbs, the aims and goals of the HOPE VI and the various "Moving to Opportunity" programs are laden with simple dichotomies and coded racial stereotypes. Also, when you leave the Northeast, mixed suburbs are not at all common. The Detroit Metro example is a better guide to the problem than DC or Jersey.

    I don't disagree with your observations; I disagree with the premises of these programs which are not at all sensitive to local context and assumes that the residents of poor neighborhoods have no aspirations beyond what they already have, and have therefore surrendered the right to decide where they live.

  • Alger

    Also, the number of replacement affordable housing units in the mixed-income development is always many fewer than the number of original units by design. And I am not sure of the present situation, but as of a few years ago almost all of these projects either greatly reduced the number of affordable units to make the project profitable after cost overruns, or never built them at all.

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  • Thirdway


    1. The issue is not more mixed suburbs (or middle class nabes within city limits), but more suburbs that are not all white - that could include an all black area for example

    2. I am not so concerned with what people say in conferences that I do not attend, but with whether policies like mixed income developments are a good idea

    3. IIUC there are some projects in the DC area that DO involve 100% unit for unit replacement - thats possible where a very low density public housing project is replaced by a very high density mixed income development

    4. There have been problems with actually replacing the units, and that has been addressed in this column. that is no more intrinsic to this kind of program, than poor management of public housing is intrinsic to the 100% low income model

    5. I am afraid no one in a society like ours has the right to live where they choose. They live where they can afford. And non public housing renters at all levels are subject to having to move due to increased rents, redevelopment, etc.

    6. Also, you are viewing this entirely from the POV of current residents at a given point in time. Over time new generations grow up and form new households. Is it wise to keep the 100% low income model to avoid the one time cost of losing the social networks? I don't know. Im thinking of examples of multiple generations staying in a particular housing project - is it not possible that having moved to a mixed environment, the NEXT generation at least will form its social network there?

    7. In some instances it possible to add mixed income without displacing one unit. Im thinking of what NYC has proposed, adding market rate units on the (undefensible) public spaces and parking lots of existing public housing projects. Its likely only NYC has a housing market that makes that possible, but similar creative ideas could be explored.


    Plaaaaaaeeeeeze, breaking up neighborhoods only destroys communities and community resources. New Communities program sucks and now DC is paying the price with homelessness increasing.

  • Oriole Fan

    Just stop everyone! Baltimore is not DC and the poor neighborhoods here are dying, not gentrifying. Housing mobility is not HOPE VI, just the opposite. And why are those of you on both the left and right so threatened by the idea that low income African American women might WANT to get their kids out of damaging, violent, neighborhoods that everyone else has already abandoned? What is so "radical" about that? Poor people of every race and ethnic group in America have always dreamed of escaping poor urban (and rural) neighborhoods --- its the American Way. Why do you want to keep poor black women in the places that everyone else has left, that are damaging their kids and assuring another generation in poverty? Do you really want to continue to pay the human and social costs of doing that?

  • gimbels lover

    The negative effects of deconcentration have only been observed in programs like HOPE VI, where poor, usually black public projects have been demolished and replaced with lower-density mixed-income environments. MTO and IZ don't have the same effect.

    Self-appointed marxist organizers have a hard time making the distinction, presumably because it cuts into their fantasies of leading glorious mass rallies in the banlieues.

  • chris lee

    "demographics is destiny" social engineering doesn't work. The road to hell is paved with good intentions such as these.

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