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A Social Experiment in Pulling Up Stakes

Aid: Does neighborhood affect economic and school success? Five cities relocate poor families to find out.

September 23, 1997|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They all talk about the quiet.

No more late night party music blaring from neighbors' apartments. No more drug deals outside the bedroom window. No more gunshots disturbing their sleep and haunting their lives.

"The only noise here is the cars," said Maricela Quintanar, who moved with her family from an East Los Angeles public housing project to an apartment on the Westside.

Their cross-town shift is part of an unprecedented social experiment being conducted in Los Angeles and four other cities across the nation. Families like the Quintanars have volunteered to be, in effect, lab mice as the federal program seeks to answer tough questions about city life and concentrated poverty: What effect does neighborhood environment have on economic and school success? Can a new address turn despair into hope, resignation into purpose? And ultimately, how malleable is human behavior, particularly that of children?

Since it began in earnest in 1995, the $71.5-million Moving to Opportunity program has moved 1,100 low-income families with children out of the poorest public housing in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Boston. Selected by computer lottery, all received hefty government subsidies to rent privately owned apartments or houses.

Half of the families were allowed to move anywhere as long as their new rents were within broad government guidelines. An equal number, including the Quintanars, had to go one step further. In this more experimental group, participants had to shift not just out, but way, way up: to census tracts where no more than 10% of all households are below the poverty line, which is about $14,000 annually for a family of four. Those districts presumably offer safer streets, better schools and easier access to jobs that pay a living wage.

Comparisons are being made of the incomes and educations of the two groups, as well as those of a control group that stays behind in public housing. Final results are due in a 2004 report to Congress. Skeptics have protested that the program is futile and potentially destructive to middle-class neighborhoods, but supporters report encouraging anecdotes of strengthened families and new beginnings.

"We all too often don't have this kind of rigorous research. This is critically important to shaping future policy," said Paul Leonard, a Department of Housing and Urban Development official in Washington who is helping oversee Moving to Opportunity.

Criticism From Political Right, Left

Partly based on a successful desegregation effort in Chicago that began in the late 1970s, the program was first proposed during the Bush administration as a way to promote free choice and break down the isolation of public housing residents. The Clinton administration put it into action.

Along the way, the program encountered political controversy in Baltimore that halted plans to triple the number of families in the experiment nationwide. It faces criticism from the political right that it is Big Brother social engineering at its worst and, from the left, that it removes motivated role models from public housing. Some participants have complained about isolation and racial friction in new neighborhoods.

But factory assembly worker Pedro Guillen, whose family is among the 240 households who have relocated, has no doubts about his eight-mile move.

When he lived in the Eastside's Pico Gardens public housing, he used to refuse early morning overtime work to avoid confrontations with gangbangers who were still up and partying outdoors near his parked car.

Since he and his family moved in June 1995 to an apartment on a quiet and leafy Los Feliz block, Guillen has been able to leave for work without worry at 4:30 a.m. if he needs to. His four sons, ages 4 to 17, feel safe playing outdoors and have made many friends, even learning some Armenian from neighbors. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, with a big kitchen and a prominent fish tank in the living room, is convenient to Los Angeles City College, where his wife, Vilma, is taking accounting classes.

The move, the 35-year-old father said, "has made me more ambitious. I work more, I can buy things I like more and we can eat better." The family's goal is to save enough to buy their own home.

Although it is too early to draw broad conclusions, some researchers report similar encouraging examples around the country.

Jens Ludwig, a scholar at the Northwestern University-University of Chicago Poverty Research Center, who is studying the program in Baltimore, said, "The initial feedback is a genuine, positive buzz for the people who moved." But, he cautioned, problems may arise that are "minor for all families, major for some."

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