Seattle Housing Experiment A new study looks at efforts to break up pockets of poverty by using housing vouchers to encourage low-income families to move to "high opportunity" neighborhoods.

Seattle Housing Experiment

Seattle Housing Experiment

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A new study looks at efforts to break up pockets of poverty by using housing vouchers to encourage low-income families to move to "high opportunity" neighborhoods.


Where a child grows up can have a big impact on how well they do later in life. Good schools, safe streets, better environment - all that can make a difference. It's one reason the government has tried to use housing subsidies to encourage low-income families to move to better neighborhoods. Past efforts have fallen short. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, a new experiment in the Seattle area is showing promise.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Monica Rose, a single mother of a 10-year-old, knows how destructive it can be not to have stable housing as a child.

MONICA ROSE: So I think I went to, like, 14 different schools, and I dropped out in the seventh grade.

FESSLER: She eventually went back, but it's been a long haul since. Monica Rose asked that we not use her full name because of a domestic abuse issue. She's now 32, and she and her daughter have also had to move a lot, staying with family and friends, even in shelters, as rents around Seattle have soared to among the highest in the nation. But that's about to change.

ROSE: Mine's going to be there.

FESSLER: Oh, it's nice.

ROSE: Yeah.

FESSLER: Any day now, they're moving into a new two-bedroom apartment in northeast Seattle. She shows me a picture on her phone of a red brick building - old Navy barracks being converted into affordable housing.

ROSE: It's going to be really exciting to decorate our home, to be able to invite people inside and have it, you know, clear and warm and welcoming.

FESSLER: Monica Rose is benefiting from what many low-income families say is like winning the lottery. She has a housing voucher, or government subsidy, which covers all of her rent over 30% of her income. Almost 2 million families now get such vouchers, but there's a problem. Most end up using them in low-income neighborhoods where their children are more likely to stay poor. Now a group of researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere has teamed up with the Seattle and King County Housing Authorities to try to break that cycle.

SARAH BIRKEBAK: Yeah. The mall is all this right here. So shopping is really easy, and you're, like, a minute off of the freeway. So transportation-wise, that's a big selling point for families.

FESSLER: Part of the experiment, funded by the Gates and Surgo Foundations, involves hiring so-called navigators. They help voucher holders find apartments in what are identified as high-opportunity neighborhoods, places where low-income children have done well as adults - earning more, going to college, having fewer teen births. Right now, navigator Sarah Birkebak is showing her colleagues around one such area in Seattle called Northgate. It's a mixed-income neighborhood with a lot to offer, like mass transit, a children's hospital and a community center with a preschool program and other activities.

BIRKEBAK: Yeah. We'll get out for a couple of minutes (unintelligible).

They have tons of family programming. Some of it is, like, you pay. It's really affordable. Usually, it's, like, $40 for a basketball camp or something. But a lot of their...

FESSLER: The navigators take voucher holders on tours of these neighborhoods. They also guide them through the difficult process of getting an apartment in a hot rental market, showing them how to sell themselves as good tenants, almost like a job interview. They also spend time cultivating landlords who are often reluctant to accept voucher holders, even though it's required by law.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, Hector, long time, no see.

FESSLER: Navigators tell the landlords that with vouchers the rent is guaranteed. The program also helps families with expenses like moving costs. So far, it seems to be working. The initial results released today show that those receiving this extra help are almost four times as likely to move to high-opportunity areas. It costs about $1,700 extra per family. But researcher Stefanie Deluca of Johns Hopkins says it should more than pay for itself.

STEFANIE DELUCA: In terms of lifetime earnings and taxes that are paid by children who grow up in higher opportunity neighborhoods.

FESSLER: In fact, they're expected to earn $183,000 more on average and hopefully won't need government aid like their parents. Deluca says one key finding is that poor families don't need that big a push to move.

DELUCA: What we saw in Seattle wasn't that they didn't know that some neighborhoods might be better than others. It's just the concept that it was possible for them to move there - no.

GRIGORY VODOLAZOV: Everywhere, wonderful storages for everything and a lot of space, too.

FESSLER: Grigory Vodolazov and his wife were pleasantly surprised that their voucher got them a three-bedroom apartment in Bellevue, one of Seattle's most affluent suburbs. The unit is open and bright with new appliances at a rent of $2,600 a month.

VODOLAZOV: It looks expensive. It's look rich and comfortable and everything. We didn't expect to getting that actually.

FESSLER: The couple emigrated from Russia and have two sons, ages 9 and 3. The oldest has autism - one reason that this area with schools and medical facilities that cater to children with special needs means so much to them. What it really offers, though, is hope for their children's future.

VODOLAZOV: It's opportunities because I feel it every day in the air, right in the air, and it's for every member of my family.

FESSLER: And that's the thing about this program. The researchers are also looking for clues about what it is that makes one neighborhood more promising than the next. It's schools and support systems to be sure but also something else. Samra Idriss, a Libyan refugee who lives nearby with her husband and three small boys, says people in Bellevue expect to succeed.

SAMRA IDRIS: You know, the kids here is different. The neighborhoods here is different. They smart. The family here, like, support the kids, like thinking about the kids here.

FESSLER: And are already saving for college. It's nothing like their last neighborhood in southern King County where kids routinely dropped out of school. Stefanie Deluca admits there are still lots of questions. This project involves a few hundred families. But if it grows, will landlords and neighbors resist as they have in some other communities? And what about the neighborhoods left behind? What happens to them?

DELUCA: People shouldn't have to move to opportunity. We should be able to make it. How we achieve creating opportunity in place, that's the question we haven't resolved yet.

FESSLER: And indeed, almost half of the families in this experiment decided to stay in low-income areas even when told their kids would do better somewhere else. Many wanted to stay closer to jobs or to family and friends. Even Monica Rose admits that as excited as she is about moving to a more upscale area, she's also a bit nervous.

ROSE: I'm just not sure how it's going to go. If there's, you know, professionals that have a certain income and then, for instance, me who has, like, virtually almost nothing, I do wonder how the cultures are going to mix.

FESSLER: Although she thinks on balance, the move will be good for her daughter, even if it's years before anyone knows for sure. In the meantime, the Seattle project will continue and likely expand to other cities as part of a national effort to find better ways to help poor families succeed. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Seattle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should note that the Gates Foundation is a financial supporter of NPR.

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