Reducing Segregation and Increasing Upward Mobility in American Cities, One Housing Voucher at a Time
August 4, 2019
Opportunity Insights

Seattle and King County Public Housing Authorities pilot mobility program Creating Moves to Opportunity with Harvard’s Opportunity Insights

Opportunity Insights partnered with the Seattle and King County Public Housing Authorities to reduce the barriers preventing families using Housing Choice Voucher (HCVs) from accessing high-opportunity neighborhoods.

54-percent of families receiving additional services as part of the Creating Moves to Opportunity (CMTO) project chose to move to opportunity compared to approximately 14 percent of families who received standard services from the public housing authorities. Based on a sample of 273 families, the CMTO program has so far increased the share of families who lease units in high-opportunity neighborhoods by 40 percentage points. This result demonstrates that low-income families are not concentrated in lower-opportunity areas only because of a preference for such neighborhoods, but also due to barriers preventing them from moving to higher-opportunity areas.

“Through CMTO, we found that a small intervention can dramatically change a family’s ability to provide their children with the upward mobility promised in the American Dream,” says economist Raj Chetty, Director of Opportunity Insights. “We all ultimately want that same opportunity for our own families.”

CMTO is a large-scale randomized evaluation in King County, WA. Families with children that come to the top of the HCV waitlists at the housing authorities were randomly selected to be offered access to additional CMTO services. These include education on the location of high-opportunity areas, personalized rental application coaching, housing locator services, and financial assistance. Additionally, CMTO staff actively recruit new landlords to rent to families. Importantly, families receiving CMTO services are not required to move to a designated high-opportunity neighborhood and maintain their HCV regardless of their neighborhood decision.

High-opportunity neighborhoods are initially highlighted using the Opportunity Atlas to determine where low-income children have the best chances of upward income mobility. This information is combined with the local expertise of the public housing authorities on neighborhood characteristics. In this way, CMTO’s opportunity neighborhoods are identified according to the real outcomes of children, rather than by relying exclusively on traditional metrics such as poverty or crime rates.

Research shows that every year spent in a higher opportunity neighborhood during childhood can increase both lifetime earnings and the likelihood of college attendance. However, at present most of the 2.2 million families receiving HCVs live in relatively high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods.

“The results of CMTO are incredibly encouraging,” says Chetty, “it shows that in Seattle and King County segregation is not a result of deep preferences that families have to live in specific neighborhoods or widespread discriminatory preferences among landlords.”

While the CMTO program changed where families chose to move, it did not change overall lease-up rates. The services led to a shift in where families chose to live rather than whether they were able to use their voucher.

Recently, Congress passed the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration to help public housing authorities across the country enable low-income families to access higher opportunity areas. Opportunity Insights plans to assist housing authorities participating in the Mobility Demonstration and others interested in implementing housing mobility pilots. This support will involve using Opportunity Atlas data to identify high-opportunity neighborhoods and informing housing mobility strategies based on learnings from CMTO in Seattle and King County.

“We hope to scale the success of the Seattle and King County pilot project by partnering directly with additional housing authorities and communities across the country,” said David A. Williams, Opportunity Insights Policy Director. “The United States government spends approximately $20 billion each year on the Housing Choice Voucher program. Housing mobility programs can help us better leverage these resources to create more access to high-opportunity neighborhoods, better integrate our communities, and increase economic opportunity for millions of families.”

Opportunity Insights plans to provide direct technical assistance and support to public housing authorities and communities interested in piloting, improving, or expanding housing mobility programs. Interested organizations are encouraged to visit to learn more about partnership opportunities.

Opportunity Insights partnered with Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, Johns Hopkins University, and MDRC in addition to the housing authorities in creating CMTO. This local King County, WA intervention is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Surgo Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.



Opportunity Insights is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization located at Harvard University that seeks to translate insights from rigorous, scientific research to policy change by harnessing the power of “big data” using an interdisciplinary approach.

Formerly known as the Equality of Opportunity Project, Opportunity Insights disseminates research beyond academia, and develops scalable policy solutions that empower families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes. For more information, please visit: