#079 Jan/Feb 1995

Neighborhood Choice: A Way Out for Some

The same factors that created ghettos of race and poverty operated to maintain them, even when subsidy might have provided a way out.

The promise of Section 8—that low income earning families could have the same choice of neighborhoods as market rate families has been long deferred. Only a handful of court-ordered remedies for past discrimination provide an exception. Now the prospects for fulfilling that promise on a larger scale are brighter, but by no means certain.

Enacted in 1974, the Section 8 Assisted Housing Program was hailed by some as the third great civil rights act; it provided a subsidy equivalent to that in public housing, but usable in the private rental market. Anywhere in the private market was the promise, a promise of escape from the depressed, racially segregated ghettos of the inner cities to better neighborhoods, better schools, and a chance at the jobs that were rapidly leaving cities for the suburbs.

As it turned out, the same factors that had created the ghettos of race and poverty operated to maintain them, even when the subsidy might have provided a way out. Families familiar with their immediate surroundings, landlords eager to rent to them there, fears of the reception they might find in a middle-income, predominantly white neighborhood—all contributed to the outcome typical of most Section 8 programs. These factors led to concentrations of participating families in neighborhoods that were racially impacted, with high rates of poverty and all the attendant social ills.


To remedy these problems, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program began to assist public housing families in 1976. Of the court-ordered remedial programs, Chicago’s Gautreaux program is the oldest and largest. It is based on findings in 1969 that the Chicago Housing Authority and HUD were guilty of unconstitutional discrimination, and on a 1976 Supreme Court decision holding that HUD programs throughout the Chicago metropolitan area could be used to redress the injuries of government-sponsored segregation.

Named for Dorothy Gautreaux, a public housing resident and organizer who with other tenants brought the suit, the program was initiated by agreement between the plaintiffs, represented by public-interest attorney Alexander Polikoff, and HUD. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a Chicago fair housing agency, was selected to develop and administer the program. The Gautreaux program started slowly at first but has gained momentum over the years. Through intensive counseling of families and jaw-boning of landlords, Gautreaux has helped nearly 6,000 households move to many Chicago neighborhoods and to 115 Chicago suburbs, all to areas that were by census definition less than 30 percent African American.

Research by Professor James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has documented encouraging outcomes for the families that moved to the suburbs compared with similar families in impacted areas of the city. Rather than being isolated from their white neighbors, suburban movers had as many neighborly contacts as their city counterparts. Heads of households did significantly better in finding employment, although not at higher wages. Most encouraging were the findings about children.

Typically, they had trouble the first year or two in suburban schools that were more demanding than Chicago schools, but after that their academic achievement was substantially higher than that of their city counterparts. More suburban Gautreaux students were in college-bound programs and more went to four-year colleges. Also, more were employed after high school and at higher wages.

Research established, as common sense might have predicted, that poor families in better neighborhoods did better in significant ways. What began as a desegregation strategy won attention as an anti-poverty strategy.

Even before research results began to flow in, other similar programs began in Cincinnati in 1984, Memphis in 1985, and Dallas in 1987. In 1990, a similar program was voluntarily initiated in Hartford, Connecticut. Newer court-sanctioned remedial programs are now underway in Yonkers, New York; Omaha, Nebraska; western Pennsylvania and eastern Texas.

All of these programs have in common procedures for counseling families and recruiting landlords. Most take families from the regular Section 8 waiting list; the families may or may not choose a move to an area where their race does not predominate. Chicago registers a new group of families by telephone lottery each year for Section 8 certificates set aside for use only in non-impacted areas. The Dallas program is administered by the housing authority; others involve nonprofit agencies.

One conventional Section 8 program administered by the Housing Authority of Alameda County, California, has experienced substantial immigration to suburban jurisdictions from impacted areas in Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. Neither the sending nor receiving authorities make any special efforts to encourage this movement, which appears to be unique among larger housing authorities.

Moving to Opportunity

In 1990, Congress enacted the Moving to Opportunity Program (MTO), a demonstration program to test methods in five metropolitan areas that were reportedly producing favorable results in Chicago and Cincinnati. This ten-year demonstration began in 1994 in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. In each metropolitan area, certain public housing and project-based Section 8 developments were selected from census tracts that had poverty rates exceeding 40 percent. Qualifying families were given the opportunity to apply; those who did were divided by lottery into three groups. One group will receive the counseling and housing search assistance provided by Gautreaux and its sister programs and may use certificates only in census tracts that have poverty rates below 10 percent. A second group will receive certificates that may be used without restriction and the same assistance and information that is provided to all Section 8 participants. A third group will not receive Section 8 and will remain in place or, if they move, will do so without assistance. All three groups will be followed for ten years to test both the efficacy of counseling and assistance and the effects on households moving to low-poverty areas.

