After years of getting it wrong -- clustering low-income housing units in ways that segregated poor families from the rest of society -- the Department of Housing and Urban Development has come up with a program that gets it right. Move to Opportunity nudges federal housing policy toward common sense, steering Section 8 rental subsidies away from neighborhoods that already have high percentages of impoverished residents, and toward areas that can easily absorb less affluent families with no risk to stability or property values.
Baltimore is one of five demonstration cities. Yet it is the only city where the program stirred any measurable criticism. In eastern Baltimore County, some people -- including, we're sad to say, some candidates for political office -- are using the program to stir racial fears and animosities.
That's not only dangerous, it's also inaccurate. Move to Opportunity will provide Section 8 rent subsidies to about 285 low-income families now living in the inner city. These families can use those subsidies in any part of the Baltimore region -- as long as the neighborhood does not lie in a Census tract with a poverty level of 10 percent or higher. That requirement would exclude parts of Essex and Dundalk from the program.
It is deplorable that politicians would stoop to such demagogy to get votes. But people in many parts of eastern Baltimore County can be forgiven for feeling that they already have their fair share of low-income housing; 35 percent of Baltimore County's Section 8 recipients live in Essex, Rosedale, Middle River and Dundalk. Another 30 percent are clustered in the heavily black areas in the northwestern part of the county, near the city line.
If news about the Move to Opportunity program strikes a raw nerve in eastern Baltimore County, much blame should fall on the county's leadership for the poor housing policies of the past few decades -- and many of those leaders have come from the eastern part of the county.
When low-income housing is scattered widely, mixing poor families with those who are better off, those families have more success pulling themselves out of poverty. The children can attend better schools; parents have access to better jobs. A study of 300 poor families in a similar program in Chicago found that high school dropout rates declined from 20 percent to 5 percent, compared to the dropout rates of families remaining in the Chicago projects. College attendance more than doubled, and incomes increased substantially.
Move to Opportunity pushes housing policy in the right direction, providing help -- and hope.