Making Government Work

How Baltimore Successfully Moved Residents Out of the Inner City

April 1, 2014
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How Baltimore Successfully Moved Residents Out of the Inner City
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Sometimes, money isn't enough to lure people from the slums to the suburbs.

It may surprise some to hear, but it takes a fair amount of convincing to get impoverished families to move to a middle-class suburb. Good schools, safer streets, and larger accommodations seem tempting, but many studies show that when given the chance, people tend to relocate to similarly disadvantaged, racially segregated areas.

But that’s not the case in Baltimore — anymore, that is. Two-thirds of the 2,000 families that moved to predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods in 2005 are still living in their suburban neighborhoods up to eight years later. Those urban migrants kept their jobs in the city, sent their children to better schools, and somewhat miraculously, have experienced almost no racial friction in their new surroundings. So what did Baltimore do right? And what can other cities learn?

A new study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management lays it all out. After tracking those 2,000 families for the past eight years, it discovered how a lawsuit eventually created an act that not only turned the tide of resistance in Baltimore, but ensured permanent, content residents outside the city’s notoriously gritty corridors.

It all started with a 1995 ACLU lawsuit, which charged that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Baltimore’s housing authority were running a program that didn’t encourage those on federal housing assistance to move.  It wasn’t until 2005, though, that the court finally sided with the ACLU and created of a new voucher program.

The updated program required participants to move from hyper-segregated, hyper-poor neighborhoods to majority-white, suburban ones.  Those neighborhoods had to be less than 10 percent poor and less than 30 percent black. But the inspired part of it all, and likely the portion that ensured its success, is that counseling was provided from move-out to move-in to picking a new school.

So while leaving behind family and friends and moving to unknown suburbia was intimidating, it seems that the counseling helped residents adjust and realize the benefit from leaving behind the neighborhood they knew. “These women had never experienced safe neighborhoods or good schools,” Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins and fellow at the Century Foundation, says. She studied the families and did in-depth interviews with 110 of them to get a better idea of their experience. “They were so segregated from mainstream opportunities.”

Realizing their new potential, the new residents of suburbia could see the value in relocating. As Atlantic Cities reports, one originally hesitant women, Kimberley, says in retrospect that “it’s only in leaving that I started growing and wanting to do different things, learn different things and be something different.” In fact, DeLuca and her associates found that the families that did return to the city were the ones who were most hesitant to leave.

The case of Baltimore proves how a willing government and available funds aren’t enough to solve the problem of hyper-segregation; the problem is often cyclical. But with time, patience, and counseling resources, the cycle can be broken.

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