Vox, August 4, 2019: America has a housing segregation problem. Seattle may just have the solution.
Most American cities have a stark racial divide. In Seattle, the divide runs north to south: North Seattle is largely white; South Seattle is largely not.
Research by some of the same economists confirmed a causal link: Living in certain neighborhoods seems to expand opportunity, and living in other neighborhoods seems to diminish it.
Now a new project, a continuation of those previous studies, seeks to use those lessons to improve American housing policy. A team of researchers — Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Larry Katz, Stefanie DeLuca, Peter Bergman and Christopher Palmer — collaborated with the Seattle Housing Authority (which distributes Section 8 housing vouchers in the city) and the King County Housing Authority (which distributes them in surrounding suburbs) to try something new.
So in Seattle, the researchers put a twist on the housing voucher system. For this experiment, a random subset of people receiving vouchers for the first time would get more than just the rental subsidy. They would also be given information on which neighborhoods promise the most opportunity for their kids, based on the research data. They’d also be assigned “navigators” whose job it was to walk them through the apartment application process, and receive additional financial assistance with down payments if necessary.
It’s a simple intervention — and, more than a year in, it looks like it yielded big results.
The experiment found that the additional support raised the share of families moving to high-opportunity neighborhoods from 14 percent to 54 percent. “This is the largest effect I’ve ever seen in a social science intervention,” Chetty said in an email.
It’s also an experiment that has left participants with an overwhelmingly positive experience with a government bureaucracy for once. “People say that Seattleites don’t smile at you, or look up to say hi to you, but these people were really, really nice,” Nikki Manlapaz, a mother who moved from a low- to high-opportunity neighborhood through the program. “They just took all the worry and stress away from me.”
If it can be replicated at scale, the experimenters may have hit on a powerful new tool for dismantling residential segregation in the United States.