Skip to Content

Elements of Successful Mobility Programs

The series of policies, programs and strategies described below help housing voucher holders overcome obstacles they may face in securing housing in a high-opportunity area. The most successful mobility programs use a combination of these approaches in order to provide a comprehensive set of services for voucher holders. The elements of successful mobility programs can generally be grouped into the following three categories:

  • Direct assistance to voucher holders
  • Legal strategies
  • Administrative policies

Direct Assistance to Voucher Holders

Low-Cost Car Access

Transportation can significantly limit where voucher holders are able to live, particularly in regions with few transit options. In many high-opportunity neighborhoods, living without a car is simply not an option due to the lack of public transit. Areas with access to good jobs, quality schools and low crime are often inaccessible to voucher holders who do not own a car and are reliant on public transit. Improving housing mobility opportunities often requires addressing this lack of transportation access. Car sharing programs and low-income automobile ownership opportunities can give households freedom to move outside areas served by transit.

Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, II (Baltimore)

While the city of Baltimore offers a number of public transit options, an efficient region-wide transit system has yet to be realized. Limited transit options outside of city limits create a sizeable barrier for voucher holders participating in the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, a comprehensive mobility project that came out of 1995 litigation against HUD. Because most of the region’s targeted move areas are located in the region’s suburban counties, it is impractical for families to move to these areas without access to an automobile. In 2003, a local nonprofit car ownership program, Vehicles for Change, was brought in to help voucher-holding families purchase an automobile before moving to a new home in a high-opportunity neighborhood. If a family is eligible and is moving to an opportunity area outside of the city, it can receive a car for about $750, which it can pay off in low monthly installments of around $50 to $75. The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program also provides funding for state-required driving school tuition, paying 75 percent of the $300 to $350 fee. As of 2016, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program had helped over 3,300 families make high-opportunity moves throughout the region.

Mobility Counseling

Mobility counseling provides information and resources to voucher holders to prepare them for a move to a new neighborhood. Most mobility counseling consists of pre-move workshops that assist the family members in improving their credit scores and paying off debts to make them more attractive to landlords, inform voucher holders of tenant responsibilities, and help families budget to ensure that the household is able to save for a security deposit. Families often then receive transition counseling, which provides support in making connections and setting up new networks in their community. Some programs also offer post-move counseling, which can take the form of periodic check-ins with the household, as well as subsequent move counseling if the household decides to move a second time. Counselors may become a liaison between landlord and tenant and provide ongoing support as families settle into their new neighborhoods.

Metro HRA Mobility Counseling (Minneapolis-St. Paul Region)

The Metropolitan Council is a regional governmental agency and planning organization serving the Twin Cities seven-county metropolitan area. In the spring of 2015, the Met Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (Metro HRA) announced plans to implement a regional mobility counseling program, the Community Choice program, modeled off successful programs in the Baltimore and Dallas regions. The program is one of the first in the country to be implemented voluntarily and not as a result of a consent decree from litigation. It was introduced as part of the Met Council’s commitment to fulfill goals of the region’s comprehensive plan, Thrive MSP 2040.

The counseling program includes both pre-move and post-move counseling. Before the move, counselors work with participants to overcome budgeting issues and improve financial literacy. Counselors also equip participants with a “renter portfolio,” which is made up of a credit check, letters of recommendation, information about classes and workshops attended and any other information that would help present the voucher holder as a good prospective tenant.

Post-move counseling provides participants with an ongoing support system, helps families get acquainted with amenities within their new communities and assists in landlord relations. Families commit to the program (and to living in a low-poverty area) for two years but are able to receive ongoing support as needed. The approach is holistic and individualized, addressing participant-specific needs and helping families set and reach their goals.

Search Assistance

Many times, voucher holders end up renting in high-poverty areas because they lack information about other neighborhood opportunities. Particularly in regions with limited public transit, residents of inner-city neighborhoods are unlikely to be familiar with all of the city’s surrounding communities and suburban neighborhoods. Search assistance can be used to inform voucher holders of their options, acquaint them with other communities and help them navigate unfamiliar housing markets. Search assistance can also include advice on initial interactions with a landlord, tips on what questions to ask and guidance on how to respond to discrimination. Municipalities and housing authorities may also offer escorted property showings. Because it is often difficult to find housing in low-poverty neighborhoods, getting the local housing authority to increase the allotted search time for voucher holders, which is generally 60 days, can be a helpful, complementary reform.

Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (Baltimore)

Born out of 1995 litigation, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program is one of the most comprehensive mobility programs in the country, providing a wide variety of services to voucher holders. The program is currently administered by the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership (BRHP), which, in addition to offering extensive counseling services, offers housing search and transportation assistance to help voucher holders explore and move to high-opportunity communities throughout the five-county Baltimore metro area.

Because many voucher holders residing in the city of Baltimore are unfamiliar with the rest of the region, BRHP offers group and one-on-one tours to introduce voucher holders to the various housing options in suburban communities and the different amenities—schools, parks and stores, for example—that these neighborhoods offer. BRHP’s tours assist families in choosing communities that best fit their needs. According to program counselors, actually seeing communities firsthand has successfully motivated many families to commit to a move. As of 2016, the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program had helped over 3,300 families move to high-opportunity neighborhoods throughout the region. A 2013 analysis by David Rusk found that compared to four other regions (Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; Cleveland; and Denver), Baltimore had the highest share (21 percent) of voucher holders living in high-opportunity suburban areas.

Security Deposit Assistance

Because rent is typically higher in high-opportunity neighborhoods, security deposits, usually calculated as a percentage of monthly rent, tend to be higher as well. While a voucher holder may be able to find a voucher-eligible unit, the extra cost of the security deposit, as well as the additional costs of moving, may pose a large barrier to moving to a high-opportunity area, as noted earlier. Mobility programs can include financial assistance, such as security deposit loans or subsidies, to offset these costs.

Security Deposit Loans (San Diego)

Families that participate in San Diego Housing Commission’s Choice Communities program are eligible to apply for a security deposit loan through the commission. Participants can receive a no-interest loan of up to $1,450, which can be paid back when the lease is terminated and the deposit is refunded. As of 2016, 230 of the program’s 290 participants had taken advantage of the security deposit loan program.

Legal Strategies

Source-Of-Income Protection Laws

Promoting moves into areas of high opportunity can be particularly difficult because landlords in these areas are often unaccustomed and unwilling to lease to voucher holders. In many states it is still lawful for landlords to discriminate against tenants based on their source of income. In high-opportunity areas, there is often a high demand for housing, so landlords have multiple options when renting a unit. It is, therefore, not uncommon that landlords will restrict their rental units to non-voucher holders. This discrimination, while based on source of income, disproportionally impacts minority households and can make it extremely difficult for voucher holders to find suitable rental properties in higher-income neighborhoods.

This type of discrimination can be prevented through a change to a locality’s fair housing, anti-discrimination or human rights ordinance. While most cities already have protections against discrimination based on race and gender, these ordinances can be amended to include source of income or specific protections for voucher holders. While these legal protections may not in themselves prevent all discrimination against voucher holders in the housing market, they represent a city’s commitment toward fighting discrimination of this kind.

As of 2016, 13 states and 51 cities or counties had source-of-income protection laws. In addition, three states – Hawaii, Maryland, and New York – were considering proposed source-of-income protection legislation.

Source-Of-Income Amendment (Cook County, Ill.)

After a 10-year campaign, the Cook County Board of Commissioners amended the county’s Human Rights Ordinance in 2013 to include protections for Housing Choice Voucher holders. Prior to the amendment, the ordinance included protections against discrimination based on source of income, but included an exception for voucher holders. An ambitious campaign to raise awareness of discrimination against voucher holders, share personal stories and reveal the racially segregated distribution of voucher holders in the county contributed to the success of this amendment. Cook County encompasses the city of Chicago.

The ordinance now requires that all tenants have the opportunity to be screened for a unit in an equal manner but does not necessarily force landlords to accept all housing vouchers. The amendment also prohibits landlords from charging higher security deposits because a tenant uses a voucher, which was a common practice in the area.

