History of MTO




This background material is based on information from: Office of Policy Development and Research, “Expanding Housing Choices for HUD-Assisted Families: First Biennial Report to Congress -- Moving to Opportunity Fair Housing Demonstration,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, April 1996.


The Moving to Opportunity program grew in part out of the research of Professor James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University on the Chicago Gautreaux Program. The Gautreaux program was established in the late 1970s as part of a court-imposed public housing desegregation remedy. Black families who were residents of public housing or eligible to move into public housing received Section 8 certificates that had to be used to move to predominantly white or racially mixed neighborhoods. Participants also received screening, counseling, and home referral services.

Rosenbaum found that adults in the Gautreaux program who moved to suburban communities experienced notable improvements in employment experience, and that the prospects for children who moved improved dramatically. However, the way in which the Gautreaux program was designed limits the application of Rosenbaum�s findings. For example, interest in the Gautreaux program among eligible families is difficult to disentangle from more general interest in Section 8 assistance, because Gautreaux offered families a short-cut around the Chicago Public Housing Authority's years-long Section 8 waiting list. In addition, Rosenbaum's research was largely limited to families who stayed in their new housing units, making it impossible to determine the number or characteristics of families who chose not to remain in the predominantly white neighborhoods to which they moved.

Finally, the comparison reference group for research on Gautreaux participants (families who used their Section 8 certificates within the city of Chicago) does not represent a true control group; families who moved to the suburbs may have differed systematically in motivation and capacity from those who remained in the city. Thus, the major short-coming of earlier studies of mobility programs is that they estimated program effects by comparing participant outcomes to outcomes for a self-selected comparison group. These estimates cannot definitively separate effects of the mobility program with pre-existing differences between those who joined the program and those who did not. Only by randomly assigning families from a common pool of applicants to different types of housing assistance is it possible to be confident that systematic differences are attributable to mobility counseling and housing assistance.


The Moving to Opportunity demonstration was authorized by Section 152 of the 1992 Housing and Community Development Act. The Act provided funding for tenant-based rental assistance and supportive counseling services to test and evaluate the effectiveness of metropolitan area-wide efforts to increase housing mobility.  Efforts seek to “assist very low-income families with children who reside in public housing or housing receiving project-based assistance under Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1937 to move out of areas with high concentrations of persons in poverty to areas with low concentrations of such persons.”

When MTO was authorized, Congress appropriated approximately $70 million for approximately 1,300 Section 8 rental assistance payments for the demonstration and a modest amount of funding for housing counseling. Although Congress rescinded a second year of funding for MTO in 1995, Section 8 rental assistance resources and counseling resources increased because the Los Angeles and Boston housing authorities volunteered to add additional Section 8 certificates and vouchers from their own Section 8 programs to the demonstration.

Five sites were selected by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros in March of 1994 -- Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The MTO was implemented between 1994 and 1999 by local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) and Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs)


The MTO Program was implemented in five large cities with populations of at least 400,000 in metropolitan areas of at least 1.5 million people. Participant eligibility was limited to very low-income families with children who lived in public housing or Section 8 project-based housing located in central city neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.

Eligible participants in the MTO demonstration were randomly assigned to three groups:

  • the Experimental group receives Section 8 rental certificates or vouchers usable only in low-poverty areas (census tracts with less than 10 percent of the population below the poverty line in 1989); along with this, they receive counseling and assistance in finding a private unit to lease;
  • the Section 8 comparison group receives regular Section 8 rental certificates or vouchers (geographically unrestricted) and the typical briefings and assistance from the PHA; and
  • the Control group continues to receive their current project-based assistance.

HUD has implemented a carefully controlled experimental design for MTO to definitively answer questions about the effectiveness of mobility counseling and about the long-term impacts of moving to low-poverty communities. Specifically, the demonstration is designed to answer two important sets of questions about the role and effectiveness of assisted housing mobility. First, what are the impacts of mobility counseling on families' location choices and on their housing and neighborhood conditions? And ultimately, what are the impacts of neighborhood conditions on the employment, income, education, and social well-being of MTO families?

The participants in the MTO program volunteered to participate. Thus the results of the MTO study cannot be generalized to the larger population; the qualities that led them to volunteer may also affect their outcomes. However, because of the random assignment of the volunteers into one of the three groups mentioned above, the characteristics of the members of each group will, on average, be the same. Hence, the MTO program makes it possible to isolate the effects on various outcomes of MTO versus standard Section 8 vouchers and public housing.

Outcomes for all three groups will be systematically monitored and evaluated over a ten-year period, in order to fully assess the impacts of housing mobility assistance. This random-assignment experimental design is essential to achieve the statutory goals of MTO.


Brennan, Brian and Matt Sciandra.  “History of MTO.”  Moving To Opportunity Research.  Created August 30, 2000.  Last Modified January 26, 2009.  http://www.nber.org/mtopublic/history.htm.

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