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How We Can Turn Housing Mobility Into Economic Opportunity

Regional partnerships are a way to help low-income families gain the advantages of resource-rich areas. There's new support from Washington.

Three black teens playing basketball in a neighborhood.
(MCT/Seattle Times/Thomas James Hurst)
There is growing evidence that housing mobility can help families move up the economic ladder, especially if tackled at a regional scale. And Congress is taking notice. A new federal demonstration will provide funding to administer and evaluate regional housing mobility programs. The federal demonstration will provide an important source of funding to support these efforts, but they are worth considering even without new funding.

Housing mobility refers to efforts to help low-income families access resource-rich areas that offer strong schools, low rates of violent crime and other amenities that help children build a solid foundation for the future. While we've long suspected that children who grow up in resource-rich, low-poverty areas achieve better educational and employment outcomes, recent research has verified and begun to quantify these positive impacts.

A promising approach to promoting housing mobility is to help families participating in the federal housing choice voucher program find homes in resource-rich areas. Participating families can use their vouchers to defray the costs of renting any moderately -priced apartment whose owner consents to participate. But efforts to promote housing mobility through vouchers are constrained by administrative barriers that make it difficult for families to move from one jurisdiction to another. This is particularly problematic where there are many families with vouchers living in concentrated poverty in one jurisdiction and resource-rich areas nearby but in different jurisdictions.

A regional approach can help overcome these obstacles. For example, local public housing agencies in a region can work together to develop arrangements that make it easier for families to use their vouchers to move from one jurisdiction to the next and then provide "mobility counseling" to help them access opportunities in resource-rich areas. A regional mobility initiative of this nature is currently underway in the Seattle area through a partnership between the Seattle and King County housing authorities.

Local public housing agencies can also pool their resources to identify opportunities to enter into long-term contracts with owners living in resource-rich areas to facilitate the use of vouchers for their properties. Through Chicago's Regional Housing Initiative, for example, 10 housing authorities have partnered to identify and fund these kinds of opportunities, supporting more than 500 units of affordable housing, more than half of which are in resource-rich areas.

The new federal demonstration also encourages a regional approach to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program. FSS is designed to help families in subsidized housing build assets and make progress toward economic security. It works by combining stable, affordable housing with an asset account that grows as families' earnings grow, along with coaching or case management to help families overcome barriers to increasing their earnings.

An FSS program that Abt Associates recently evaluated in the Boston area, for example, helped participants substantially increase household earnings, improve their credit scores and pay down high-interest debt. A regional approach to FSS can help facilitate stronger linkages to the regional workforce system and generate economies of scale that allow FSS to serve more households and more effectively train and supervise program staff. A regional approach also facilitates partnership building and fundraising efforts.

To realize the full potential of these regional initiatives, it's essential to bring in a broad array of supporting partners, in addition to the collaborating housing authorities. Partners are needed to provide and fund services such as employment and financial coaching for FSS participants and security-deposit and post-move stabilization services for families seeking to move to resource-rich areas. Local governments, foundations and service providers can also be conveners and facilitators of regional dialogue that creates these types of interagency initiatives, helping to overcome the bureaucratic siloes that prevent these promising approaches from achieving scale.

Of course, nothing prevents jurisdictions from experimenting with these regional approaches on their own, as they can be implemented without new authority or funding from Washington. But by appropriating $25 million to get housing mobility demonstration projects off the ground, Congress has signaled its support for new efforts to provide low-income families with the opportunity to start their children on the road to a better future.

The invitation to apply for the demonstration could come out at any time. Applicants will need to develop a regional housing mobility plan in order to qualify. Why not start planning now?

Director of housing and community initiatives at Abt Associates
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