Administrative policies

Homes Reserved for Voucher Holders

Through project-based vouchers (PBVs), housing authorities can reserve units in high-opportunity areas to act as a mobility strategy to expand mobility and housing choice for income-eligible households. PBVs, administered by state and local housing agencies, are distinct from Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA), a program through which property owners have contracted directly with HUD to rent units to low-income families. PBVs are not widely used but are gaining popularity, especially among nonprofit, mission-driven developers, as they have multiple benefits for agencies and communities.

Housing authorities are allowed to use up to 20 percent of their Housing Choice Vouchers as PBVs, which are attached to a specific unit. Most Housing Choice Vouchers are “tenant-based,” meaning families can use them to rent any private apartment that meets program guidelines.  PBVs, in contrast, are attached to a specific unit whose landlord contracts with the local public housing agency to rent the unit to low-income families. If a family in a project-based voucher unit moves out, the voucher stays with the unit, and another low-income family moving in benefits from the rent subsidy it provides.

PBVs can be an efficient way to ensure there is an adequate supply of rental units in high-opportunity areas and can circumvent many of the barriers faced by tenant-based voucher holders (e.g., landlord resistance or difficulty locating a suitable unit) because the landlord enters into a contract with the state or local housing agency as opposed to the individual tenants.

While most mobility programs described in this section focus on expanding the mobility of tenant-based vouchers, the use of project-based vouchers in high-opportunity areas may also be an effective way to achieve the same result.

Regional Housing Initiative, II (Metro Chicago)

Since 2002, the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council, the Illinois Housing Development Authority, and 10 housing authorities across the Chicago region have joined to form the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI). To address the lack of housing options in higher-opportunity, often suburban, communities in the region, participating housing authorities pool a portion of their available vouchers to provide support for the rehabilitation and construction of project-based units in higher-opportunity communities. This regional collaboration has been integral in the development of units in smaller jurisdictions, which would not otherwise have enough voucher capacity to finance a project on their own.

Since the RHI was formed, it has helped finance 406 apartments in 28 developments through the pooling and transferring of project-based vouchers. The RHI has also created a regional waiting list for families seeking to live in these developments.

Landlord Participation

Landlords may turn away voucher holders for a number of reasons, and in many communities they still have a legal right to discriminate against voucher holders solely based on the source of their income or possession of a voucher. Working with landlords to understand their concerns and address misunderstandings is important for promoting landlord participation, improving tenant–landlord relationship and creating a good public image for voucher programs. While landlords often can be viewed as a hindrance to mobility efforts, they are important stakeholders, and it is important to bring landlords into the conversation about mobility to help overcome biases and promote benefits to both parties.

Programming for landlords can take various forms depending on local market conditions and housing needs. Many housing authorities provide landlord workshops to educate prospective participants in the HCV program, remind them of fair housing laws and explain how their participation can be beneficial for their business.

Landlord Bonuses (Dallas)

Litigation against HUD in 1990 established that the Housing Authority of the City of Dallas policies perpetuated segregation, and the resulting consent decree established the Walker Project, now known as the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), to promote fair housing and combat segregation. ICP offers a mobility assistance program to all Dallas Housing Authority voucher holders. As part of this comprehensive program, mobility counselors work with landlords to encourage and incentivize acceptance of vouchers. ICP offers a one-time bonus—usually equaling around one month’s rent—to landlords who agree to lease to a voucher holder.

ICP encourages open and efficient communication between landlords and the Dallas Housing Authority and often acts as a liaison in times of confusion or frustration. There are very few protections for voucher holders in Texas, and landlords—particularly those in areas where voucher holders have not traditionally lived—can be reluctant to participate in the program. Much of the resistance from landlords is a result of a lack of understanding of how the program works and what commitments are required from them. Assisting landlords with paperwork and informing them of their obligations makes the process easier and takes some of the anxiety out of participating in the program. While ICP has been successful in recruiting many small-scale landlords who originally resisted the program, they are looking into innovative strategies to incentivize larger management companies in the region.

Since 2005, ICP’s program has assisted over 3,000 families with vouchers from the Dallas Housing Authority. ICP’s 2013 evaluation of the program found that, when compared to those who do not receive mobility assistance, African-America voucher holders receiving mobility assistance had greater access to neighborhoods with more opportunity and were less likely to live in areas of high distress.

