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How do neighborhood characteristics such as school quality and transit accessibility influence the well-being of low-income families?

CURS Research Associate Atticus Jaramillo, along with CURS researchers Bill Rohe and Michael Webb, explored this question in a new study that analyzed how different neighborhood characteristics are associated with Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) recipients’ subjective well-being, as measured by neighborhood satisfaction.

Housing Policy Debate

In recent years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has focused on expanding housing choice for HCV recipients in “opportunity neighborhoods” with good schools, low levels of poverty and other desirable characteristics. Although previous studies have explored how these neighborhood characteristics influence a variety of individual outcomes, one outcome left largely unexplored is subjective well-being —that is, the extent to which a person reports having high levels of “satisfaction and frequent joy, and only infrequently experiences unpleasant emotions such as sadness and anger.”

“We focused on this topic because subjective well-being is linked to a variety of important outcomes, such as health, productivity and social relationships,” Jaramillo said. “So, a complete understanding of how opportunity neighborhoods impact low-income households’ lives requires consideration of subjective well-being.”

Jaramillo, Rohe and Webb surveyed HCV recipients living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and found that many neighborhood characteristics that fall under the “opportunity neighborhood” umbrella are not strong predictors of neighborhood satisfaction. “According to our sample from Charlotte, we found that only transit accessibility, transportation costs and overall opportunity are significantly associated with HCV recipients’ neighborhood satisfaction, but the magnitude of these associations is small,” said Jaramillo.

In contrast, Jaramillo, Rohe and Webb found that recipients’ perceptions of neighborhood conditions and the presence of children in the household are robust predictors of their neighborhood satisfaction. Broadly, these results highlight the importance of individual perceptions and household composition, rather than neighborhood characteristics, in predicting HCV recipients’ neighborhood satisfaction.

Atticus Jaramillo
Atticus Jaramillo

“These results are important because federal housing policy has increasingly focused on helping low-income families move to opportunity neighborhoods,” explained Jaramillo. The hope is that these neighborhoods will provide residents with opportunities for social mobility. “But studies of subjective well-being suggest that people are more likely to achieve positive outcomes in neighborhoods that maximize their satisfaction and well-being,” said Jaramillo. “So, the fact that opportunity characteristics aren’t strong predictors of satisfaction and well-being provides insight into how these neighborhoods may benefit some low-income families more than others.”

Previous studies have yielded similar results, finding that some low-income households are not satisfied in opportunity neighborhoods because they do not meet all their residential preferences and needs. This new study echos the recommendations of these other studies, suggesting that neighborhood mobility counseling and other individualized supportive services may help HCV recipients access opportunity neighborhoods that maximize their satisfaction and, thus, their well-being.

Editor’s Note: The Housing Choice Voucher program serves 2.2 million low-income households across the nation, making it the second largest low-income housing program in the nation. Enacted in 1974, the program provides low-income households with rent vouchers that allow them to rent any private-market home that meets inspection and Fair Market Rent (FMR) standards. By subsidizing residence in private-market homes, the program allows HCV recipients to access a wider range of homes and neighborhoods than do public housing and other place-based programs that require residence in a specific location.

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