Do Families Leaving Housing Assistance Need Support?

Do Families Leaving Housing Assistance Need Support?
Robin E. Smith, Susan J. Popkin, Taz George, Jennifer Comey
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Despite long waiting lists for housing subsidies, households who receive federal housing assistance stay, on average, just a few years. Using data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration’s final outcomes study, researchers explored whether families leave for positive or negative reasons—and what happens to them next. The evaluation survey tracked approximately 5,000 households in five cities from 1994 for a period of ten to 15 years. The households started in public housing and were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a control group that did not move out of public housing, a voucher-only group, and an experimental group that received a voucher and mobility support to relocate to a low-poverty neighborhood for at least a year.

By the time of the final outcomes survey for the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, 1,149 MTO households (35 percent) no longer received housing assistance. The final survey, paired with additional in-person interviews with 24 households, provide more information about what happened to these movers.

Major findings:

  • A little more than half (53 percent) left for positive reasons (e.g., an increase in income or a home purchase), while 47 percent left for negative reasons (e.g., an eviction or termination).
  • Positive leavers describe being “weaned off” assistance as their income and rent grew, or being reluctant to give up a hard-to-get subsidy.
  • At the end of the study, positive leavers were twice as likely to be married compared with negative leavers and had a median income of $37,865. The median income for negative leavers was $13,950.
  • Despite their higher incomes, one in five positive leavers reports experiencing food insecurity. Nearly two-thirds have medical debt or credit card debt.
  • Positive leavers indicate greater neighborhood and housing satisfaction, including fewer problems with crime.
  • Health status, including hypertension and depression levels, is better for positive leavers than either those who remained on housing assistance or who left for negative reasons.
  • More than half of negative leavers report severe housing cost burden, paying more than 50 percent of income on housing. Many report difficulties affording utility payments.
  • Doubling up with family or friends was common among both positive and negative leavers. More than a third of those who left for negative reasons had doubled up at one point, while one in five households positive leavers had. In one case, a negative leaver reported moving her five-person household into one bedroom of a family member’s apartment.
  • Twelve percent of negative leavers had been literally homeless.
  • Due to the challenges faced by both positive and negative leavers, the researchers suggest offering support to households transitioning out of subsidy programs.