Providing school quality information to improve housing mobility for low-income families
Across the United States, access to high quality schools is a critical component of children’s short- and long-term success, yet this access is often limited to families living in higher-income and disproportionately white neighborhoods. Researchers partnered with AffordableHousing.com (formerly GoSection8) and GreatSchools to test the impact of providing information on school quality to families with a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) searching for housing. They found that providing school quality information during the housing search process increased the number of families who moved to neighborhoods with higher-performing, less segregated schools. Based on these findings, AffordableHousing.com expanded the provision of school quality information to all of its 60,000 daily website users, thus enabling users to make more informed decisions about where to live and increase academic opportunities for their children.
For most of the United States, where a child lives often determines where they go to school.
In the US public education system, where a child lives often determines where they go to school. Low-income families are often assigned to lower-performing public schools because they are disproportionately segregated into lower-income neighborhoods. Research has shown that as school quality increases, so too do housing prices.123 As a result, it is increasingly costly for families to move to neighborhoods with higher quality schools.
Recipients of HCVs (also known as Section 8)—a US federal housing program that serves over 2.3 million low-income families each year—receive a subsidy to help them pay for a rental unit on the private market. Previous randomized evaluations found that housing vouchers can induce moves to lower-poverty neighborhoods, improving children’s long-term socioeconomic outcomes.
Yet many low-income families receiving an HCV remain in higher-poverty neighborhoods with lower-quality schools. Factors such as proximity to family, employment opportunities, distance from one’s home to school, and a school’s racial composition can all play a role in where a family decides to live or send their children to school. However, inadequate or incomplete information about any of these variables could skew one’s decision to move. For instance, information about an apartment listing’s neighborhood, without explicit information about its schools, may lead parents to make inaccurate assumptions about the educational opportunities available.
Clear information on school quality had been available on other housing websites (e.g., Zillow), but it was not targeted to low-income families and HCV holders. If voucher holders gain access to more information about the quality of schools in different neighborhoods, this knowledge may influence their decision of whether and where to relocate.
Researchers conducted a randomized evaluation to understand the impact of providing school quality information to HCV recipients.
J-PAL affiliated researcher Peter Bergman (University of Texas, Austin), with co-authors Eric Chan and Adam Kapor, partnered with AffordableHousing.com and GreatSchools to conduct a randomized evaluation to understand the impact of providing school quality information on housing search websites for HCV recipients. The study found that providing this information led families to move to neighborhoods with higher school quality ratings.
HCV recipients are responsible for finding, applying for, and securing housing in order to use their voucher. AffordableHousing.com supports this process by providing a free database for low-income families with (and without) housing vouchers to locate and compare housing listings.
The researchers wanted to understand whether adding school quality information to the AffordableHousing.com platform would influence voucher holders’ decisions of where to move, particularly in comparison to other factors (e.g., commute time). They partnered with GreatSchools—a nonprofit organization that shares school quality information on K-12 public schools—to feature their national school quality data on Affordablehousing.com. Through this partnership, the researchers also helped GreatSchools better understand the impact of their school ratings on housing decisions by low-income families.
GreatSchools rates schools based on how well they do on several measures of student performance such as growth, educational equity, college readiness, and test scores. Schools receive a “Summary Rating” on a scale of 1-10 based on data that reflect how well schools serve students from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, how much students are improving within a school year, performance on state tests, and how well schools prepare students for college.
Families searching for housing on the AffordableHousing.com website were invited to participate in the study through a survey. After completing the survey, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that saw the usual AffordableHousing.com listings, including various property details, images, and a neighborhood walking score; and one that received all of the typical listing information plus GreatSchools’ information regarding school quality.
Researchers analyzed data from 1,969 HCV recipients and, using data provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), found that providing families with more information about school quality changed where they chose to live. On average, families with access to school quality information moved to neighborhoods with schools that had higher ratings than schools in neighborhoods of families without access to this information. Specifically, families with school quality information moved to neighborhoods with schools where the share of students scoring proficient or higher on state exams was 1.5 percentage points higher than schools in neighborhoods of families in the control group.
Study results suggest that the absence of clear information about school quality may lead families to make incorrect assumptions about a neighborhood’s schools or weigh other factors more heavily when making decisions. When HCV holders have clear information on school quality, they are able to make more informed decisions about where to move.
HCV holders face myriad barriers to finding housing, and providing school quality information is a low-cost way to move the needle on increasing academic opportunities for low-income families. In turn, this simple intervention has the potential to advance intergenerational economic mobility.
For more details, see the evaluation summary.
From Research to Action
Since the intervention, AffordableHousing.com has made school quality rating information accessible to all platform users.
During the study, school quality information was made available to nearly 2,000 HCV holders. Directly after the results of the intervention were known, Affordablehousing.com and GreatSchools entered into a strategic partnership to provide the 60,000 daily site users of AffordableHousing.com with school quality information on an ongoing basis. By providing this information to every site user, AffordableHousing.com enables all of its utilizers—including HCV holders—to make more informed decisions about where to live.
From the perspective of the Section 8 HCV Program, we know a family is empowered when given the tools to make decisions that impact their family. This includes important information on education in the communities that families are looking to move to. Thanks to this research, we have confirmed that simply sharing school quality information is a tangible way to support Section 8 participants in the path to new opportunities for their family. This finding has informed several business decisions of ours, including scaling the product to over 60,000 users a day, in the product design of our recent rebrand as AffordableHousing.com.
— Richard Cupelli, CEO/Founder, AffordableHousing.com (formerly GoSection8.com)
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). 2022. "Providing school quality information to improve housing mobility for low-income families." J-PAL Evidence to Policy Case Study. Last modified January 2022.