Landlord Fund (Boston)

In the early 2000s, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP) received an allocation of $160,000 to design a more comprehensive mobility program, known as the Community Choice Voucher Program. While this funding allowed the organization to hire a mobility counselor to assist with apartment searches and community orientations, demand for housing at the time was extremely high, and it was often difficult to recruit landlords into the program. MBHP found that landlords would often pull out of the program if they were told they had to make repairs during the inspection process. Rather than spend the money to make repairs, landlords could easily opt out of the program and find a market-rate renter instead. MBHP worked to address this issue with the creation of a landlord fund to finance necessary unit repairs. As of 2014, 85 of the 100 choice community vouchers were used in high-opportunity areas.

The Community Choice Voucher Program in metropolitan Boston has found success recruiting landlords in high-opportunity neighborhoods by financing unit repairs. The program grew out of litigation brought against HUD in the late 1990s by the NAACP Boston Chapter, resulting in the creation of a metro-wide mobility program. The Consent Decree required HUD to allocate 500 housing vouchers to the Boston metropolitan area, 100 of which were to be administered by MBHP. Voucher recipients were given an extended lease-up period of 120 days to find an apartment in a “choice” neighborhood. Choice neighborhoods in this region were defined as census tracts with less than 40 percent minority population.

Due to funding shortages, the Community Choice Voucher Program has had to cut back on services. While the landlord fund was a viable option for increasing the stock of voucher-eligible units in choice communities, MBHP has been unable to consistently sustain the fund throughout the years.

Opportunity Mapping

Opportunity mapping uses various data sources to show segregation patterns and to illustrate how these patterns affect low-income families’ abilities to access amenities and services that help promote economic well-being.  Localities and regions have used opportunity maps to better understand the housing options available to individuals and families from diverse backgrounds. Measuring and mapping opportunity are also critical components of the renewed federal commitment to furthering fair housing goals.

The goal of mobility programs is to increase the number of voucher holders living in high-opportunity areas. Programs use a number of criteria to define and target opportunity-rich communities. The most common criteria are based on poverty rate and minority population rate. However, it may be important to explore other factors that contribute to economic mobility, such as employment rates and school quality. Opportunity mapping that takes many factors into consideration is important to help ensure that families will benefit from their moves.

Interest in opportunity mapping has grown because of recent federal actions regarding fair housing. The federal Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule requires an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) from jurisdictions that receive HUD grants. AFHs help jurisdictions identify and carry out strategies for enhancing low-income households’ access to communities of opportunity and promote fair housing by overcoming patterns of segregation. While this requirement does not explicitly call for the production of a map, HUD strongly encourages jurisdictions submitting AFHs to use geographical data in their assessments, and provides a tool for jurisdictions to analyze their own socioeconomic patterns.

Community Choice Housing Mobility Program (King County, Wash.)

In 2014, the King County Housing Authority initiated the Community Choice Housing Mobility Program, which serves families living in the county, excluding the cities of Seattle and Renton. While many mobility programs focus on correcting racial segregation and disparity, King County’s challenges are less about racial segregation than economic segregation.

The goal of the Community Choice Housing Mobility Program is to assist voucher holders with children in moving to high-opportunity areas. Unlike most programs of its kind, the Community Choice Housing Mobility Program defines opportunity areas using an opportunity mapping analysis conducted by the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University. The analysis uses a number of different indicators to create an opportunity index for each community in the county, including:

  • education indicators (reading and math proficiency scores, graduation rates, percent of students on free or reduced lunch, teacher qualifications, teacher-to-student ratios and adult educational attainment);
  • economic opportunity indicators (proximity to employment, economic climate, percent of population on public assistance, unemployment rate and mean commute time); and
  • housing and neighborhood indicators (crime rates, home ownership rates, residential vacancy rates, property appreciation, foreclosure rates, neighborhood poverty rates, proximity to toxic waste and superfund sites and proximity to parks and open spaces).

This comprehensive analysis helps ensure that families are moving to areas that will provide access to good jobs, transportation, high-performing schools and a safe and amenity-rich neighborhood.

