How to Sell Poor, Inner-City Families on a Life in the Suburbs

This innovative Baltimore program moved thousands of residents to middle class neighborhoods. Most stayed.

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Flickr/DavidGaleStudios

If you want to help poor families escape poor neighborhoods, paying them to move isn't always enough. Many studies show that when given the chance, people tend to relocate to similarly disadvantaged, racially segregated areas. 

That's historically been the case in Baltimore, too. But thanks to a lawsuit, the city may have developed an easy-to-replicate solution.

Here are the basics: to get a housing voucher, families had to agree to move to a middle-class suburban neighborhood. In exchange, these families received extensive counseling and support. That combination turned out to be what many needed to adjust to their new surroundings. These insights come thanks to a new study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, which tracked families who participated in the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program over a decade.

The program came to existence thanks to a 1995 ACLU lawsuit charging that HUD and Baltimore's housing authority were running a program that made it nearly impossible for anyone dependent on federal housing assistance to escape the most impoverished parts of the city.

In 2005, the court finally sided with the ACLU, leading to the creation of a new voucher program that required participants to move from hyper-segregated, hyper-poor neighborhoods to majority-white, suburban ones. 

How the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program compares to other housing initiatives (click to enlarge). Courtesy The Century Foundation.

The new neighborhoods had to be less than 10 percent poor and less than 30 percent black. The voucher users must remain in their new unit for at least one year and in eligible areas for at least two years before the voucher became portable. Unlike in other voucher programs, counseling was provided at nearly every step of the moving and settling process, to help families navigate a complicated sea of new apartment and school district regulations.

Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins and fellow at the Century Foundation, and Jennifer Darrah, a faculty affiliate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, looked at how the program's first 2,000 families fared. They also zoomed in on 110 of those families, conducting several interviews since the program began to get a sense of their personal experience.

The results suggest something obvious that we often ignore when trying to help the poor build better lives: what people want is often a function of their own experiences.

Many participants told DeLuca at first that they didn't want to leave the city. A lack of friends, family, and familiarity made a move to unknown suburbia intimidating. But most changed their minds along the way. Two-thirds of the 2,000 families are still living in their suburban neighborhoods one to eight years later.

The reason for that shift? According to DeLuca, once the women (98 percent of the household heads in the study were women, normal for federal housing program participants) understood how to take advantage of the opportunities in their new neighborhood, they began to develop a new set of priorities.

"These women had never experienced safe neighborhoods or good schools," she says. "They were so segregated from mainstream opportunities."

 

Left: Map compiled by Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, June 2005 (click to enlarge). Data from Kirwan opportunity analysis 2005. Right: Map compiled by Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, June 2005. Data from 2000 Census (click to enlarge). Maps courtesy The Century Foundation.

One originally hesitant woman, Kimberley, says in retrospect that "it's only in leaving that I started growing and wanting to do different things, learn different things and be something different." The families that did return to the city mostly went back for the same reasons of familiarity that left them hesitant to leave in the first place. 

In a region like Baltimore, not known for extensive public transit in its suburbs, one might expect mobility to be an obstacle. For the most part, DeLuca says, that wasn't the case. Only 20 percent of the families that did return to the city cited transportation as the reason.

"Suburban neighborhoods have more public transit access than we tend to think," DeLuca says, noting that most of the women kept their city-based jobs (though some with administrative positions did end up finding work closer to home). A local non-profit agency also chipped in, providing auto-related services to the newly suburban residents, like help obtaining a license or even a vehicle.

As for the kids, enthusiasm for the new surroundings depended on age. The younger they were, the easier it was to adapt. A number of mothers in the study said their children enjoyed school a lot more. Some kids even appreciated the new-found diversity. But for teenagers, the adjustment was more difficult. DeLuca notes that high school-age kids in the program, with stronger ties to their peers, were not as happy about the move. In some cases, they actually chose to stay behind in the inner city and live with an aunt.

Despite the region's noticeable class and racial separations from neighborhood to neighborhood, having poor, black newcomers in wealthy white areas didn't seem to produce much race-based friction. Of the 110 families, only one mother said she experienced potentially racially based problems with people next door. DeLuca points out that the program mandates that voucher users only relocate to areas where less than 5 percent of residents are living in subsidized housing.

Intuitive as the results may seem, few cities provide similar programs. Of course, not many housing authorities have the resources for such an initiative but if nothing else, Baltimore's success should serve as a reminder of how cities and suburbs can better the lives of their poorest, most segregated residents if willing.

Top image: Flickr/DavidGaleStudios

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