Moving Out and Up: Is Housing Mobility Finally Catching on With Funders?

Earlier this year, Bridgespan Group outlined a set of billion-dollar funding “bets” that might just lead to some real systemic change. If the experts are right, these are some of today’s best opportunities for philanthropists who want to create a more equitable America. Some ways down the Bridgespan list, under “transforming communities,” comes a rather wonky idea: “Expand housing vouchers to encourage families to move to neighborhoods with more high-quality jobs, better schools, and stronger health systems.”

Intriguing, right? But should funders really be giving big to shift inner-city residents off to a nicer life elsewhere? And is this kind of intervention scalable in a meaningful way? 

As it stands, the success or failure of housing vouchers can come down to a set of related services, grouped under the name "housing mobility." In a nutshell, housing mobility refers to counseling and support for people who benefit (or want to benefit) from federal housing vouchers, subsidizing their move away from a chronically underserved area into one with better public and private resources.

The origins of this issue trace back to the 1970s, with the creation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program (known as Section 8) which provides rental assistance for qualifying low-income households via several landmark civil rights cases. Theoretically, the vouchers let struggling families compete as renters and buyers in the open market.

Forty-odd years later, the system's still rife with problems. While all signs point to better outcomes for those who escape chronically impoverished areas, actually doing so is difficult. Applicants need to work within a maze of public housing authorities (PHAs), bureaucratic strictures, and local rules favoring landlords over prospective tenants. Housing mobility programs attempt to correct that imbalance, as we've reported in the past. 

Such programs are just one way to take on the problem of residential segregation, which is the primary driver of enduring school segregation. As we've reported, funders worried inequity in American society should be devoting serious attention to this problem, and especially to dismantling the exclusionary zoning laws that make it so hard for families of modest means to afford better places. 


While there aren’t many funders working on housing mobility and even fewer taking on the larger drivers of residential segregation, that's starting to change.

Housing mobility is not a solution that thrills everyone. It does, after all, prompt the thought that historically black neighborhoods (in particular) are “bad” places that people should flee from. Many funders want to make places better, not convince residents to leave. Other critics call housing mobility a form of social engineering.

Nevertheless, several funders are moving forward despite the challenges, and with some new ideas. We’ve covered the use of Pay for Success approaches to housing mobility, tapping money from private sources. Investors pay to house extremely vulnerable people, and if all goes well, they’re paid back based on the money saved in healthcare, public safety, and other social costs. 

For a Pay for Success project in Santa Clara we profiled last year, the coalition of funders included the California Endowment, the Health Trust, the Reinvestment Fund, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the James Irvine Foundation and

You can understand why there's a lot of excitement around using Pay for Success to improve housing mobility. For the experts who've long been touting housing mobility, PFS offers a way to finally mobilize some serious cash behind the idea. For those excited about PFS, housing mobility offers a great testing ground their ideas. (See this working paper from the Community Development Investment Center on the synergies here.)

It's not just private funders who are intrigued by using PFS to support housing mobility. HUD has put up $8.6 million for state and local initiatives in this area. 

Meanwhile, other approaches to housing mobility are moving forward here and there with funder support. Recently, the Kresge Foundation made a two-year grant to fund Mobility Works, a technical assistance collaboration between mobility practitioners and policy experts. Headed by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC), Mobility Works includes staff from PRRAC, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and three regional housing mobility programs.  

Some of the services Mobility Works may deliver include analysis of PHA practices, assistance with applying for HUD funds, and trainings for landlord outreach, community tours and counseling to clients.

Other funders also have an eye on housing mobility. During its Making Connection study of educational outcomes for low-income children, the Annie E. Casey Foundation researched the effects of housing mobility in conjunction with school choice (findings were mixed). In Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation supported a RAND evaluation of Housing Choice Partners, a housing mobility nonprofit. And both Ford and MacArthur have partnered with PRRAC on its housing work.

One other set of funders worth mentioning are those worried about public health, who've given growing attention to the role of housing in health outcomes. We haven't seen any of these funders yet focus on mobility, but it wouldn't surprise us if they did, since it makes sense that moving to a better place—with more parks and wider food choices, for instance—could definitely boost family health.