The Dream Revisited

Why Don’t More Voucher Holders Escape Poor Neighborhoods?

by Stefanie DeLuca | October 2014

Barbara Sard and Phil Tegeler argue the case for why high quality neighborhoods and homes are important for child development, and suggest how we should leverage the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program to help families reach these types of communities. In order to implement their strategies and take other innovative directions in housing policy, it is essential to understand what makes it difficult for families to use their vouchers to reach low poverty communities in the first place. We know that there are important supply side barriers, such as the relative scarcity of affordable housing in neighborhoods with high socioeconomic opportunity, as well as the higher cost of units in these communities (some exceeding HUD’s Fair Market Rent). However, in theory, voucher holders still have available affordable housing options to choose from across a large portion of a metropolitan area, pending landlord approval. Yet research on the residential destinations of voucher holders shows that what happens in practice is different. Why? What does the process of finding and choosing housing look like for voucher holders up close? For over 10 years—alongside my colleagues and students—I have been conducting fieldwork in several cities to answer these questions. In-depth interviews and fieldwork with hundreds of families reveal that the strategies, experiences and constraints of poor families shape whether and how housing policies can connect families to communities of opportunity. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

1. Poor families rarely choose when to move and where to live.

In recent work, we find that almost 80 percent of recent moves among poor families are sudden and often happen for reasons outside of their control.[1] The most common factors that “push” families to move include problems with landlords and poor housing quality. Sometimes landlords sell buildings out from underneath families with little notice, or a dwelling unit can become uninhabitable after significant flooding, vermin infestation or fire from electrical problems. These unforeseen events force parents to make quick and desperate decisions about where to live, to make sure their children don’t go homeless. The situation can be complicated even for families with housing vouchers. Failed housing inspections (to meet federal housing quality standards) can also cause families to leave their unit when landlords do not cooperate with needed repairs. Another unpredictable move comes when a family finds out they’re finally off the years’ long voucher waiting list. This is good news to be sure, but the lottery-like lucky break comes with a hidden stressor—a time limit. Public Housing Agencies generally give voucher recipients 60 days to find an eligible unit before their voucher expires and is given to the next family in line. While that sounds like a lot of time, our fieldwork suggests that it easily gets eaten up, waiting days to hear back from landlords about listed units and driving around looking for rental signs. This is even more difficult for employed parents, who have fewer days and hours to devote to the search. The unpredictable nature of residential moves adds to the time crunch to find a place (either to keep children housed or avoid losing the voucher), leading families to take what they can find, quickly. Unsurprisingly, many of these units are in poor and segregated communities similar to those where new voucher holders already live. In other words, instead of leading to gains in neighborhood quality, these reactive moves reproduce geographic inequality.

2. Time-pressured search processes rely on quick and easy sources of information for sure-bet units.

When families suddenly find themselves with a voucher and limited search time, they rarely gamble on the longer, more difficult process of finding housing in more affluent areas. Why search somewhere uncertain and unknown, while the clock is ticking? Instead, they rely on lists provided at the Public Housing Agency and websites like,[2] or rely on the easy referrals from friends, family, and even former landlords.[3] These resources provide the benefit of a shortcut to available units, but can severely narrow search parameters to only those neighborhoods where landlords have advertised their properties as “Section 8 welcome”—often racially segregated, high or moderate poverty areas, with lower quality schools. Families also know that these landlords will not turn them down because of their vouchers, a demoralizing experience for the families we’ve followed. Since it’s legal to refuse to rent to a voucher holder in all but a handful of states and cities, this approach makes good sense. Families are faced with an implicit trade-off: searching in higher opportunity neighborhoods where they must navigate unfamiliar places with unknown landlords while their time is running out, risking potential homelessness through the loss of their precious subsidy, versus searching in lower opportunity neighborhoods where they are more likely to find an available unit in time.

3. When faced with resource constraints, families often make the tough tradeoff and sacrifice neighborhood quality for dwelling unit characteristics.

One of our most striking findings is that poor families make decisions about where to live based on the unit first, not the neighborhood.[4] For example, Holly Wood (2014) finds that when deciding where to live, parents focus first on meeting the basic needs of housing, because aspects of the dwelling unit are crucial for how they think good parents provide for their family. Mothers prioritize renting a single-family home or townhouse, rather than an apartment, because these houses tend to have private entryways (which increase safety), a backyard (which allows safe and enclosed space for children to play), a basement (which gives older adolescents independent space and reduces conflict with younger siblings), and multiple floors (to manage noise and give space for homework and privacy).  Of course, these larger houses are much easier to afford in higher-poverty, inner-city areas, where families can get more ‘bang for the buck.’ However, this forces the difficult trade-off between unit and neighborhood quality. This trade-off also extends to school quality. Parents first secure the best housing quality they can afford, within a neighborhood they deem “safe enough” on the blockface, and then they think about where children can go to school.[5] Often families prefer the school nearby, especially if that location makes transportation to work or child care easier to juggle. If they find that a child’s school is unsafe, or not meeting educational needs, parents look to the addresses of family members or transfers to exercise school choice. These strategies make sense for getting by in dangerous neighborhoods—making sure the housing unit is adequate for raising children and keeping them indoors can protect against exposure to violence and crime. Thinking about schooling options after making a residential move also makes sense when faced with the immediate need to house your family and the limited search time in which to do so. However, these strategies suggest that housing policies cannot assume families will search the whole menu of metropolitan neighborhoods as possible destinations, or maximize on neighborhood and school quality at the expense of housing size or amenities when they are given the chance to move to new communities.

