Equity & Diversity

50 Years Later, Housing Programs’ Reach Is Limited

By Evie Blad — March 25, 2014 12 min read
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Kourtney Mills’ name sat on a waiting list for five years before she moved her family into an apartment at Potomac Gardens, a sprawling, blond-brick public-housing complex less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol.

“I was lucky,” she said, adding that others have waited longer.

Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, the U.S. rental-assistance programs expanded through that initiative—public housing and rental vouchers—have provided a measure of stability for participating families and their children.

But too many families who qualify for help won’t get it, housing-policy experts say, and children in assisted families still often live in areas of concentrated poverty, which can have negative effects on their education.

Students in such areas are more likely to attend schools packed with other poor children, where high rates of truancy and mobility can disrupt learning, and the resources needed to serve high-need populations are often lacking.

A half-century of efforts to ameliorate the environmental impacts of living in poor housing conditions—by providing rent subsidies, moving entire families from poor neighborhoods to better-off communities, or remaking neighborhoods altogether—has demonstrated limited results in improving educational outcomes for children.

About This Series

War on Poverty: Progress & Persistent Inequity
This package of stories is the second in a series of articles in Education Week over the next 18 months to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and its impact on the lives of children, especially those living in poverty. Read more.

“Even as school choice has increased, three-quarters of [poor] students still attend the neighborhood public school,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, based in Washington. “So to the extent that our housing is segregated by race and socioeconomic status, our schools are going to be segregated by race and socioeconomic status.

“It is possible to make high-poverty schools work,” he said, “but it’s extremely difficult.”

No Safety Net

Ms. Mills, now a full-time student in a medical-technician program, has lived in a two-bedroom apartment at Potomac Gardens for 3½ years—one of the longest periods of stability for the 37-year-old mother of four since she dropped out of high school in 9th grade. She had two children when she moved in, and she’s had two more since.

In prior years, she worked as a waitress, moving her children from one temporary housing situation to another, she said—a house that her relatives shared with a group of drug users, homeless shelters, rented rooms, and a one-bedroom apartment that she and her then two children shared with a friend. The $1,000-a-month rent there strained the two adults’ budgets.

Research shows situations like Ms. Mills’ aren’t uncommon.

Dashawn Smith, 6, left, looks over at his friend Malachi Davis, 10, outside the Potomac Gardens public-housing complex in Washington. The fence was erected around the property to keep out drug dealers and other criminals. While the federal housing programs expanded through the War on Poverty provide stability for assisted families, their children still often live in concentrated poverty.

“When people think of the nation’s public-housing program, they think of a housing safety net,” said Linda M. Couch, the senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Washington. “They think if you’re really down on your luck that you’ll have a place to go so that you won’t be out on a street with your kids.

“In that sense, the programs have failed,” she said. “They meet a very small portion of the country’s need. Simply because you are eligible for them does not mean that you have access to them.”

Federal public-housing programs, administered by a patchwork of state and local agencies, typically target rental aid to those earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income. An estimated 19.3 million families were eligible for the assistance in 2011, but only 4.6 million received it, according to a December 2013 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

‘A Silent Crisis’

In what U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan has called a “silent crisis,” the country’s lowest-income renters have seen their real incomes fall steadily in recent years, while the cost of rent grew faster.

Households that receive rental assistance typically pay 30 percent of income in rent, with government subsidies paying the rest. Housing agencies consider rent costs unaffordable if they make up a larger share of income.

In 2011, nearly 51 percent of U.S. renters paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing, up from around 41 percent in 2001, the Harvard study found.

And the problem is more severe in cities like Washington, where neighborhoods once deemed undesirable are now home to young professionals who are driving up housing costs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, sets the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city at $1,412, a rate that prices out minimum-wage workers.

President Johnson acknowledged the link between housing and education 50 years ago this month in an address to Congress detailing his anti-poverty plans.

Above, Kourtney Mills peers out from her kitchen to check on her children, from left to right, Emily Bakker, Blake Bakker, and Nathan Mills. Ms. Mills spent five years on a waiting list for a spot in Potomac Gardens, a public housing complex in Washington.

“What does this poverty mean to those who endure it? It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence,” he said. “It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp. Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young.”

Although public-housing initiatives were designed to lift children out of poverty, many families who use them still live in largely poor neighborhoods, and many of their children attend high-poverty schools as a consequence.

Poor children are also more highly mobile, frequently changing schools or skipping class when new living situations suddenly move them farther away.

Even when Ms. Mills lived in homeless shelters, she said, she made it a priority to wake up early and ride public buses with her two school-age children as far as she needed so that their school didn’t change, even if their living situation did.

But many parents in similar situations don’t—or can’t—make that sacrifice, educators say.

