A map of D.C. incomes by neighborhood. Green represents high incomes, red low incomes.
A map of D.C. incomes by neighborhood. Green represents high incomes, red low incomes.

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What happens if you move poor families into wealthier neighborhoods? The answer, three recent studies show, is complicated.

Today, the MacArthur Foundation’s “How Housing Matters” initiative released 10 briefs summarizing its research on the impact that housing has on various elements of people’s lives. Two of them address the effect that moving into a higher-income neighborhood can have on low-income residents.

In one study, low-income urban families were given vouchers to move to neighborhoods with less poverty as part of a program called Moving to Opportunity. Escaping a high-poverty environment led to improvements in physical and mental health and reported happiness. And yet the researchers found it had no significant effect on earnings, employment, or children’s school performance.

A second study looked at the inclusionary zoning program, which is employed in Montgomery County and the District, although it’s struggled to get off the ground in D.C. Inclusionary zoning requires developers of large new residential buildings to reserve a percentage of the units for low-income residents. The study found that inclusionary zoning gave participating low-income families access to more economically diverse neighborhoods and better schools: Nearly half were assigned to low-poverty schools, and three-quarters were in low-poverty neighborhoods.

Separately, a recent study in the city of Baltimore examined the same general issue, but with a more radical approach. The Baltimore Mobility Program, stemming from a court finding in a 1995 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that public housing was excessively segregated in the city, gave housing vouchers to low-income residents that required them to move to higher-income suburbs and remain there for at least two years. The participants were all black and current or former residents of public housing in Baltimore. They moved to neighborhoods in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties that were no more than 30 percent black, 10 percent poor, or 5 percent on public housing assistance.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, tracked 110 participants in the program. She found that they were overwhelmingly satisfied with the life change, and more than two-thirds had stayed in the suburbs one to eight years later.

“What we heard was a mom saying, ‘I didn’t wanna go. I thought I’d stay for a year,'” she told me recently. “‘And now it’s seven years later, and you couldn’t get me out of here if you had to pull me by the teeth.'”

Baltimore, though less expensive than D.C., has similarly struggled to house its low-income residents. The city’s waiting list for public housing has been closed since 2003; D.C.’s closed last year after surpassing 70,000 names.

But would a similar program work in D.C.? Programs like inclusionary zoning, Hope VI, and New Communities have aimed to create mixed-income environments, although they’ve all struggled to do so efficiently. But moving people out to the suburbs would surely ruffle some feathers—-both in the suburbs themselves, which would likely accuse the District of unloading its poor residents on them, and in the city, where people would charge the D.C. government with breaking up communities and sending its problems over the District line rather than addressing them directly. Still, as the racially and economically divided city works to increase diversity, through its housing programs and its ongoing effort to overhaul its school assignment policies, the lessons of these studies are worth keeping in mind.

Map from richblockspoorblocks.com