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Three Evidence-Based Lessons for Future Housing Policy

June 1, 2012 at 4:00 PM

As part of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Housing Expert Forum, I weighed in this week on the question of what we can learn from efforts to link evidence-based outcomes to policy or program development. Here's what I wrote:

Research over more than 20 years has underscored three lessons that have yet to be fully incorporated in federal housing policy:

  1. Housing assistance dramatically reduces homelessness. A rigorous evaluation of families with children eligible for welfare assistance concluded that housing vouchers reduced the incidence of homelessness by 75 percent. Numerous studies have shown that living in stable housing is linked in turn to better long-term health and educational achievement of children. (The Center for Housing Policy provides helpful summaries of the research here and here.) Beyond families with children, multiple studies have demonstrated that permanent supportive housing -- affordable housing combined with voluntary services in a particular development or in scattered sites -- significantly reduces homelessness of individuals with mental and other disabilities and saves public funds by avoiding hospitalizations, emergency room treatment, and incarceration.
  2. Work-promoting initiatives are more effective for families with affordable housing. Studies show that welfare reform strategies typically produce bigger gains in earnings among families receiving housing assistance than for other similar families. These findings point to the untapped potential of partnerships between the federally assisted housing system and the workforce, childcare, and education systems to produce better outcomes for families in a more cost-effective manner. The Jobs Plus demonstration produced strong evidence that work incentives and employment services led to strong long-term growth in employment and earnings among public housing residents.
  3. Location matters. This real estate mantra holds lessons for low-income housing policy. Recent research shows that families that had the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move to a less-poor neighborhood are less likely to suffer from extreme obesity and diabetes -- a benefit with potentially important savings in health costs, as well as improved quality of life. Using a voucher to move out of an extreme-poverty neighborhood literally saves children's lives, by sharply reducing deaths from disease or accidents among girls. A growing body of evidence helps explain how the stress children experience from growing up poor, particularly in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, can be toxic to their health, education, and long-term economic well-being. Where housing policies have allowed low-income children to attend high-performing, economically integrated schools over the long term, their math and reading test scores are significantly better than comparable children who attended higher-poverty schools.

There are multiple policy implications of this research, but these are my key takeaways for housing policy:

  • We need to help more poor families and individuals afford housing -- especially those most at risk of homelessness and health problems. Only one in four households that qualify for housing assistance receives it, due to limited funding.
  • Housing policy and programs must be better coordinated with health, education, workforce, and public safety investments. To give just one example, Congress should fund for 2013 the modest "Jobs-Plus Pilot" that the Administration proposed and the Senate appropriations committee approved.
  • HUD should promote use of housing vouchers and development and preservation of low-income housing in safe neighborhoods with high-performing schools; Congressional action is not required.
  • Learning what works to transform racially segregated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty must be a priority.

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