An Exploratory Study of Neighborhood Choices among Moving to Opportunity Participants in Baltimore, Maryland: The Influence of Housing Search Assistance

By Bembry, James X.; Norris, Donald F. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2005 | Go to article overview

An Exploratory Study of Neighborhood Choices among Moving to Opportunity Participants in Baltimore, Maryland: The Influence of Housing Search Assistance


Bembry, James X., Norris, Donald F., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This study examined the neighborhood choices of 150 families who participated in the Moving To Opportunity Program (MTO) in Baltimore, Maryland. The MTO program, utilizing an experimental design, provided intensive housing search and counseling services to the experimental subjects. This study found that the counseling services were instrumental in altering the subject's cognitive maps, and they were more likely to move to neighborhoods that were more racially integrated, safer, and, also, had higher levels of satisfaction with their new neighborhood. The authors conclude that the MTO program in Baltimore represents a clear case of public policy that, at least in the short term, worked.

Keywords: Moving To Opportunity, housing policy, public housing, low income housing, mobility

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Pendall (2000) has noted that since the 1970's the dominant model for U.S. federal housing policy has shifted from unit-based programs to tenant-based vouchers and certificates. The theory behind this shift is that vouchers and certificates should allow those who receive this assistance to live in better neighborhoods. Theoretically, these neighborhoods would provide access to better schools and employment opportunities, and less exposure to crime and violence, as well as other social benefits. By the early 1990's these mixed-income and dispersal strategies predominated federal housing policy (Popkin, et al., 2000).

This dispersal strategy was influenced, in large part, by the Gatreaux Program. In the late 1960's, a group of fair housing advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Chicago public housing residents against the Chicago Housing authority and HUD, charging that these agencies had employed racially discriminatory policies in the administration of the Chicago low-rent housing program. Ten years later, a Supreme Court decree ordered the formulation of a racial dispersal strategy, including the placement of 7,100 Black public housing residents or applicants in racially desegregated neighborhoods throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. The Gautreaux Program was intended primarily as a desegregation remedy. However, research by James Rosenbaum (1996) and others at Northwestern University on the families that moved through the Gautreaux Program has suggested that a move out of the central city can have positive employment, earning, and education effects.

The Gautreaux studies show that moving to the suburbs had significant positive effects on the educational attainment of the children. Not only were they less likely to drop out of school, but they were also more likely to take college-track courses, compared to those who moved within the city. After graduating from high-school, children of suburban movers were also likely to attend a four-year college or become employed full-time at a job with fringe benefits. Popkin, et al., (2000) notes that "thirty years after the initial decision, the philosophy behind Gatreaux, that public and assisted housing should be scattered throughout a range of communities or deconcentrated, has become the driving force behind the current transformation" (p. 912).

Pendall (2000) observes that these voucher and certificate programs, however, do not always "live up to their promise as mechanisms that foster mobility" (p. 882). He notes that tenants, in particular blacks and Hispanics still, often, resettle into poor, segregated neighborhoods.

South and Crowder (1997) came to a similar conclusion when they examined the mobility experiences of poor blacks and whites. They reported that blacks who moved out of poor neighborhoods were more likely than whites to move into another poor neighborhood (13.6% of black had this experience compared to 5.2% of whites). In fact, 11% of blacks moved from nonpoor neighborhoods into poor neighborhoods as compared to only 1.4% of whites. More recently, Rosenbaum and Harris (2001) cite a number of studies which conclude that among assisted households, blacks are more likely than whites to relocate to areas with higher concentrations of poverty and black residents. …

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