As current and former public housing residents, many direct service providers, and a large body of research can attest, many public housing communities face disproportionately high levels of distress. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the extremely high levels of crime, disrepair, and poverty in some of the nation’s older public housing developments led Congress and federal agencies to enact dramatic new programs in order to transform these distressed communities. The largest federal effort was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) HOPE VI program, which provided grants to local housing authorities to replace their worst public housing with new, mixed-income developments and relocate many former residents with HCVs. Other efforts emphasized tenant-based assistance to help residents access neighborhoods that would offer great opportunity. The best known of these was the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, which compared outcomes for residents of distressed public housing who received vouchers to move to low-poverty communities to control groups who received regular vouchers or remained in public housing (Briggs, Popkin, and Goering 2010; Sonbatmatsu et al. 2011).
Research on outcomes for residents who left distressed public housing has documented important improvements in their quality of life and overall well-being. The long-term evaluation of MTO found that families in the experimental group that received vouchers that required them to move to lower-poverty communities experienced less exposure to crime, improved perceptions of safety and well-being, and, improved housing quality. Adult women and girls also showed improvements in physical and mental health, particularly reductions in depression, obesity, and diabetes relative to the controls (Briggs et al. 2010; Ludwig et al. 2011; Sanbonmatsu et al. 2011; Comey et al. 2012). Findings from the MTO demonstration study clearly indicate that growing up in high-poverty, violent communities has different effects on adolescent boys and girls; it showed that girls’(but not boys’) mental health improves when their families move to lower-poverty, safer communities (Sanbonmatsu et al. 2011). Evidence from qualitative research on families relocated through MTO suggests that girls who move benefit from freedom from gender-specific violence and a sexually coercive environment (Briggs et al. 2010; Popkin, Leventhal, and Weissman 2010). Similarly, the Urban Institute’s multisite HOPE VI Panel Study found that the greatest benefit for residents relocated from distressed public housing was a dramatic improvement in housing quality and perceptions of safety; respondents also reported significant reductions in anxiety (Popkin et al. 2009; Popkin et al. 2010b).
Although housing redevelopment and mobility strategies have improved housing and neighborhood conditions, and show some positive effects for original residents, they have not achieved the dramatic and transformative effects that policymakers and researchers had anticipated (Turner et al. 2009). For example, these strategies have shown no measureable effect on income, employment, or education for residents (Sanbonmatsu et al. 2011). These relocation and redevelopment efforts on their own have not provided former public housing residents and their children with the resources to break the generational cycle of poverty. With changing demographics and the unprecedented hardship resulting from the Great Recession, cities continue to wrestle with how to best support vulnerable families.
Experiences from Memphis
In Memphis, limited transportation and the dispersion of households have made it more difficult for service providers to reach and maintain ties with these high-needs residents. In the last 20 years, Memphis has used HOPE VI grants to redevelop five properties. As part of this HOPE VI redevelopment, Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) relocated many residents with HCVs. As a result, assisted households, which were previously concentrated in a neighborhood just east of downtown Memphis, have dispersed throughout the city.
During the assessment phase of the Housing Assistance and Supportive Services in Memphis project, we conducted an analysis of MHA HOPE VI relocatees and HCV recipients in Memphis, which indicated that they continue to live in poor neighborhoods (Popkin, Harris, Freiman, and Mireles 2013).
Both new and continuing initiatives in Memphis, and other cities combating the effects of concentrated poverty, are operating at differing levels (e.g., city government, county government, nonprofit providers, and public-private partnerships) and some major services are provided by the city or the county government without formal collaboration between the two. Conversations during the assessment phase with stakeholders (including county and city officials, nonprofit leaders, and local funders), for example, indicated that all funding and authority for public health services (including clinics and mental health outreach) is provided by the state and administered via the county.
Though common in communities around the country, these silos create a number of challenges to targeting high-need families and individuals and matching them with available services. Challenges to triaging and coordination were noted both by service providers and city officials during the assessment phase of the project. One official noted that HOPE VI relocatees in specific and poor high-needs residents in general likely have multiple subject-specific case manager and services, none of which are coordinated or aware of one another (Popkin et al. 2013). In three focus groups held in Memphis in late 2012, HOPE VI relocatees who still faced many of the same problems as before relocation (e.g., unemployment, poor physical and mental health) confirmed this assumption (many had low-touch relocation case managers and case managers for specific benefits, such as TANF or SNAP, but no follow-up or connection between services) (Freiman, Harris, Mireles, Popkin 2013).