Photo credit: Baltimore Mobility Program

A well-structured voucher program can help inner city residents feel comfortable enough in a more affluent area to want to stay, researchers found.

In a report published this month in the Journal of Public Policy Analysis and Management, sociologist Stefanie DeLuca of the Johns Hopkins University said the Baltimore Mobility Program succeeded while so many others failed because it gave families not only the financial support to move, but the chance to experience life in a safe, quiet, diverse place with good schools and quality homes.

Through the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program more than 2,400 African American families have voluntarily moved to quality housing in mixed-income neighborhoods with low poverty rates, quality schools and access to employment and increased quality of life.

What typically happens with housing vouchers, DeLuca said, is that a family chooses a neighborhood essentially like the old one — not getting far enough away to experience real change. The Baltimore Mobility Program gave families support and encouragement to do just that — and to experience a new way of living.

“They didn’t know life could be like this. In some cases, all they’ve known exists within few-block radius in Baltimore City,” said DeLuca, who conducted the research with Jennifer Darrah, a lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Once they had a chance to live in high performing school districts with low crime rates,, there were some pretty profound changes in how these parents thought about neighborhoods and schools and what was best for their kids.”

DeLuca followed 110 participants in the Baltimore Mobility Program, a voucher program designed to move low-income black families from high-poverty, highly segregated city neighborhoods to more diverse, higher-income suburbs including those in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. The program was created as part of a remedy in a lawsuit filed in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union; the court found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had failed to provide housing residents equal access to integrated, non-poor neighborhoods across the metropolitan region, effectively segregated public housing in Baltimore.

Although it is similar to the Housing Choice Voucher Program in that it provides a housing subsidy, the Baltimore program is designed differently than a traditional housing voucher, because is offers the families broad support before, during and after their moves. In the beginning, there are tours of the suburbs and walkthroughs of available apartments. There are credit counseling sessions and introductions to former city residents already living in the suburbs. Behind the scenes, administrators work extensively with landlords to assemble a roster of pre-approved available rentals to otherwise ease what could be a daunting bureaucratic process. The program also facilitates moves to higher opportunity neighborhoods by including higher rent payment standards and removing the bureaucratic barriers to residential moves across counties.

By requiring participants to stay in their new homes for at least two years, DeLuca found, the program gave families a true sense of what was possible in a safe, diverse community, and time to reframe their housing choices in a way they could not with an ordinary voucher.

More than two-thirds of the families who moved from the city to the suburbs through Baltimore Mobility remained there one-to-eight years later. Many mothers who initially told DeLuca they had no interest in leaving the city later told her they’d changed their minds.

According to an ACLU study, participants in the program reported that schools, safety, less crime and drugs, friendly neighbors, and a mix of different races and cultures were the most positive features of their new neighborhood.

“If you want to have a housing voucher program that works,” DeLuca said, “this is what it takes.”

To read the success stories of participants in the program, click here.