Housing and opportunity

August 10, 1994

Over the years, federal housing policies have had a decidedly mixed record. To its credit, the federal government created mortgage programs that put homeownership within reach of many middle class families. On the other hand, it was also federal dollars that clustered poor families together in high-rise slums in which a host of social pathologies can thrive. After years of gridlock on housing issues, Congress and the Clinton administration are now undertaking some long-overdue reforms and innovations.

One such effort -- the Move to Opportunity program -- is bringing some $12 million in rental subsidies for poor families in Baltimore, which will enable them to move from poor neighborhoods to better-off areas of the city or nearby counties, as long as no more than 10 percent of families in the new neighborhood have incomes below the federal poverty level. Five cities were chosen to participate in this program and, ironically, the only opposition has come from parts of eastern Baltimore County that are unlikely to become home to any of the 285 Baltimore families that are being relocated.

Even worse, some people -- including candidates for public office -- have seized on the program in ways that fan old racial fears. That's deplorable, especially since much of the rhetoric distorts the program. This kind of demagogy heightens the tensions that can harm the entire metropolitan region.

When poor families are surrounded only by poverty, their chances of improving their lot are exceedingly slim. But when they become part of more diverse communities, the effects of poverty are not so oppressive. When a project similar to Move to Opportunity was undertaken in Chicago some years ago, families initially encountered hostility in their new neighborhoods. But that declined, while the children in these families began to flourish. High school dropout rates declined from 20 percent to 5 percent, compared to the dropout rates of children remaining in the Chicago projects. College attendance more than doubled, and family income increased substantially.

Poverty begets poverty. Unfortunately, federal dollars, in the guise of compassion, have often contributed to that process. Move to Opportunity reverses that misguided thinking, giving poor families and children a chance for better schooling, better housing, lives less burdened by the effects of crime, and access to better jobs. In the end, those opportunities benefit everyone in the Baltimore region, including the people of eastern Baltimore County.

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