4. Families need a combination of housing subsidies and sustained housing counseling to learn about the benefits of different kinds of communities, to search for affordable quality housing in these areas, and to remain in these neighborhoods.

We’ve learned that families who have spent years living in high poverty communities learn to adapt and survive there in the face of tough tradeoffs, often in the absence of housing assistance. However, when given the voucher alongside extensive mobility and housing search counseling, families will move to neighborhoods of opportunity and many will stay there.[6] Families who have escaped public housing and high poverty neighborhoods through major mobility programs have expressed profound psychological and emotional relief after moving, and many recognize the benefits of safety and better schools for their children.[7] Recent work on the Baltimore Mobility Program has shown that when provided with a housing voucher, coupled with extensive counseling, search assistance, and security deposit aid, families will not only relocate to higher opportunity neighborhoods, but remain there long after program requirements. Even more striking perhaps is the fact that their subsequent moves are focused on ensuring both neighborhood quality and high performing schools.[8] Living in these opportunity-rich neighborhoods raises expectations for what neighborhoods, homes, and schools can provide, and bring new criteria, such as school quality, neighborhood “quiet” and ethnic diversity into consideration when thinking about where to live, even when difficult trade-offs are faced.

Support for the work described in this post has been generously provided by the William T. Grant Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Century Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


[1] DeLuca, Stefanie, Holly Wood and Peter Rosenblatt. “Why Poor People Move (and Where They Go): Residential Mobility, Selection and Stratification.” Under review.

Boyd, M. L., Edin, K., Clampet-Lundquist, S., & Duncan, G. J. 2010. “The durability of gains from the Gautreaux Two residential mobility programs: A qualitative analysis of who stays and who moves from low-poverty neighborhoods.” Housing Policy Debate, 20, 119–146.

[2] DeLuca, Stefanie, Philip Garboden and Peter Rosenblatt. 2013. “Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low Income Minority Families.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 647:268-299.

[3] Garboden, Philip M.E. and Stefanie DeLuca. 2014. “How Poor Renters Search For Housing: Insights from Baltimore.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco.

[4] Rosenblatt, Peter and Stefanie DeLuca. 2012. “We Don’t Live Outside, We Live in Here”: Neighborhoods and Residential Mobility Decisions Among Low-income Families.” City and Community 11:254-284.

Wood, Holly. 2014. “When Only a House Makes a Home: How Home Selection Matters in the Residential Mobility Decisions of Lower-Income, Inner-City African American Families.” Social Service Review 88: 264-294.

[5] Rhodes, Anna and Stefanie DeLuca. 2014. “Residential Mobility and School Choice among Poor Families.” Chapter 5 in Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools, Annette Lareau and Kim Goyette, (Eds.), Pp. 137-166. Russell Sage Foundation: New York.

[6] DeLuca, Stefanie and Peter Rosenblatt. 2011. “Increasing Access to High Performing Schools in an Assisted Housing Voucher Program.” Report prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education report, Finding Common Ground: Coordinating Housing and Education Policy to Support Racial and Economic Integration.

DeLuca, Stefanie, Greg Duncan, Ruby Mendenhall and Micere Keels. 2010. “Gautreaux Mothers and Their Children: An Update.” Housing Policy Debate 20: 7-25.

[7] Edin, Kathryn, Stefanie DeLuca and Ann Owens. 2012. “Constrained Compliance: Solving the Puzzle of MTO’s Lease-Up Rates and Why Mobility Matters.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 14: 163-178.

Turney, K., Kissane, R., & Edin, K. 2013. “After Moving to Opportunity: How Moving to a Low Poverty Neighborhood improves Mental Health among African-American Women”. Society and Mental Health 3: 1–21.

“Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program.” 2014. A Report with Stefanie DeLuca and Jessi Stafford through The Century Foundation.

[8] Darrah, Jennifer and Stefanie DeLuca. 2014. “‘Living Here Changed My Whole Perspective’: How Escaping Inner City Poverty Shapes Neighborhood and Housing Choice.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 33: 350-384.

Stefanie DeLuca is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. She tweets at @Stefanie_DeLuca.

More in Discussion 8: Neighborhoods, Opportunities, and the Housing Choice Voucher Program