Changing Approaches

The 352-unit Potomac Gardens, constructed a year after President Johnson declared a war on poverty, takes up an entire city block in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

It has a reputation for crime and violence—Ms. Mills remembers once walking her children past a pool of blood on the sidewalk outside her building. In the early 1990s, the city erected an eight-foot, prison-grade iron fence around the property to keep out drug dealers and other criminals.

Troy Bakker, Mills' boyfriend, spends time with their son Blake Bakker, 11 months, as he works on his laptop on March 18 at Potomac Gardens.

Large-scale multifamily public-housing projects like Potomac Gardens have fallen out of favor in the last 50 years as federal and local housing agencies moved to a scatter-site approach aimed at distributing low-income residents throughout mixed-income neighborhoods.

As an alternative to large public housing developments, HUD crafted rules in 1974 for tenant-based Section 8 housing vouchers, which subsidize privately owned, market-rate units for qualifying tenants. (See program glossary to the right.) Today, about 2.3 million households use the assistance, now known as housing-choice vouchers.

But voucher users are still often clustered in areas with great poverty, housing advocates say.

A study published in November 2012 by the Washington-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council found that children in the nation’s subsidized-housing programs live near schools with greater numbers of poor students. Researchers separately tracked a pool of participants in each of the major federal housing programs and found their children attended schools where a median of between 67.1 percent and 82.1 percent of students, depending on the housing program, were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In those schools, between 19 percent and 31 percent of students scored at or above grade level on state-mandated standardized mathematics tests, the study found.

A Glossary of Federal Housing Initiatives

Project-Based Vouchers

This program provides income-based leases for very low-income families that are tied to specific housing units. Under the program, a public housing authority can designate a portion of its voucher assistance to specific housing units, typically integrated into neighborhoods alongside market-rate units. With roots in the United States Housing Act of 1937, the rules for project-based vouchers have been amended several times since the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965. The vouchers remain a major component of rental assistance.

Public Housing

Publicly owned, operated, and maintained rental units for low-income families. The current rules for the nation’s public housing operations date back to the launch of HUD in 1965. The federal agency’s budget includes operating and capital funds for the maintenance of public housing units.

Housing Choice Voucher Program

This program, colloquially known as Section 8, provides assistance for very low-income families to buy or rent privately owned housing. In the case of rentals, the vouchers pay the difference between a fair rent, based on the tenant’s income, and the market rent charged by the building owner. Congress created the outlines of the modern tenant-based Section 8 program through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.


A program launched in 1993 that provided block grants for local authorities and private developers to rebuild severely distressed public housing projects into dense, mixed-income neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly and accessible to transit. The program led to the demolition of 100,000 “severely distressed” units, according to HUD.

Choice Neighborhoods

An ongoing Obama administration demonstration program that provides competitive grants to transform areas of extreme poverty and public housing facilities into mixed-use neighborhoods. The grant emphasizes interagency cooperation and local planning for educational improvements. HUD awarded its first Choice Neighborhoods grants in 2010.

Housing Development Action Grant

A 1980s program that provided one-time, upfront funding to developers to help finance housing construction in exchange for reduced rental costs in some units. The program ran from 1983-1990.

Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing

A 10-year demonstration project that combined tenant-based rental assistance with housing counseling to help very low-income families move from poverty-stricken urban areas to low-poverty neighborhoods. The program provided vouchers to participating families between 1994 and 1998.

Continuum of Care

A competitive grant program that provides funding for housing and supportive services that encourage self-sufficiency among homeless families. Programs target people with mental illnesses, chronic health conditions, or substance-abuse problems, and families transitioning out of homelessness. The program, which is still active, results from the 2009 consolidation of three competitive-grant programs.

Those figures compare with a median subsidized lunch rate of 45.9 percent for all schools in the study and a median of 53 percent of students scoring at or above grade level on state math exams.

Researchers studying schools in Montgomery County, Md., an inner-ring suburb of Washington, found that children who live in subsidized housing in low-poverty neighborhoods and who attend low-poverty schools academically outperform their peers who live in areas with greater concentrations of poverty, even if those higher-poverty schools receive higher levels of funding.

Some education policy advocates see offering a choice of school alternatives—charters, magnets, and public schools outside a student’s designated attendance area—as a promising way to encourage economic integration within cities.

Ms. Mills reviewed standardized-test scores for schools in the District of Columbia, compared policies on school uniforms and discipline practices, and explored special academic programs before deciding to send her 16-year-old daughter, Janell, to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the Georgetown neighborhood. There, Janell puts in long hours working on costumes and providing technical assistance for school productions.

Ms. Mills’ 8-year-old son Nathan attends Chamberlain Elementary School, a charter school with after-school learning programs and social support for students.