In Baltimore, the program was challenged by some suburban communities, mainly of working-class residents who objected to housing subsidy programs in principle and feared large-scale racial and economic change in their communities. (See article this issue.) Moving to Opportunity became a hot issue in several political campaigns, with many Republicans attacking a program that then HUD Secretary Jack Kemp had enthusiastically embraced. In spite of the political tempest in Maryland, the program there is proceeding, as it is in the other four cities where no significant opposition has arisen. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski was instrumental in shifting to other uses the funds that had been appropriated to extend the initial two-year demonstration.

The Baltimore opposition is unique among housing mobility programs. (Housing mobility here refers to moves of very low income families from areas of high racial or poverty concentration to areas of low racial or poverty concentration, not to transportation of low income persons to jobs in such areas.) Community or political opposition has been non-existent in Chicago and rare in the other settings. Obtaining landlord participation has typically taken hard work at first but has become easier as acceptance of Section 8 in general has grown and as landlords have gained greater confidence in the referrals of the participating agencies and in the capacities of poor, minority families to be good, stable tenants.

The first national conference on housing mobility as an anti-poverty strategy brought together some 250 practitioners, attorneys, public officials and researchers in Washington in October 1994. The planners were clear that housing mobility was not and could not become the only strategy for relieving inner-city poverty and that housing mobility was a complement to, not a substitute for, inner-city revitalization efforts.

This conference also covered programs such as scattered-site public housing. In a few instances, mostly as remedies for past discrimination, scattered public housing has been provided in middle-income, predominantly white neighborhoods. These unit-based remedies were more expensive than Section 8 and in Yonkers, for instance, aroused greater opposition during the planning and building stages. Happily, the opposition there disappeared as soon as stereotypes were replaced by the real people who moved in.

Under Secretary Cisneros, HUD has adopted housing mobility as a key strategy. HUD moved the MTO demonstration forward and persisted when it was under attack in Maryland. HUD’s legislative proposals, lost in the final days’ infighting in the last Congress, were intended to infuse most Section 8 programs with counseling and landlord outreach. These proposals are still part of the legislative agenda, a part that assumes greater importance with the prospect that many high-rise, family public housing developments will be decommissioned and the families now housed there will receive Section 8 certificates.

The Burning Question

How these proposals will fare in the new Republican-led Congress is uncertain. Housing mobility would seem to fit a Republican agenda, as Jack Kemp certainly thought it did. It is cost effective; the modest additional administrative cost for assisting families is quickly repaid if only a few families use the move to break out of poverty. It does not require government investment in bricks and mortar, but strengthens the private market. It is based on choice and each family’s own initiative and involves a minimum of bureaucracy. It works to get families out of poverty and into the mainstream; few other programs can make that claim.

A few conservative writers have challenged the concept. There are echoes of the Maryland opposition: “Why should those people get a subsidy to live in my neighborhood, when I have worked so hard to get here?” This is sometimes expanded to attack the very concept of mixed-income neighborhoods with the argument that income-stratified neighborhoods are essential to provide the incentive for families to keep moving up the economic ladder. The evidence from Gautreaux is that some level of very poor families are accepted in existing housing in middle-income communities by landlords and other residents.

Nearly 29 years have passed since the Gautreaux litigation was started, 21 since Section 8 was enacted, and 19 since the Gautreaux program began. Taking all the programs together, only a few thousand families have been assisted. But for many of those families, the escape from truly desperate conditions and their first step up an economic ladder seemed impossibly distant in their former neighborhoods.

It has taken a long time to learn that housing mobility can work and longer still for that lesson to sink in among policy makers. Whether it has or will sink in among the new Congressional policy makers is the burning question. There will still be court-sanctioned remedies, although the Gautreaux program will not be one of them, since the terms of that consent decree will be satisfied in about another year. The MTO demonstration will continue, albeit with far fewer families than Congress had earlier intended. But the opportunity to extend meaningful choice of neighborhood to every family receiving a Section 8 subsidy, which appeared a bright hope just a few months ago, is now in doubt.

Housing mobility is an idea whose time, it seemed, had come. Thousands of people who have learned of the program, like those who jammed Chicago’s phone lines on January 13 to register for the 1995 Gautreaux program, share the hope that it will not be deferred again.