The Right Moves: Research-Based Innovation in Housing Policy


by Marilyn Sherman

"We were between two different gangs, one on one side, one on the other. My windows got shot in several times; we had to sleep on the floor. At night you had to put your mattress on the floor because bullets would be coming through the windows. It was like Vietnam." — Lenore Sowell

"The older boys were breaking into people's houses, and you would see them, and they would tell you you didn't see anything." —Annie Winters

For these mothers, an innovative housing policy transformed heartache to headway, as they left behind their high-rise housing projects and moved to the safer streets of white suburbia. Stories like theirs help Human Development and Social Policy (HDSP) researchers understand the massive impact housing policies can have on people's lives.

Professor James Rosenbaum, who was the first to research effects of the groundbreaking Gautreaux program that moved families from inner-city housing projects to low-poverty neighborhoods, reviews his findings at a conference co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research
Professor James Rosenbaum, who was the first to research effects of the groundbreaking Gautreaux program that moved families from inner-city housing projects to low-poverty neighborhoods, reviews his findings at a conference co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research.
(PHOTO BY JIM ZIV)

Over 15 years, HDSP faculty have examined how housing policies affect poor families, using both in-depth interviews and statistical survey data. Their research continues today, and they continue to learn new lessons that shape the housing policy innovations of the future.

One program of special interest is the pivotal Gautreaux program, which resulted from a Supreme Court ruling on a case charging the government with racial segregation in Chicago housing projects. The court-mandated program, which relocated 7,100 families from high-poverty housing projects to affluent, largely white neighborhoods throughout the Chicago area in the 1980s, paved the way for today's trend toward private housing vouchers, scattered sites and mixed-income housing.

"From the idea that government should provide housing to the idea of empowering people with resources and counseling to move on their own and use the private market to supply housing — that's a highly innovative policy change," says Professor Greg Duncan. "It reversed 40 years of policy, and I think has been a very positive step from the view of the families involved."

Professor Greg Duncan reports on his research related to housing mobility programs at the Institute for Policy Research conference
Professor Greg Duncan reports on his research related to housing mobility programs at the Institute for Policy Research conference.
(PHOTO BY JIM ZIV)



Landmark Research
Professor James Rosenbaum, who was the first ever to study Gautreaux, agrees. "Until Gautreaux, housing policy was about providing shelter; Gautreaux said it was about changing people's opportunities and their whole lives," he comments.

When he first heard of Gautreaux, Rosenbaum recognized it as a radical innovation that could either harm children by segregating and ostracizing them or help children by providing new opportunities and better schooling. His major study, funded by the Spencer, Mott and MacArthur foundations, compared experiences and outcomes for families moving to white suburbs with families moving to mainly African-American city neighborhoods. HDSP graduate students hit the streets to interview mothers moving from public housing, and their rich narratives fleshed out the statistical data.

Gautreaux parents made striking employment gains, but Rosenbaum was most interested in the children, who showed "dramatic outcomes." Compared with city movers, the children in the suburbs were more likely to graduate, more likely to go to college, more likely to go to a better college, and even if they didn't go to college, more likely to get a job and to get a better-paying job. The differences were large, unlike those researchers usually find, Rosenbaum explains.

"Seven years later, the children had caught up, and all were doing passably well," he says. And fourteen years later, a stunning two-thirds were still living in mostly white affluent suburbs. Rosenbaum's findings about Gautreaux, published in Crossing the Class and the Color Lines, which describes a "geography of opportunity," spawned similar programs nationwide.


Moving On
HDSP professor Greg Duncan has continued to study the ripples from this groundbreaking program, including a second wave of Gautreaux and a similar housing mobility program in five cities called Moving to Opportunity (MTO). His research has been funded by the Foundation for Child Development, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, Spencer Foundation and MacArthur Foundation.

In contrast with the startling gains of the original Gautreaux program, however, Duncan's extensive recent research finds mixed results. He concludes that today's families need not only neighborhood change but other supports too.

