By Zawadi Rucks Ahidiana

In July 2009, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) introduced the next generation of federally funded neighborhood-based housing interventions, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative.  As the successor to the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program, the Choice Neighborhoods legislation aims to improve public housing and low-income neighborhoods.  Based on promising components of HOPE IV, the Jobs-Plus Community Revitalization Initiative for Public Housing Families (Jobs-Plus), and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), the program’s goal is to, “transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods with access to economic opportunities by revitalizing severely distressed housing, and investing and leveraging investments in well-functioning services, educational opportunities, public assets, public transportation, and improved access to jobs.”

To improve the quality of life and earnings potential of housing subsidy recipients, the initiative uses a comprehensive approach to address intergenerational poverty at the neighborhood level.  One example of this is the Housing Authority of the City of Seattle, a recent grantee.  Their grant is funding the upgrading of public housing units, mixed-income housing units, commercial spaces, educational facilities, parks, and other local amenities, as well as collaboration with Seattle University and other partners to provide educational supports for children and workforce development programs for adults.

This need to address a breadth of neighborhood-based problems is generally supported by research from as early as the 1940s that links neighborhood characteristics to individual outcomes.  However, programs influencing Choice Neighborhoods have limited evidence of success overall, which begs the question: is Choice Neighborhoods a good investment of HUD funding?   Based on the experiences and evaluations of its three predecessors, the evidence ultimately suggests that Choice Neighborhoods is overly ambitious, creating programs that will be challenging to implement.

The Underlying Theory

Research on neighborhood characteristics has found correlations with individual-level outcomes.  One review summarized these findings in six aspects of neighborhood influence on the trajectory of its residents (Ellen and Turner 1997, 836).  These six aspects (italicized below) interact and overlap, creating a web of influence that has implications for both children and adults.

The quality of local services affects adults and children through every facet of their public life, including public schools, childcare and preschools, medical care, afterschool activities, workforce development services, and education and training facilities.  The accessibility and quality of these services have implications for employment and earnings outcomes as they contribute to the soft and hard skills sets and educational background of neighborhood residents.  For children, researchers have found that employment outcomes are also strongly influenced by socialization by adults or the influence that adults have on children in early development as role models.  Being surrounded by working adults has been found to influence a child’s employment trajectory by providing a role model that defines work as part of an adult’s responsibilities.  For adolescents, peer influences are particularly important, since they are more strongly influenced by peers than adults.  The influence of peers can have long-term effects as teenagers are swayed towards positive or negative behaviors, but have less affect on younger children who are more strongly influenced by adults and older children.  Both adolescents and adults are impacted by social networks, which are important for providing access to economic opportunities like employment.  Since getting a job can often be about who you know, social networks are influential on access to employment opportunities.  Outside of interactions with family and friends, exposure to crime and violence can affect both adults and children through resulting emotional trauma, and fear and distrust of neighbors.  Individuals who live in high crime areas may isolate themselves in order to maintain physical safety, which reduces the effects of social networks, peer influences, and socialization by adults.  Excluding isolation caused by fear, physical distance and isolation of a neighborhood has implications for access to employment opportunities.  That is, people may not live near employment opportunities for which they qualify or near any employment opportunities at all.  (Ellen and Turner 1997)

In short, the characteristics of neighborhoods and their residents influence each of these six aspects.  For example, neighborhoods with less financial resources are less likely to have high quality local services and less likely to attract middle- and high-income households, which in turn affects the type and quality of services that children and adults have access to as well as the employment opportunities to which residents are exposed through social networks.

Choice Neighborhood Model 

As the Secretary of HUD noted, “a HOPE VI development that is surrounded by disinvestment, by failing schools or by other distressed housing has virtually no chance of truly succeeding” (Donovan 2009).  While the legislation leaves the programmatic details up to grantees, the goal of Choice Neighborhoods is clear and focused.  To address the spatial concentration of poverty and severely distressed housing, the Initiative proposes the creation of mixed-income neighborhoods and collaboration between social service agencies and nonprofits around public school education and economic self-sufficiency.

