An anti-street violence activist stands in a blighted Baltimore neighborhood. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Several distinguishing factors—including counseling and generous coverage—set the city's Housing Mobility Program apart.

In December, a hung jury resulted in a mistrial in the Freddie Gray case. The death of the 25-year-old Baltimore black man while in police custody, and the protests that followed, brought to light the long history of strained police-community relations in the city’s highly segregated, very poor neighborhoods.

Poor black kids growing up in Baltimore’s high-poverty neighborhoods are least likely to escape their circumstances compared to other U.S. cities, according to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. But low-income families continue to live in these areas because that’s where they find affordable housing.

In a recent blog post, Eli Knaap, who runs the spatial research lab at University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth, Research, and Education, spotlights the mismatch between affordable housing and opportunity in Baltimore and its surrounding areas, and highlights lessons from the city’s relatively impactful housing mobility program.

What “opportunity” means, and where it’s found in Baltimore

The first series of maps Knaap highlights were created by his team for Baltimore’s Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, released last June. In the accompanying data analysis, opportunity was measured in several different ways.

"To some people 'opportunity' means being safe and healthy. To some people it means getting a good education. To others it means climbing up the economic ladder,” Knaap tells Citylab. “Depending on which of those outcomes you think are most important, the types of variables you're going to measure are going to change dramatically.”

The maps below display opportunity based on quality of education (top, left), public health resources (top, right), social capital (bottom, left)—meaning the extent to which neighbors can help with professional, child care, and transportation needs—and employment opportunities (bottom, right) in Baltimore.

The employment-based map stands out because it’s the only one which shows Baltimore City and surrounding areas—like Baltimore Washington International Airport, Fort Meade, and Towson University—as high-opportunity places (shown in dark brown). “The employment index is almost the polar opposite of the other three," Knaap says. “If you're looking for access to jobs, central cities are not a bad place to be."

If these four opportunity measures are averaged out, however, neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore, unsurprisingly, are very low-opportunity:

The effectiveness of Baltimore’s housing voucher programs

Knaap’s three interactive heat maps below show the locations of low-income families that have received government housing assistance in the form of public housing (left), low-income housing tax credit (center), and housing-choice vouchers (right). While most people across these three groups are still concentrated in low-opportunity areas in the city center, the ones using housing vouchers have spilled over to moderate- to high-opportunity areas:

Knaap says the voucher success is likely because of the Baltimore’s Housing Mobility Program, which launched in 2003 as a part of the initial settlement in the landmark Thompson v. HUD fair housing case, and has benefited about 2,000 families between then and 2012.* In its final settlement in 2012, the program was invested with the goal of relocating an additional 2,600 families in need in the next seven years. It mandated that beneficiaries move to a low-poverty, majority-white neighborhoods for at least two years (initially this was one year), after which they can use their vouchers for any neighborhood of their choice.

The program is different from traditional voucher programs in a several ways. First, it takes a “multivariate” approach by defining “opportunity neighborhoods” using a variety of criteria, Knaap says.

Second, the BHMP voucher covers up to 120 percent of fair market rent, which is more than what other voucher programs in the city cover.* Families can also use it in any jurisdiction, Johns Hopkins sociologist Stefanie DeLuca, who has studied the mobility program, told Governing magazine. This regional approach to housing mobility, affirmed in the final settlement of the Thompson v. HUD, is a key to bolstering the impact of the program, research Knaap has worked on shows.

The third distinguishing factor that’s made this program more effective than others is that it includes housing counseling. Here’s DeLuca, again via Governing:

In the Baltimore program, there are counselors to help families move to these neighborhoods. These counselors organize briefings about the benefits of living in low-poverty neighborhoods with low crime and good schools. Families are counseled to repair their credit, which will help them manage their finances in the long run. The families are taken on tours of suburban neighborhoods to show them what these places are like because most of the families have never lived outside of the city. Counselors also help families think about saving up money for a security deposit toward the unit.

As a consequence, 62 percent of the BHMP housing-voucher recipients stayed in the units they moved into using the voucher for much longer than the required time-period, according a 2009 progress report. In addition, many people who moved right after the requirement period actually relocated to even better areas.*

Knaap's graph below illustrates that second encouraging result. In the one on the left, the blue line represents families that received housing vouchers as a part of the five-city Moving to Opportunity experiment. They were required to live in their new neighborhoods for one year, and as the graph shows, started returning to lower-opportunity neighborhoods within a few years. The graph on the right, meanwhile, shows the case of voucher holders in Baltimore. The 2007 spike in the level of neighborhood opportunity where voucher-holders lived “is likely a direct result” of the city’s mobility program, Knaap says.

“Unlike the treatment effect in MTO, the opportunity spike from [Baltimore’s voucher programs] doesn’t fade over time, suggesting that the program has had an important and durable impact on the location outcomes of its participants,” he tells CityLab.*

Knaap's research shows that many families in the MTO program (left) returned to lower-opportunity areas after their voucher period; Baltimore's housing-choice voucher programs (right), which includes the BHMP and the housing authority's broad program, showed stronger long-term outcomes.

Of course, the results of Baltimore’s housing vouchers aren’t perfect—voucher recipients are still not located in very high-opportunity areas. Several hurdles remain in relocating these families to wealthy neighborhoods, Doug Donovan explains in an article for The Baltimore Sun:  

Most counties have not taken two steps that advocates say are essential: requiring developers to set aside housing for low-income tenants and prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept tenants with federal rent subsidies.

Knaap also notes that a lack of regional transport connectivity can strain the voucher holder’s ability to remain in high-opportunity neighborhood outside the city, because most jobs (as his employment map shows) are in the city center, and buying a car may not be an option. The program’s upsides, however, have led to “progress that we shouldn't be satisfied with but progress that we should be proud of,” he says. “And we need to keep moving in that direction."  

*Corrections: A previous version of this story failed to clarify the distinction between Baltimore's broader housing-voucher initiative and its Housing Mobility Program. Several lines have been revised accordingly. Additionally, a previous version stated that 60 percent of voucher holders remained in higher-opportunity neighborhoods; it's more accurate to say that 62 percent remained in the original voucher unit after the required time, and that many others moved to even better areas.

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