Explaining the diluted impact of MTO, Rosenbaum describes it as a weaker program because it allowed more poverty in the new neighborhood and families didn't move as far. In fact, 80 percent of the children even stayed in the same school. "The lesson is that programs that don't move people very far don't have as much impact," he says.

Looking at Gautreaux with a longer lens, Duncan's recent studies show no large differences in earnings or graduation rates for Gautreaux children, who are now adults. However, what Duncan finds most remarkable is the success of Gautreaux mothers and their children in being able to stay in neighborhoods as affluent as the ones they were placed in nearly two decades ago. "They built new lives for themselves and maintained residential successes," he notes.

Just as important is their improved quality of life, which was the mothers' original goal in moving. He explains, "The moms succeeded in attaining the sort of peace of mind they needed — to get away from the violence and drugs."

Susan Popkin (BS82, MA86, PhD88), who researched Gautreaux with Rosenbaum and is now a principal research associate in the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center, saw it firsthand. "What continues to be very vivid and very present to me is how the mothers described the increase in safety for themselves and their families," she says.

Popkin emphasizes the benefit of Gautreaux and similar housing mobility programs for improving people's safety and quality of life. "We saw some very important effects, especially the tremendous mental health benefits for women and girls," says Popkin, who anticipates a long-term impact in terms of less pregnancy, drug use and violence. "I think it's a mistake to undersell these programs."

 Children play at one of the mixed-income sites in the Hope VI housing program that alumna Susan Popkin is studying for the Urban Institute
Children play at one of the mixed-income sites in the Hope VI housing program that alumna Susan Popkin is studying for the Urban Institute.
(PHOTO BY STEVE BARRETT)


Future Innovations

In the future, as policy makers decide where to put dollars, Rosenbaum and Duncan provide advice grounded in solid evidence. For example, when Hurricane Katrina led to the relocation of New Orleans residents, both professors advised that recreating concentrated poverty causes problems.

As a crucial element of any housing policy, Rosenbaum advocates strong counseling, especially since studies of housing vouchers find relocators choose the familiar unless counseling informs them of fresh options. He also emphasizes the importance of carefully organized planning: "The way to do it is to move slowly and deliberately so the families don't all move into one place at once." In this way, the proportion of low-income residents in a community is only minimally affected.

Fundamentally, Duncan sees the most potential in a multidimensional package of supports for the working poor. He endorses broad-based programs such as New Hope in Wisconsin, which provides work supports, job counseling, substance abuse counseling and other guidance, along with housing vouchers. Duncan says, "There's much more evidence that you can improve the prospects for kids with family-based or child-based programs. If you can boost the income of families, then they can make moves on their own."


The HDSP Story

Apart from sparking new policies, HDSP's housing studies also provide a fertile training ground for doctoral students and exemplify HDSP's unique brand of research. "It's a really good HDSP story, looking at multiple levels and processes," says Rosenbaum, who explains that HDSP uses both quantitative and qualitative research to study how social policies affect people's lives.

Involvement in housing research led to prominence for HDSP alumni. For example, Popkin, who says, "I use what I was trained in every day," is leading the five-city Hope VI housing mobility study and has authored numerous books on housing and welfare policy. Former HDSP researchers Stefanie DeLuca (PhD03), Ruby Mendenhall (PhD04) and Micere Keels (PhD06) are on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, University of Illinois and University of Chicago, respectively. Other alumni influencing policy include Julie Kaufman (PhD91) of the Retirement Research Foundation and Shazia Miller (PhD98) of Learning Point Associates. Government agencies and funding groups frequently call upon HDSP researchers and faculty members for advice.

"We've been the eyes and the ears for the policy makers — for understanding what the programs look like on the ground, what the participants' perceptions are and how the programs might be redesigned," Duncan notes.
By Marilyn Sherman