In order to be eligible for funding, applying city governments, Public Housing Agencies (PHAs), and nonprofits must target areas with concentrations of extreme poverty, severely distressed housing, and the potential for long-term viability (once problems are addressed).  Based on the goal of the initiative, the legislation requires that proposed activities include housing rehabilitation, demolition, or replacement; promotion of self-sufficiency; supportive services, mobility counseling, and housing search assistance for displaced residents; and linkages to local public school education efforts.

Of these activities, the last is the least clearly defined.  In fact, the legislation only mentions this requirement twice, as a required component and as an activity eligible for funding.  This aspect of the program is influenced by the Harlem Children’s Zone (described below), but the bill itself provides no guidance on HUD’s expectations of what should be implemented for this aspect of the program.  In addition, grantees can use funding to provide work incentives, such as rent incentives and escrow savings accounts; staffing for the pre-existing HUD funded workforce development program, Family Self-Sufficiency; and general community improvements.  Finally, all grantees are required to provide residents with the opportunity to return to redeveloped housing units and one-for-one replacement of public or assisted housing units through development or the provision of project- or tenant-based vouchers.

The Choice Neighborhoods approach is based on the earlier hypotheses of how neighborhood influences individual outcomes.  This type of intervention benefits individuals by improving the quality of the neighborhood for those who will continue to live there.  As Angela Glover Blackwell, the Chief Executive at PolicyLink, reflected, “One shouldn’t have to move out of one’s neighborhood to have a good opportunity…The idea is to improve the neighborhoods that have been left behind and not to push poor people out but make sure people can still afford to live there” (Bellantoni 2009).  To do this, Choice Neighborhoods continues the legacy of HOPE VI, introduces intensive supportive services similar to those offered in the Jobs-Plus demonstration, and encourages collaboration between PHAs and the public school system.


The HOPE VI program was launched in 1992 to address 86,000 severely distressed public housing units through revitalization efforts (Popkin et al. 2004).  The program’s objectives were to improve the physical living environment of public housing residents, contribute to improvements of surrounding neighborhoods, and build sustainable communities (Popkin et al. 2004).  To do this, HOPE VI interventions replaced severely distressed public housing developments and provided housing vouchers to displaced residents for relocation to neighborhoods with lower concentrations of poverty.  As part of the program, legislation required the provision of relocation services for residents who moved and supportive services focused on economic self-sufficiency for residents who returned to rehabilitated housing units.

Evaluations of the program found that HOPE VI improved outcomes for participants’ current housing situation, neighborhood and social environments, employment status, material hardship, and health.  A study of eight HOPE VI sites exemplifies the potential of Choice Neighborhoods to provide overall improvements for residents (Buron et al. 2002).  For example, 85 percent of survey respondents reported that the condition of their current housing situation was better or equal to that of their previous public housing unit (Buron et al. 2002).  Overall, the program relocated 40 percent of the participating residents to areas with poverty rates of less than 20 percent, not including those that returned to the HOPE VI development (Buron et al. 2002).  The evaluation also found that HOPE VI participants were more likely to report employment-related income following the intervention.  However, this increase from 23 percent to 64 percent cannot be explicitly linked to HOPE VI (Buron et al. 2002).   Other studies have found evidence that neighborhoods surrounding HOPE VI projects have had dramatic improvements, but that evidence has also not been explicitly correlated with HOPE VI (Popkin et al. 2004).  Overall, evidence from HOPE VI evaluations suggests that the Choice Neighborhoods model is building on a strong foundation for improving the physical infrastructure in which public housing residents live.


