Evaluation’s Role in Developing a More Robust Housing Safety Net

by Maureen Sarver

SPR’s newest research project will evaluate the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration along with Abt Associates, the Urban Institute, and others. Launched in 1994, the program is the federal government’s primary housing resource for families with very low income, elderly individuals, and people with disabilities. This evaluation is timely, as President-Elect, Joe Biden plans to universalize this program as a key strategy in reducing child poverty and narrowing racial opportunity gaps. In order to succeed, the new administration will need to develop an implementation plan to scale the program to serve the 11 million people that are currently eligible. SPR will contribute to a long history of exploring the evidence related to the program’s implementation.

About HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program

The Moving-To-Opportunity (MTO) Demonstration began in a handful of large cities, whose public housing authorities gave rental subsidies (housing vouchers) to eligible households. Families paid thirty percent of their household income to private landlords and the remaining cost was covered by the vouchers. Designed as a randomized control trial, the initial demonstration sought to learn whether expanding neighborhood choice affected individual well-being [1].

Initial results published in the early 2000s, concluded that neighborhood poverty had no effect on adult earnings or employment, behavior of children or their academic performance (although neighborhood poverty improved some aspects of adult mental and physical health)[2]. At the time they were released, these findings disrupted sociological theories about the power of place, especially for children’s well-being.

Why Longitudinal Data Matters

Longitudinal data released in 2015 changed the story. When the children involved in the study became adults, their well-being outcomes exceeded those in the comparison group, indicating strong evidence for the positive impact of MTO. Children that moved to lower poverty neighborhoods had increased income by their mid-twenties, had higher college attendance rates, and went to better colleges.

For researchers and policymakers, these findings demonstrated the power of longitudinal data and the benefits of evaluations exploring long term impacts of programs beyond the immediate three to five years after program implementation. Leading evaluator, Raj Chetty, called it “the largest effect I’ve ever seen in a social science intervention.”[3] This new Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration evaluation is designed to provide lessons learned for how to expand housing accessibility for everyone that needs it.

SPR’s Approach to Housing Research and Technical Assistance

SPR’s analytical lens includes a focus on racial, gender, and place-based equity, which will be a critical anchor to the study. As we approach this evaluation with our partners, we are steeped in the knowledge of the legacies of unfair housing policies and practices. While Biden’s plan represents a movement towards greater housing equity, we know that the details of implementation matter. The evaluation is being designed to gather implementation insights about how to develop a more robust housing safety net, particularly in a time in which an unprecedented number of Americans face housing insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SPR applies our equity lens to all our projects in SPR’s Housing Research and Technical Assistance Portfolio which include:

  • Evaluation of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project, U.S. Department of Labor
  • Evaluation of Keep Oakland Housed, The San Francisco Foundation
  • Data Infrastructure, Assessment, Design and Support for HOPE SF, Office of the Mayor, City and County of San Francisco and The San Francisco Foundation

Using this lens, we are committed to building upon the historical and existing landscape of policy and programmatic interventions designed to improve housing equity, developing culturally responsive methods and strategies, and ethically engaging community members as contributors in our research.

Maureen Sarver is an Associate at SPR with over 14 years of experience in housing research and technical assistance. When not working, she likes to hike in the East Bay hills.


[1] https://www.nber.org/programs-projects/projects-and-centers/moving-opportunity?page=1&perPage=50

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2015/05/06/sociologys-revenge-moving-to-opportunity-mto-revisited/

[3] https://www.vox.com/2020/7/9/21316912/joe-biden-housing-plan-section-8