The Spatial Structure of Opportunity and the Location Dynamics of Housing Mobility Programs

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In recent decades, federal housing policy has increasingly relied on housing vouchers that facilitate greater mobility among low income families and allow them to move into “high opportunity” neighborhoods. As housing policy has embraced this goal, however, a number of questions remain in the development of more equitable policy; among them, three are particularly poignant. First, how can the spatial dimensions of opportunity be measured and visualized? Can valid measurements of spatial opportunity be constructed, and if so, how? Second, how can housing mobility programs help low-income families access communities of opportunity? Finally, how do housing voucher recipients of different races sort into neighborhoods, and how can housing policies use these behavioral insights to generate more equitable outcomes?

In this dissertation, I address each of these questions in turn through three empirical studies; in the first, I construct a conceptually and statistically valid measurement model of spatial opportunity using data from the Baltimore metropolitan region. I use this model to explain why current techniques are awed, and how modern quantitative methods can help introduce flexibility into opportunity analyses, leading to better, more nuanced policy prescriptions. In the second study, I develop a multilevel model to assess the longitudinal success of housing voucher programs in the Baltimore region. Using 10 years of data from Baltimore’s voucher programs, I examine how residential trajectories differed among household who received different types of housing assistance. I find that stark differences exist between recipients of different types of vouchers, and also among different racial groups. In the third study, I use a series of disaggregate discrete choice models to study the residential sorting patterns of Baltimore’s voucher holders. I find that voucher holders are sensitive to both dwelling unit characteristics, and neighborhood characteristics, but that the strongest sorting factor, by far, is neighborhood racial composition. Together, these studies show how the geography of opportunity can be measured and displayed, how black and white housing voucher recipients have starkly different access to the types of spatial capital that facilitates socioeconomic mobility, and how voucher programs can be redesigned to help foster racial and spatial equity.