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A Fresh Start : Housing: The Moving to Opportunity program will take families out of the projects to see if a new environment helps them succeed.


Patricia Williams does not mind that she could become a guinea pig in a national experiment about housing, education, race and social mobility. All that really matters, she says, is a possible ticket out of the troubled Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts, where she has lived for 17 years.

"I want to go anywhere out of the projects, anywhere out of the Watts area," said the mother of eight. "Kids outside have a better chance than the kids being stuck in Jordan Downs."


Williams and many other public housing residents in Los Angeles and four other U.S. cities hope to be chosen for a controversial federal program called Moving to Opportunity. It uses rental subsidies to find out what happens when poor families settle in more affluent neighborhoods, presumably closer to decent jobs and better schools.

It is, in other words, a test of the old question about environment's effect on people, especially children. The test comes amid increasing national concern about how public housing can isolate generations of residents in a web of unemployment, welfare, crime and despair.

"If you give people new life opportunities in better neighborhoods, at least their kids, if not the whole household, can turn into functioning citizens rather than ciphers in the welfare system or criminal justice system," said attorney Alexander Polikoff, who designed a successful Chicago desegregation program that is the model for Moving to Opportunity.

First proposed during the George Bush Administration, the $70-million project will move 1,325 families nationwide over the next few months. In Los Angeles, 188 households will be selected by lottery from an anticipated 1,000 or so applicants, mainly African American and Latino women with children. Recent recruiting meetings were very well attended at such local housing projects as San Fernando Gardens in Pacoima, Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights and Jordan Downs.

Half the participants will be in the control group and receive traditional Section 8 rent assistance vouchers that can be used in privately owned apartments anywhere in their home state for at least five years. The other half, with the help of intensive counseling, must use the vouchers in specified neighborhoods where less than 10% of households are below the federal poverty line, which is about $14,700 for a family of four. The education and employment of the two groups will be tracked and compared.

In the past, many Section 8 recipients stayed in low-income neighborhoods close to friends and relatives. In contrast, the 18-year-old Chicago desegregation program has moved low-income African American families to integrated and more upscale suburbs. The children of the relocated families showed more school success than children who stayed in the city. As a result, social scientists and Jack Kemp, former Housing and Urban Development secretary, persuaded Congress to try a national test.

But Moving to Opportunity has encountered strong opposition, even though the number of vouchers is tiny compared to the overall federal rent subsidy program. White politicians from Baltimore suburbs recently protested the possible MTO move of 285 households--mainly African American--from Baltimore city public housing, saying it would export poverty to middle-class areas.

The program's very essence is not to concentrate families, but to scatter and integrate them as much as possible, HUD officials said. They insist that Baltimore protesters distorted issues for political gain.

"I think it's unfortunate," said Margery Turner, HUD deputy assistant secretary for research, "that the fears and the prejudices of families in this close-in suburban community have really been built up and exploited to generate opposition."

HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, a Democrat who has embraced Republican Kemp's plan, insists that Moving to Opportunity will proceed in Baltimore and the four other cities--Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Boston. But the Baltimore dispute caused Congress to shelve a proposed expansion. Cisneros continues to push other initiatives for more choice in housing.

In Los Angeles, more than one-third of the city's 756 census tracts are eligible by their low poverty rates to be in Moving to Opportunity's more experimental side. Those are scattered mainly across wide swaths of the San Fernando Valley, the Westside and the Wilshire district. Housing authority surveys show that many of those neighborhoods appear to have decent numbers of vacant apartments that meet federal guidelines for fair market rents.

Williams would like to move to Westwood if she wins the lottery. "I have friends who live there, and it seems so pretty and peaceful," she said.


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