Ms. Mills is determined to help her children go to college, even though she knows little about admissions or financial aid. When her children tell her of careers that interest them, she researches them on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to see the average pay for workers in that field.

“I tell them they’ve got to be allergic to Cs,” Ms. Mills said of her school-age children. She also has two younger children: 20-month-old Emily and 11-month-old Blake.

Researchers who explore the intersection of education and housing say low-income mothers like Ms. Mills are typically less likely to choose alternatives to their assigned neighbor

hood public schools than their higher-income peers. It can be complicated and time-consuming to locate a charter, magnet, or out-of-boundary school, and issues like transportation make it harder.

Moving to Opportunity

Nationally, various federal and local demonstration projects have had mixed success in producing academic benefits for students by relocating low-income families to low-poverty neighborhoods and schools.

Starting in 1994, the federal Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing demonstration program offered 4,600 randomly selected low-income families with children living in five cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—housing counseling and special vouchers to relocate to census tracts where fewer than 10 percent of households earned less than the federal poverty measure. In a 10-year study, researchers compared various outcomes for those families with outcomes for a control group of families that were given traditional Section 8 housing vouchers.

Studies of the program’s impact found few statistically significant effects on participating children’s educational outcomes. Many children remained in their original schools, and those who did transfer often moved into schools that weren’t much more economically integrated, researchers concluded.

And a study by researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine, published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that the mobility experiment may even have had negative mental-health effects for boys who participated. Compared with boys in the control group, the boys whose families relocated to low-poverty areas were diagnosed with depression and conduct disorders at higher rates. Girls in the relocated group had lower rates of those conditions than girls in the control group.

At left, residents walk between buildings at Potomac Gardens. Massive public-housing complexes like this one, which has 352 units, have fallen out of favor among federal and local housing agencies.

Researchers suggested that boys may have lacked the social skills to cope after moving to a new, significantly different neighborhood. They also speculated that adults in the new neighborhoods saw the boys as threatening, while they saw the low-income girls as people in need of help and support.

Even when they are given a chance for change, some low-income families say the benefits of maintaining social and supportive relationships in their existing neighborhoods outweigh the benefits of relocating, said Lisa A. Sturtevant, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Housing Policy.

“There’s this question of investing in low-income communities versus giving families an opportunity to move out of them,” she said. “I think the answer is that we need to do both.”

Changing Neighborhoods

More recent efforts to transform neighborhoods themselves by replacing older housing projects with mixed-use developments have sparked tense policy debates. On the one side, developers and civic leaders have said such projects promote diversity and lift values of surrounding properties. On the other side, neighborhood activists say such efforts dislocate residents from rare housing units and disrupt the culture of established neighborhoods.

See Also

Read related story, “Districts Look to Promote Economically Integrated Schools.”

Those overhaul efforts have taken various forms, starting with special grants for urban renewal when HUD was created in 1965. But, with limited budgets for capital improvements and maintenance, many of the country’s existing traditional public-housing units were in need of repair by the 1980s.

A 1992 report by the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing concluded that 86,000 of the nation’s 1.3 million public-housing units could be considered “severely distressed,” referring to the physical deterioration of buildings, high rates of serious crime, and an array of poor social outcomes for residents, such as high dropout and unemployment rates.

The $6 billion HOPE VI, or Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere program, which started in 1993, sought to take advantage of the momentum created by young professionals moving into neighborhoods once considered unappealing. The federal program provided block grants for local authorities to work with private developers to tear down “severely distressed” public-housing projects and replace them with dense, mixed-income developments that are pedestrian-friendly and accessible to public transit. The program led to the demolition of 100,000 severely distressed units, HUD said.

Critics of the program said public-housing residents displaced by the new construction rarely returned to their old neighborhoods, in part because developers weren’t required to create a new low-income unit for every one they demolished.

Secretary Donovan acknowledged that criticism in a July 2009 speech at the National Press Club.

“As we build on HOPE VI, the next generation of housing policy must not penalize an extremely low-income family for the housing market they live in,” Mr. Donovan said.

The Obama administration has a replacement for HOPE VI, the Choice Neighborhoods program, which awarded its first grants in 2010. The program dovetails with other Obama administration interagency efforts—such as Promise Neighborhoods and Promise Zones—and it encourages community involvement in planning and collaborative measures to improve schools alongside housing in affected neighborhoods. The cooperative approach was inspired in part by the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community based “cradle to career” program for poor children in New York City.

The agency’s budget also includes funds to maintain existing public housing facilities.

“If a century of housing policy has taught us anything, it’s that if there isn’t equal access to safe, affordable housing, there isn’t equal opportunity,” Mr. Donovan said.

Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Housing Woes Still Hamper Schooling


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