Skip to main content

Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program: Final Impacts Evaluation

Message From the Assistant Secretary
HUD USER Home > PD&R Edge Home > From the Assistant Secretary

Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program: Final Impacts Evaluation


Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research
HUD has just released the final evaluation of its Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration program. Initiated almost 20 years ago, this demonstration used random assignment to learn how neighborhoods affect families. HUD was tasked by Congress to look at how the opportunity for public housing residents living in high-poverty neighborhoods to move to lower poverty neighborhoods affected their housing, employment, income, and educational outcomes. Several key lessons come from this research.

The first set of lessons emerge from the research findings. The findings make clear that neighborhood characteristics are important. Adults and female youths who moved to lower poverty neighborhoods felt safer and experienced less psychological distress and major depression. Also, mobility was associated with significantly lower incidence of both extreme obesity and diabetes, an important and surprising finding that has received considerable press attention. Thus it is clear that neighborhood affects housing quality, feelings of safety, and mental and physical health.

The evidence also showed that the move to lower poverty neighborhoods did not result in better employment, income or educational outcomes. Families that moved did not experience better employment or income outcomes than other families, and children in families that moved did not have better educational achievements than those in the control group and were not significantly less likely to engage in most forms of risky or criminal behavior.

What lessons should we draw from these unexpected results? One could conclude that neighborhood doesn’t matter for employment, income, and education. But this may not be right — “movers” in the study lived in neighborhoods with 31 percent poverty rates, as compared to the 40 percent rate in the neighborhoods of “stayers.” Thus, the move was to lower, but not low-poverty neighborhoods. It could be that such moves do not offer significant enough differences in work and skill building opportunities and school quality to produce measurable changes in outcomes, and that more dramatic change is necessary. More research is needed to better understand these relationships.

Another lesson involves the importance of conducting quality research and having a strong research design. With MTO, Congress asked us to focus on specific outcomes: housing, employment, income and education. Only later in the study did the issue of health emerge. But because the study involved random assignment with a control group, we could compare how health outcomes differ among the groups, even though baseline measures weren’t collected. And it was this feature that allowed us to discover perhaps our most important finding, that the opportunity to move to lower poverty neighborhoods reduces the likelihood that women will become extremely obese or have diabetes.

Today, PD&R is building on the powerful legacy of the MTO demonstration and moving forward with several demonstrations that hold a similar promise of producing years of research and many lessons that can be applied to policy. For example, we are in the middle of an ambitious experiment testing which of four policy approaches to assist homeless families with children is most efficient and effective. We are also beginning a major randomized controlled trial of the impacts of two forms of pre-purchase counseling on potential lower-income homebuyers. We intend to start a long-overdue study of the effects of the Family Self-Sufficiency program on assisted tenants. Through these and other investments in research, the Department is demonstrating its commitment to rigorous evaluation of housing policy and programs — and to using the lessons we learn to improve our programs and inform housing policy.

How can we apply these findings to improve people’s lives?

HUD’s latest Strategic Plan includes a major new goal — Housing as a Platform — which reflects our belief that housing is a foundation for improving the quality of life for people along many dimensions, especially those struggling under the constraints of poverty. The MTO findings offer clear support of this view, particularly along the health dimension. Some of our signature programs are designed with this in mind, as well. Redevelopment programs like Choice Neighborhoods take a broader, more holistic approach to reforming a distressed, high poverty, high crime neighborhood into a safer one with lower poverty concentrations by linking housing improvements with appropriate services, schools, public assets, transportation, and access to jobs. Similarly, the Sustainable Communities work involves planning grants for cities and for regional coalitions to better coordinate affordable housing with access to transportation, jobs, education, and health care

We need to be looking for other policy levers at the Federal, State, local and community level to create opportunities, especially for families that have lived in concentrated poverty.

The MTO demonstration has contributed significantly to our knowledge of how neighborhoods affect families. It offers an exceptionally rich dataset that can be used to improve our understanding the role that environment plays in shaping individual outcomes. In addition to the work done under HUD’s guidance, other complementary quantitative and qualitative studies have been undertaken, funded by a large group of federal agencies and philanthropic organizations. HUD has arranged for the MTO data to be stored at the University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research in the hope that more complementary work might be done. The data for the interim evaluation (1994-2001) are already there. While the data are subject to restricted-access, researchers can apply to receive access to the data to conduct their own analyses.

I encourage you to think about using this new, rich source of data to search for answers to key questions and then share what you learn once you have them.