The Jobs-Plus Community Revitalization Initiative for Public Housing Families (Jobs-Plus) was a random assignment demonstration launched in six sites in 1998 to test whether providing employment and supportive services on-site at public housing developments would increase the employment and earnings of public housing residents.  The program was comprised of three programmatic components: employment-related services including assistance with job search, education or training, and child care or transportation needs; rent-based financial incentives to allow working residents to keep more of their earnings; and community support through the involvement of residents in recruitment efforts and support networks.

The evaluation found that Jobs-Plus significantly increased earnings by $498 per year between 2000 and 2003.  Better still, sites with the strongest implementation significantly increased earnings of program participants – by $1,141 during that same period.  There were no significant improvements in employment rates over the course of the intervention, suggesting that earnings gains were mostly due to an increase in the number of employed participants rather than increased earnings amongst those participants.  In addition to effects on earnings, the evaluation found that participants of the Jobs-Plus intervention had small improvements in terms of their economic outcomes, material hardship, and victimization rates. (Bloom et al. 2005.)  The results of Jobs-Plus indicate that with strong implementation Choice Neighborhoods could improve employment outcomes.  However, it is unclear from the legislature what aspects of Jobs-Plus are expected, which makes implications of these positive results unclear.

Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)

Now a regular in the media spotlight, the Harlem Children’s Zone has gained notoriety for their approach to addressing poverty through a holistic neighborhood intervention.  HCZ consists of 24 initiatives for early childhood, charter schools, youth, health and fitness, neighborhood support, and preventive services.  The full complement of HCZ services was implemented in 2004 with the opening of the HCZ charter school, Promise Academy elementary and middle school.

Given the program’s infancy, the data available to assess the success of HCZ is limited.  A 2009 analysis of Promise Academy students’ test scores found that, 57 percent met or exceeded New York State English Language Arts test standards and 87 percent for math, compared to 46 percent and 61 percent, respectively, within the school district (Zelon 2010).  These improvements may be due to differences in student composition, but a recently published study found that 2007 test scores also suggested that the Promise Academy is effective at improving test scores (Dobbie and Fryer 2009).  That said, the full spectrum of program services has never been rigorously evaluated, so it unclear how the multi-component approach will affect educational and poverty related outcomes over time.  Thus, it is unclear how incorporating aspects of the HCZ will affect the implementation and results of Choice Neighborhoods.

Choice Neighborhoods: The Sum of its Parts?

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative addresses several aspects of poverty simultaneously, which presents a challenge to its implementation.  While the initiative is based on elements of successful interventions, each of its legacy programs experienced implementation problems that present a major concern.  The resulting program may be overly ambitious, dooming local programs even before funding is dispersed.

  • HOPE VI focused solely on rehabilitation and renovation, yet sites struggled with providing relocation services to former residents of renovated public housing developments and completing renovation projects on deadline.
  • Jobs-Plus struggled with establishing collaborations with local social service providers and maintaining residents’ participation.  Even if the workforce and supportive service aspects of the Choice Neighborhoods programs were based solely on locally available resources and partnerships between these service providers and the PHAs, creating and maintaining a collaboration of this sort comes with its own set of challenges.
  • HCZ’s early success may be strongly linked to its Harlem location.  One review of the HCZ model reported by City Limits noted that HCZ benefits from a densely populated, service-rich environment, an advantage that is not easily replicated in smaller cities (Zelon 2010).  Furthermore, it is unclear whether the HCZ intervention is successful at this point since only Promise Academy has been evaluated.

Choice Neighborhoods will also be challenged to meet resource demands of such an ambitious intervention.  One-for-one housing replacement alone requires significant investment.  While the Choice Neighborhoods funding stream is two and a half times that of HOPE VI, the added elements of on-site supportive services in public housing developments, intensive relocation services, and collaboration on improvements to the local public education system may not be possible even with this level of investment (Solomon 2009).  In fact, the amount of money that has been invested in the HCZ approach prices it as one of the most expensive programs in this nation when looking at per student costs (Zelon 2010). In addition, the funding provided does not address the potential need for investment in crime and violence prevention efforts, a problematic part of the implementation of HOPE VI for some sites (Buron et al. 2002).

