Location, location, location. In the last decade, this
cardinal rule of home buying has also been embraced by the
people who make federal housing policy. Two programs
developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development aim to move low-income Americans out of
distressed neighborhoods and into better neighborhoods
where, presumably, they will have a better chance of
For example, HUD's 10-year-old Moving to Opportunity
demonstration program provides vouchers to help some
families leave public housing — but only if they move
to a neighborhood where the poverty rate is less than 10
percent. Another HUD program provides subsidies to
landlords who admit low-income residents, but only in
neighborhoods where the poverty rate doesn't exceed 20
On its face, this seems like wise policy. After all,
public officials have long believed that better
neighborhoods make better neighbors. But ongoing studies of
participants in the Moving to Opportunity program, which
operates in five cities including Baltimore, have yet to
find the expected payoff.
According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins public
policy graduate students, the problem may be with HUD's
underlying premise that a neighborhood's poverty rate is a
good indicator of its overall quality.
"We found that neighborhoods with lower poverty rates
were not necessarily better places to live," said Aubrey
Winterbottom, one of 29 student-investigators who produced
the study. "Some of the neighborhoods with relatively high
poverty rates — more than 40 percent — appeared
to be in better shape than neighborhoods that were much
closer to the [20 percent] threshold set by HUD."
For example, Better Waverly, located several blocks
east of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, had one of the
higher poverty rates in the study (44 percent), but it
scored as well or better than neighborhoods with poverty
rates of 27 percent or less on several quality measures,
including crime rates, percent of abandoned structures and
median residential property sale price. In fact, Better
Waverly's violent crime rate was on par with that of Lower
Hamilton, which has a poverty rate of only 17 percent.
In all, the study examined 25 Baltimore neighborhoods
covering a broad swath of the city, from Falstaff in the
northwest to Cherry Hill in the lower harbor, and from
Cedonia in the northeast to Dickeyville on the far western
edge of the city. The students worked in five teams, each
studying five neighborhoods varying from low poverty (a
rate of less than 20 percent) to high poverty (a rate
greater than 40 percent).
Over 12 weeks, the students combed through three
decades of data covering eight domains of neighborhood
quality, including demographic and socioeconomic
characteristics, the physical and social environment,
economic activity, crime, health, school quality and the
neighborhood's image. In addition, they visited each
neighborhood to gather observations and interview
Not only was the poverty rate a poor predictor of
neighborhood quality, the students found, but there was no
consistent evidence of a threshold effect at 10 percent, 20
percent or even 40 percent. Even the trend in poverty over
time was not a consistently strong marker of quality. In
fact, said student Sarah Ficenec, the study suggests that
neighborhood quality is too complex and dynamic to be
adequately captured in a single metric.
The study has attracted the attention of the Baltimore
Mayor's Office, the Baltimore chapter of the American Civil
Liberties Union and the general counsel's office at HUD,
among others. Students presented their findings to an
audience of public officials, city agency staff, community
groups and neighborhood residents in December. A final
report of findings will be published in March.
During the question-and-answer period following the
presentation, Robert Kenison, HUD associate general counsel
for community development, praised the students' efforts
and asked how they would revise the current policy to
achieve HUD's goal. The students suggested that decisions
about which neighborhoods to invest in are best made at the
local level, using a much more varied set of indicators
than simple poverty rates.
The study was undertaken as part of the Introduction
to Policy Analysis course taught by Sandee Newman, director
of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Designed to prepare students for the rigors of real-world
policy analysis, the project also reveals how policy is
sometimes guided more by hopeful assumptions than solid
"At the start of the project, I thought that [the link
between neighborhood quality and poverty] was common
sense," student Aaron Katz said. "I now know that common
sense is not always so common."
Text slides used in the presentation can be viewed
online at www.jhu.edu/~ips.