It is well established that families living in distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods struggle against far greater odds than families who live in economically strong communities. Conversely, poor families who are able to move to more affluent communities have access to a wide range of benefits—including high-performing public schools, living-wage jobs, and low crime rates—that are typically unavailable to families in the inner city. Research regarding the landmark 1969 Gautreaux lawsuit in Chicago first showed the benefits of moving from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods. In that case, children whose families moved from public housing in inner-city Chicago to racially and economically integrated suburban neighborhoods were far more likely to succeed in school, and go on to college or full-time employment, than children whose families stayed in public housing. The Gautreaux research also found significant increases in parental employment and reduced welfare dependency among families who moved to suburban neighborhoods.
Since the Gautreaux study, additional research has explored the benefits of housing mobility for poor families. Studies have identified several significant benefits for families who move from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods, including dramatic improvements in neighborhood safety and security, better schools, reductions in childhood asthma and adult obesity and diabetes, and improved mental health for both adults and children. In September 2012, an article in Science magazine documented significant long-term (10 to 15 years) improvements in physical and mental health, and subjective wellbeing of adults who moved from high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods through the federal Moving to Opportunity demonstration program. Moreover, research by Heather Schwartz of the Century Foundation found that children in Montgomery County who lived in low-poverty neighborhoods significantly outperformed children from higher-poverty neighborhoods on standardized math and reading tests, and reduced the achievement gap with the school district’s non-poor students by 50 percent in math and by one-third in reading.
Based upon the strong research support documenting the benefits of housing mobility programs, in 1995, the Maryland ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of African-American residents of public housing in Baltimore City, challenging decades of discriminatory policies that had resulted in Baltimore’s public housing being concentrated in high-poverty, racially isolated neighborhoods in the inner city where residents had little or no access to economic or educational opportunities. The goal of the case, known as Thompson v. HUD, was to give African-American families who wanted to move to areas of opportunity throughout the Baltimore region a chance to do so. To date, more than 2,000 families have moved to low-poverty, racially integrated neighborhoods throughout the region as a result of the lawsuit, where they enjoy safer neighborhoods, better schools, and increased access to employment opportunities. In addition, many of the families who moved report health improvements for both parents and children.
In 2012, with the support of a $150,000 grant from The Abell Foundation, the Maryland ACLU successfully negotiated a final settlement of the Thompson case. The settlement includes funding for housing choice vouchers and mobility counseling to assist an additional 2,600 families who want to move from high-poverty neighborhoods in inner-city Baltimore to low-poverty neighborhoods throughout the region. In addition, the settlement agreement created a nonprofit regional housing agency to oversee implementation of the mobility program. The ACLU, working with both local and national partners, has been actively engaged in the process of creating the nonprofit regional housing agency, and will continue to be involved in monitoring the implementation of the settlement agreement, which is viewed as a national model for housing mobility programs throughout the country.