Instead of investing in the overly ambitious Choice Neighborhoods, HUD might better address issues of severely distressed housing and intergenerational poverty by targeting investment in HOPE VI and the Family Self-Sufficiency programs.  By increasing funding for HOPE VI, PHAs could address problems with relocation services, as well as crime and violence prevention needed to successfully transform public housing developments into mixed-income housing.  Adding additional funds for the Family Self-Sufficiency program would allow PHAs to increase staffing levels, since staffing is not currently supported by HUD funding.  The HOPE VI legislation might also require that grantees provide Family Self-Sufficiency services to public housing residents interested in participating.  This would ensure that all public housing residents, including those being relocated, have access to supportive services and a workforce development program to help them towards economic self-sufficiency.  Simply holding PHAs accountable for the provision of Family Self-Sufficiency services for public housing residents would be an improvement upon the current program, which primarily targets Section 8 voucher holders.


While improving high poverty neighborhoods and addressing intergenerational poverty issues are worthy and noble goals, it is unclear whether one program administered by a single local agency can successfully implement an ambitious intervention like Choice Neighborhoods.  The added need for collaboration around workforce development, supportive services, and public education may very well exceed the capacity of PHA staff, resulting in programs that are unable to address the holistic nature of the initiative, and thereby missing the point entirely.  Enhancing other funding streams such as HOPE VI and the Family Self-Sufficiency program may have been a more worthwhile investment for ensuring the desired improvements for public housing residents.  At the very least, outcomes from the five selected grantees will provide insight into the implementation challenges and best practices of Choice Neighborhoods.

Works Cited

Bellantoni, Christina.  2009.  “’Choice’ neighborhoods to combat poverty cycle.” The Washington Times, May 12.

Blank, Susan and Donna Wharton-Fields. 2008. Helping Public Housing Residents Find and Keep Jobs: A Guide for Practitioners Based on the Jobs-Plus Demonstration.  New York: MDRC.

Bloom, Howard S. James A. Riccio, and Nandita Verma.  2005.  Promoting Work in Public Housing: The Effectiveness of Jobs-Plus: Final Report.  New York: MDRC.

Buron, Larry, Susan Popkin, Diane Levy, Laura Harris, and Jill Khadduri.  2002.  The HOPE VI Resident Tracking Study: A Snapshot of the Current Living Situation of Original Residents from Eight Sites.  Washington, D.C.: Abt Associates Inc. and Urban Institute.

Dobbie, Will, and Roland G. Fryer, Jr.  2009.  “Are High Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap?  Evidence from a Social Experiment in Harlem.”  NBER Working Paper No. 15473, November.

Donovan, Shaun.  2009.  “Prepared Remarks for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program’s Discussion – ‘From Despair to Hope: Two HUD Secretaries on Urban Revitalization and Opportunity.’”

Ellen, Ingrid Gould and Margery Austin Turner.  1997.  “Does Neighborhood Matter?  Assessing Recent Evidence.”  Housing Policy Debate, 8.4.

Popkin, Susan J., Bruce Katz, Mary K. Cunningham, Karen D. Brown, Jeremy Gustafson, and Margery A. Turner.  2004.  A Decade of HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.

Robelen, Erik W.  2009.  “Study of Harlem Children’s Zone Finds Achievement Gaps Closing.” Education Week, 29.12.

Solomon, Rod.  2009.  “The 2009 Public Housing Investment Update.” Journal of Housing and Community Development, 66.5: 22-26.

Tough, Paul.  2004.  “The Harlem Project.”  New York Times Magazine, June 20.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  2009.  Choice Neighborhoods Initiative  Act of 2009.  Washington, D.C..

White, Donna.  2009.  “HUD Announces $113 Million Available for Public Housing Transformation, Community Revitalization”.  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development News Release July 14.

Zelon, Helen.  2010.  “Hope or Hype in Harlem?” City Limits, 34.1.