The Community Choice Housing Mobility Program offers higher payment standards than are typically offered by the housing authority to help families find voucher-eligible units in areas of the highest opportunity. As of July 2015, the program had enrolled 58 families and assisted nine families in moving to high-opportunity areas. The program plans to evaluate success based on retention in high-opportunity neighborhoods and on academic achievement of children of voucher holders.

Streamlined Regional Voucher Porting

The most effective mobility programs are administered on a regional scale and allow families to move to communities of choice across the region. However, most regions are not under the jurisdiction of the same housing authority. Local administration of the voucher program means that voucher holders who received their voucher from one housing authority must go through certain procedures to transfer, or “port,” their voucher to a different housing authority if they wish to move out of their authority’s jurisdiction.

Streamlining porting processes across all housing authorities in a region and providing voucher holders with assistance in portability procedures can make porting more efficient for all parties involved. The administration of housing vouchers can also be made more efficient through regional collaborations of housing authorities.

Regional Housing Initiative (Metro Chicago)

Since 2002, the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council, the Illinois Housing Development Authority and now 10 housing authorities across the Chicago region have joined to form the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI). Metropolitan Planning Council works with the regional public housing authorities and governments at all levels to pool resources in support of developing new affordable rental homes in communities with good schools, transit access and jobs. In 2011, the RHI received a $1 million HUD grant to pilot a number of initiatives to promote housing in high-opportunity areas throughout the region. One of these initiatives was a demonstration to determine how to more effectively manage regional porting processes.

Two innovative porting models were tested: 1) hiring a porting advocate to serve as a third-party liaison to support families with vouchers as they moved through porting procedures, and 2) creating a central administrative entity to fully manage porting procedures for a set of housing authorities. While both were promising efforts, the latter resulted in a quicker porting period and more opportunity moves.

Four small housing authorities in the region—the McHenry, Lake, Waukegan, and Oak Park housing authorities—participated in the regional porting administration. Through the RHI collaboration, the housing authorities worked with the nonprofit Housing Choice Partners as the single point of contact for voucher holders porting from one jurisdiction to another. The original housing authority sends the port-out client to Housing Choice Partners, which then handles education, paperwork and mobility services.

Targeted Fair Market Rent and Payment Standards

Because Fair Market Rents (FMRs) are calculated on a regional scale, HUD payment standards do not always reflect the actual rent in all areas of the region. While low-income neighborhoods may have an average FMR well below the regional FMR, high-opportunity, low-poverty areas often have much higher rents than the permitted standard.

PHAs are permitted to assign a payment standard from 90 to 110 percent of FMR to different areas without HUD approval. Housing authorities can also request exception standards from HUD in order to account for much higher rent areas in the region.

In June of 2016, HUD released a Using a finer scale is meant to give voucher-assisted households a more effective means to move into higher-opportunity and lower-poverty neighborhoods by providing them with subsidies adequate to make such areas accessible. This proposed rule will only impact the 31 MSAs identified by HUD, with the possibility for other PHAs to opt in.

Choice Communities (San Diego)

In 2010, San Diego’s housing authority, the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC), initiated the Choice Communities program, a project to assist voucher holders in moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. The program designates nine “choice communities” and provides educational packets to help voucher holders make informed decisions about their moves. A significant success factor in the program is its flexible payment standards. The Housing Commission sets the maximum rent subsidy for Choice Communities 20 percent higher than the city’s current payment standards.

Because rent is higher in these neighborhoods, the commission also allows participants to pay up to 50 percent of their income in rent. While this does add an extra cost burden on the voucher holder, the increase has opened more rental opportunities to participants and allows them to make informed trade-offs at their own discretion. Flexible payment standards and rent burden levels, along with the commission’s Achievement Academy program—which offers a number of educational services and workshops to voucher holders—have allowed SDHC to assist over 260 families in moving from high- and medium-poverty areas into higher-opportunity areas.

The San Diego Housing Commission is a participant in HUD’s Moving to Work demonstration and therefore operates with greater flexibility than typical housing authorities. Most housing authorities can only permit participants to pay up to 40 percent of their income toward rent and must make a request to HUD for targeted payment standards that exceed 110 percent.

Refine Topics