Q&A with Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins on Housing Mobility

Since the early 2000s, Stefanie DeLuca has studied the long-term effects of residential mobility programs, which help residents of public housing or from low-income, high-crime areas relocate to neighborhoods with less poverty and higher-performing schools.

Several of the programs DeLuca has studied, including the Gautreaux program in Chicago and the Thompson program in Baltimore, resulted from civil rights lawsuits demonstrating that the implementation of federal housing policy in the area enforced segregation of low-income African Americans in separate and unequal communities. Remediation in these cases includes barring or demolishing high-rise public housing in the area and the creation of housing voucher programs with a “mobility” component to help residents move out of neighborhoods with concentrated violence and poverty.

We talked to DeLuca, who is an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, about her work documenting the ways that life changes for low-income families when they no longer live in concentrated poverty, the challenge of deciding to move, and what more we need to know.

How Housing Matters: Do low-income families typically feel trapped in high-poverty and high-crime areas?

Stefanie DeLuca: What I’ve heard from my conversations with families is that it really depends. There are probably about as many families who would like to remain in their communities because of social ties and the benefits they get from child care arrangements—there are probably as many of those families as families who want to get out because the social ties are keeping them in a cycle of using drugs or alcohol. Or because the very family members they are close to are a drain on their meager resources. So they may get by, and they help others get by, but they never get ahead.

If you’ve spent your whole life in high-poverty communities, how can you decide that it’s worth the trade-off to move somewhere unfamiliar, far away, and maybe more expensive, if you haven’t experienced that yourself and you’re in a position of scarce resources and you’re really trying just to make ends meet? It’s really tough to think there’s a whole menu of options out there.

HHM: How do mobility programs ease the transition?

DeLuca: In the Baltimore program that I’ve been studying, which came about as a result of the Thompson vs. HUD case, they’ve learned lessons from previous programs. Along with vouchers, they provide not only pre-move counseling about the benefits of some of these neighborhoods in the suburbs in terms of their safety, the amenities, and the schools, but families also get workshops on how to repair credit, how to budget. There’s a lot of preparation to move, which is really helpful in the transition to a private-market unit.

The program also does a good job of landlord outreach. A big part of this is: will landlords accept vouchers? Getting landlords to cooperate is a key element in a mobility program. The Baltimore program has search assistants—counselors on staff who can help people find housing in neighborhoods that are high-opportunity. They’re also doing tours of some of these neighborhoods so people can see places they’ve often never been. There’s also post-move counseling to see if they’re settling in; and if families need to move second time, there’s support.

HHM: How do mobility programs change things for families?

DeLuca: Families I’ve spoken to in the different mobility programs I’ve studied—especially the Baltimore mobility programs—have remarked on the change in their neighborhoods when they live somewhere that’s more affluent with better schools. The way that children respond to going to school and how much happier they are. What a relief it is to be somewhere where you don’t feel under siege all the time. And how it feels to have high-quality housing, and over time people say, “I never knew it could be like this.”

We don’t have data on employment or public assistance for parents. What we can tell so far is it can be quite transformative for parents. Moms say, “My leash grew longer. My child could play outside. I could think about myself again and go back to school.” They didn’t have to worry about violence and could make decisions based on school quality in a way we don’t typically see for poor families. Children who move are attending schools that are significantly higher-quality. That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not.

HHM: What about families who want to stay?

DeLuca: We can’t do just mobility strategies; we have to figure out how to do place-based strategies as well. The real challenge is: how do we do community development successfully? Hopefully by now, there’s no question about how important neighborhood context is in the lives of families and children and how important it is for housing policies to promote that kind of opportunity.