Researching how housing vouchers lead to improved neighborhood opportunity

Published: 09.27.2022 Updated: 11.02.2022

Historical and ongoing processes of residential segregation have forced children of different socioeconomic backgrounds and race/ethnicity to grow up in neighborhoods which are both separate and greatly unequal. A poor child, especially a poor child who is Black or Hispanic, is likely to grow up in a neighborhood with lower-performing schools, worse air quality, more vacant houses and higher neighborhood poverty. Each of these factors can have profound impacts on that child’s healthy development, wellbeing and future success.

Tenant-based housing vouchers are one tool that allows lower-income families more choice in their housing location and potentially the ability to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. But it is unclear whether families who participate in such programs experience improved neighborhood opportunity over the long-term and whether the effects vary for different types of families. 

A new study published in Housing Studies, by Huiyun Kim, Nicole M. Schmidt, Theresa L. Osypuk and others, uses the Child Opportunity Index (COI) in conjunction with data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment to address these important questions.

How Moving to Opportunity led to greater neighborhood opportunity

MTO was a randomized controlled trial conducted in five cities between 1994 and 2010. Families with children who were living in highly distressed public housing in very high-poverty neighborhoods received one of three assignments: they were either given a housing voucher with the requirement that they move to a low-poverty neighborhood, given a housing voucher without any neighborhood requirements, or assigned to continue to live in public housing. The families who were given a voucher that could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods also received intensive housing counseling. Previous work has shown some important positive effects; the children who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods at young ages later experienced increased college attendance and earnings and reduced single parenthood rates.   

Kim, et al. adds a richer exploration of neighborhood opportunity to this literature. Participants who were given a voucher that could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods experienced sudden and dramatic improvement in neighborhood opportunity that persisted over time. This improvement in their environment comprised not only lower neighborhood poverty, but also other neighborhood conditions, such as better schools and greater availability of healthy food outlets, as measured in the Child Opportunity Index. For those families, neighborhood opportunity improved substantially in year one and remained at an improved level for the entire study period (10-15 years, depending on the family).

Furthermore, families who received a traditional voucher without constraints or counseling as well as those who were assigned to remain in public housing experienced gradual improvement in neighborhood opportunity over a ten-year period, although the public housing group still remained in lower opportunity neighborhoods than the two voucher groups.

Finally, the authors used  machine-learning tools to examine whether the effects of receiving housing vouchers may vary across subgroups, such as city, households with and without vehicle access, and households with and without health and developmental problems. For example, the researchers found that a family who receives a voucher but lacks to a car may be less likely to experience long-term higher neighborhood opportunity, suggesting that pairing a housing voucher with a car or a transportation voucher may maximize the housing voucher’s potential.

Using the Child Opportunity Index to evaluate housing programs

This study adds to the increasing evidence that the use of housing vouchers, with appropriate supports, can lead to children growing up in neighborhoods that foster their healthy development. It is also one of few studies to use the multi-dimensional Child Opportunity Index as an outcome measure and the first to use the COI in assessing long-term impact. 

Because the COI is specifically constructed to reflect neighborhood characteristics important to child development, it is an ideal measure to use in implementing and assessing housing programs aimed at helping families with children. Already, the COI is being used to define opportunity in a number of voucher-based housing mobility programs, including the Supporting Neighborhood Opportunity in Massachusetts.

It is vital to continue expanding voucher programs to serve a much larger share of families in need of affordable housing and to build supports to improve families’ ability to move to higher opportunity neighborhoods, as it is to continue research on the circumstances under which housing programs can improve children’s neighborhood experiences and health and developmental outcomes.

Nancy McArdle
Nancy McArdle
Senior Research Analyst
Headshot of Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
Director, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy