As HUD Prepares a New Demonstration, What Do We Know about Housing Mobility and Kids’ Outcomes?

Just last month, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced $50 million of funding for public housing authorities to participate in a new demonstration that tests the effectiveness of housing mobility services in helping families with children move to low-poverty neighborhoods. The Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration would give standard housing vouchers to three randomized groups of families with children and provide the treatment groups with mobility services (either comprehensive or more limited) to assist families in accessing high-opportunity areas. Opportunity areas are partly defined by the poverty level and can also be defined by each housing authority using other metrics, such as school characteristics.

More than 2.2 million households in the US use a housing voucher to afford rent. Vouchers enable affordability within the private rental market, potentially opening the door to neighborhoods that exclude other subsidized rentals. However, many families continue to rent homes in high-poverty areas (PDF) because of discrimination from landlords who won’t accept vouchers, a preference to remain near their social networks, a lack of information and fears about moving to neighborhoods that are less poor and better resourced, and market rents that exceed the maximum for voucher use.

Federal interest in using vouchers to improve housing and neighborhood conditions has lengthy bipartisan support—especially as a means of improving life trajectories for children. What’s more, several programs across the country, like the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas, and the Creating Moves to Opportunity program in Seattle, have demonstrated that housing mobility programs that provide pre- and postmove counseling and housing search assistance can help voucher-holding families move to neighborhoods that score higher on an opportunity index. But what does the evidence say about housing mobility programs as a method of improving children’s outcomes?

The most rigorous evidence about housing mobility programs to date comes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, which tested the impacts of helping families move from high-poverty neighborhoods, where they were living in segregated, distressed public-housing developments, to low-poverty neighborhoods, where they lived in various types of privately owned rental housing, using a housing voucher and housing counseling. More than 4,600 families with children participated in the HUD study and were randomized into three groups between 1994 and 1998: a group who received a special-purpose MTO housing voucher for use in low-poverty neighborhoods and counseling intended to support successful moves, a group who received a housing choice voucher for use anywhere, and a group who did not receive a voucher but remained in public housing.

In study after study (conducted between 2 and 15 years after random assignment), researchers found health benefits but not economic benefits for people who moved from segregated and distressed public housing to low-poverty neighborhoods. Among those who moved with MTO vouchers, adults and female children experienced significant mental health benefits; researchers also found improvements in adults’ physical health and general sense of well-being. Though the demonstration sought to improve adult earnings and support children’s education, the results in these areas did not meet the planners’ expectations. By year 15, researchers found little to no evidence that moving had any impact on adult economic outcomes or on children’s educational achievements.

But in 2015, a landmark study extended the years of data and found longer-term economic effects among children who were able to grow up in higher opportunity neighborhoods because of the MTO or regular voucher. The study, released initially as a working paper by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, matched tax records with MTO data to see how the kids fared in young adulthood (15 to 18 years after they had entered the program). They found that children who were younger than 13 when their families moved with a housing voucher—whether it came with MTO strings attached or not—earned more in young adulthood than the children who stayed in public housing.  

Just last year, another study found an association between receiving either type of voucher before age 13 and lower hospital spending later in life.

Here is what we know, 26 years after MTO launched, about how housing vouchers and housing mobility counseling affected children’s lives:

Approximately five years after (PDF) receiving a special-purpose MTO voucher or regular housing choice voucher, girls had fewer health and behavior risks, but boys had elevated behavior risks.
  • Compared with their peers who stayed in distressed public housing, girls ages 15 to 19 were less likely to have depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems; were less likely to report alcohol or marijuana use; and were less likely to have been pregnant.
  • Boys whose families received a voucher were more likely to report alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco use and were more likely to have gotten someone pregnant.
Ten to 15 years after receiving a special-purpose MTO voucher or housing choice voucher, girls with MTO vouchers continued to benefit, but boys in both voucher groups did not.
  • Girls benefitted significantly from special-purpose MTO vouchers, but the early mental health and behavioral benefits of housing choice vouchers were no longer evident.
  • An MTO voucher increased the likelihood that girls younger than 20 (in other words, who were 10 years old or younger at randomization) feel safe during the day.
  • Girls younger than 20 in families with an MTO voucher were less likely to repeatedly receive unwanted sexual attention or see drugs bought or sold.
  • Girls ages 13 to 20 with an MTO voucher were less likely to report alcohol use, and experienced less psychological distress, fewer serious emotional or behavioral problems, lower prevalence of mood disorders over their lifetime, reduced incidence of oppositional defiant disorder in the past year, and were less likely to have household members who were recent victims of a crime.
  • Vouchers generated new risks for boys. In both the special-purpose MTO voucher and housing choice voucher group, boys had higher rates of tobacco smoking compared with their peers who stayed in in public housing.
  • The youth and grown children in voucher-receiving households had little to no measurable differences in physical health compared with their peers in public housing.
  • MTO voucher recipients saw small improvements in their schools’ reading and math exam rankings, but neither voucher group saw significant shifts in reading and math achievement scores or the likelihood of repeating a grade.
From 15 to 21 years later, children who were younger than 13 when their families received a special-purpose MTO or housing choice voucher had educational, earnings, and health benefits in young adulthood.
  • Children who were younger than 13 at the time of randomization in either voucher group had lower rates of hospitalization and lower annual inpatient hospital bills. Reductions in hospitalization and inpatient spending were also significant for girls but not for boys.
  • Children who were younger than 13 at the time of randomization in either voucher group saw earnings increases. The boost in earnings was greatest for children whose families successfully moved with an MTO voucher. This finding holds true for Black, Hispanic,[1] and white children.
  • The research found an average increase in annual earnings of $3,477 for children whose families moved using an MTO voucher. The average annual earnings increase for those whose families moved with a housing choice voucher was $1,723.
  • When considering children whose families received either an MTO or housing choice voucher (some of whom did not end up moving out of public housing[2]), the average earnings increase is still significant but smaller: $1,624 for those receiving an MTO voucher and $1,109 for those receiving a housing choice voucher.
  • College attendance rates for children of movers in the MTO voucher group were 5.2 percentage points higher at age 18, 19, or 20 than their peers in public housing, and children whose families received an MTO voucher had a significant but smaller increase in college attendance. In both voucher groups, children attended colleges with higher alumni earnings.
Reducing children’s exposure to segregation, poverty, and disinvestment

Together, the findings from Moving to Opportunity point to some important policy implications for housing vouchers.

First, and perhaps the most important and underappreciated finding: segregating low-income families in disinvested developments and neighborhoods is detrimental to many aspects of well-being. Though the MTO demonstration was meant to examine the impacts of moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods on families, children whose families received an unrestricted housing choice voucher also experienced many positive effects—perhaps because of the conditions they were leaving behind. What’s more, neighborhood conditions accumulate over the childhood years to affect life trajectory. Young children who moved with housing vouchers had long-term positive outcomes across education, earnings, and other factors, yet older children had often null and sometimes negative outcomes with a move. Both of these findings suggest vouchers or other policy assistance should be targeted to families with young children and those living in the most systemically disinvested areas.

Second, the outcomes for children were gender dependent. The environments that alleviate risks for girls may add risks for boys. Efforts to generate beneficial outcomes for young people that build on the combined results for all genders may miss opportunities to keep girls healthy and safe or may put boys at increased risk. Instead, programs should explore hypotheses about why the outcomes differed—for example, that moving out of public housing meant less harassment and reduced risk of victimization for girls—and identify whether changes in the intervention or underlying supports could foster a lower-risk environment for all genders.

Third, the evidence has established that housing mobility programs can help voucher holders access lower-poverty neighborhoods than they may have reached on their own or through other subsidy approaches. For many children, moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood can open the door to better health, higher educational attainment, and higher earnings. In short, childhood neighborhoods have the potential to promote positive life outcomes in the long term.

New research questions for the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration

In addition to the MTO findings and research on other housing mobility programs, there is much we can learn from a new HUD demonstration—and not just about the effectiveness of mobility-related services. A randomized controlled trial applying both quantitative and qualitative methods could also provide insights about when and whether neighborhood moves might add risks.

The questions we hope the new demonstration will answer include:

  • What types of neighborhoods do parents choose when they receive mobility counseling but no restrictions on the neighborhood they can move to?
  • For children who changed schools with the move, how do school discipline experiences differ from their peers at the new school? And how do academic opportunities and tracks change for students as they shift schools?
  • How do indicators of racial exclusion or race-based surveillance in the new neighborhoods affect children’s near-term and long-term outcomes?


[1] Housing Matters prefers to use the term “Latinx.” However, we use “Hispanic” here as it was the term used in the baseline survey in the original MTO study.

[2] There is a difference between receiving a voucher and using a voucher. Some families who received vouchers did not use them.

Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock