Creating Moves to Opportunity


The concentration of Housing Choice Voucher Program participants in high-poverty neighborhoods has been a concern of practitioners and policymakers for decades. Compelling research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz found that when young children move to “high-opportunity” areas, their prospects for better economic outcomes as adults can greatly improve. These findings catalyzed new support for exploring how federal Housing Choice Voucher program can offer a platform by which low-income families can achieve moves to these neighborhoods by introducing new program services.

Creating Moves to Opportunity (CMTO) is a partnership formed among researchers, public housing authorities, and funders to identify strategies that can deliver on that promise. A test of such strategies was launched in Seattle and King County, Washington, in 2018, where the King County Housing Authority and Seattle Housing Authority partnered to make available a bundle of services targeted to support families receiving the offer of Housing Choice Voucher Program assistance for the first time. To help them move to high-opportunity areas, families were offered education about high-opportunity areas, rental application coaching, housing search assistance, financial supports, and landlord engagement strategies beyond what was typically provided by the two housing authorities.

The Seattle and King County intervention model is being tested by a randomized controlled trial in two phases that began enrolling families in 2018. Principal investigators at Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights, with support from MDRC, MEF Associates, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, are leading the evaluation of CMTO services. MDRC led formative fieldwork to inform the intervention design and the implementation study, provided a customized case management system for the program, and supported the housing authorities in designing and implementing program and research procedures. MDRC is also spearheading a new demonstration—called Supporting Moves to Opportunity—that is building evidence on housing mobility services offered in different contexts.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The CMTO Seattle-King County study tested a bundle of services offered to families on the Housing Choice Voucher Program waitlists at the Seattle and King County Housing Authorities in the weeks leading up to the issuance of their vouchers, which the families used to subsidized private rental housing in all areas of Seattle or King County. These family-facing services include:

  • High-opportunity area education to increase families’ knowledge of and interest in high-opportunity areas.
  • Rental application coaching to increase families’ competitiveness for private market rental units by assisting them in identifying, mitigating, and communicating about pre-existing rental barriers.
  • Housing search assistance to enhance and supplement families’ efforts as they plan for and execute their search for rental housing.
  • Flexible financial assistance to cover rental housing application and lease-up expenses, such as application fees and security deposits.

Additionally, the program offers services to landlords in high-opportunity areas, including:

  • Landlord engagement and outreach to property owners and leasing agents in high-opportunity areas to promote the benefits of CMTO (and the voucher program) and to encourage them to lease to CMTO families.
  • Expedited lease-up processes to ensure fast processing times and minimize delays in leasing-up due to voucher program requirements.
  • A damage mitigation fund to encourage property owners and landlords to participate in CMTO by offering to cover any unit damages above and beyond security deposits.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Investigators at Opportunity Insights are leading the overall study in Seattle and King County, including its impact, participation, cost, and family- and landlord-facing qualitative components. MDRC, with MEF Associates, led formative fieldwork to inform the design of the intervention by the Seattle and King County Housing Authorities, operationalized the randomized controlled trial, monitored program implementation, and led implementation research. J-PAL North America provided project management and cost analysis support.