A Social Experiment in Pulling Up Stakes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They all talk about the quiet.

No more late night party music blaring from neighbors' apartments. No more drug deals outside the bedroom window. No more gunshots disturbing their sleep and haunting their lives.

"The only noise here is the cars," said Maricela Quintanar, who moved with her family from an East Los Angeles public housing project to an apartment on the Westside.

Their cross-town shift is part of an unprecedented social experiment being conducted in Los Angeles and four other cities across the nation. Families like the Quintanars have volunteered to be, in effect, lab mice as the federal program seeks to answer tough questions about city life and concentrated poverty: What effect does neighborhood environment have on economic and school success? Can a new address turn despair into hope, resignation into purpose? And ultimately, how malleable is human behavior, particularly that of children?

Since it began in earnest in 1995, the $71.5-million Moving to Opportunity program has moved 1,100 low-income families with children out of the poorest public housing in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Boston. Selected by computer lottery, all received hefty government subsidies to rent privately owned apartments or houses.

Half of the families were allowed to move anywhere as long as their new rents were within broad government guidelines. An equal number, including the Quintanars, had to go one step further. In this more experimental group, participants had to shift not just out, but way, way up: to census tracts where no more than 10% of all households are below the poverty line, which is about $14,000 annually for a family of four. Those districts presumably offer safer streets, better schools and easier access to jobs that pay a living wage.

Comparisons are being made of the incomes and educations of the two groups, as well as those of a control group that stays behind in public housing. Final results are due in a 2004 report to Congress. Skeptics have protested that the program is futile and potentially destructive to middle-class neighborhoods, but supporters report encouraging anecdotes of strengthened families and new beginnings.

"We all too often don't have this kind of rigorous research. This is critically important to shaping future policy," said Paul Leonard, a Department of Housing and Urban Development official in Washington who is helping oversee Moving to Opportunity.

Criticism From Political Right, Left

Partly based on a successful desegregation effort in Chicago that began in the late 1970s, the program was first proposed during the Bush administration as a way to promote free choice and break down the isolation of public housing residents. The Clinton administration put it into action.

Along the way, the program encountered political controversy in Baltimore that halted plans to triple the number of families in the experiment nationwide. It faces criticism from the political right that it is Big Brother social engineering at its worst and, from the left, that it removes motivated role models from public housing. Some participants have complained about isolation and racial friction in new neighborhoods.

But factory assembly worker Pedro Guillen, whose family is among the 240 households who have relocated, has no doubts about his eight-mile move.

When he lived in the Eastside's Pico Gardens public housing, he used to refuse early morning overtime work to avoid confrontations with gangbangers who were still up and partying outdoors near his parked car.

Since he and his family moved in June 1995 to an apartment on a quiet and leafy Los Feliz block, Guillen has been able to leave for work without worry at 4:30 a.m. if he needs to. His four sons, ages 4 to 17, feel safe playing outdoors and have made many friends, even learning some Armenian from neighbors. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, with a big kitchen and a prominent fish tank in the living room, is convenient to Los Angeles City College, where his wife, Vilma, is taking accounting classes.

The move, the 35-year-old father said, "has made me more ambitious. I work more, I can buy things I like more and we can eat better." The family's goal is to save enough to buy their own home.

Although it is too early to draw broad conclusions, some researchers report similar encouraging examples around the country.

Jens Ludwig, a scholar at the Northwestern University-University of Chicago Poverty Research Center, who is studying the program in Baltimore, said, "The initial feedback is a genuine, positive buzz for the people who moved." But, he cautioned, problems may arise that are "minor for all families, major for some."

In Los Angeles, the families in the more experimental group have moved, in general, from Watts, South-Central and the Eastside to the San Fernando Valley and Westchester, with some going to Riverside and Long Beach. More than two-thirds currently receive welfare as their primary income and the vast majority are households headed by women. Nearly all are Latino or African American.

"Those families that really want to succeed and really want to move so they can live in a better area will excel in the program. And some of them who never thought about working or never thought about going back to school will also make those positive lifestyle changes and do more for their families as well as for themselves," said Dawnette M. Gilkey, the program coordinator at the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles.

Reliable employment rates are not yet available for participating families. Researchers are concerned that the program and its job counseling may not be separable from the effects of welfare reform. Yet the adults' job rates are not as important as the effects of safer streets and better schools on their children, many suggest.

The families' housing subsidies, with vouchers issued through what is called the federal Section 8 program, allow them to pay only about 30% of their income for rent. The aid is expected to continue indefinitely.

Since Jocelyn Jordan moved two years ago to a two-bedroom Westchester apartment that rents for $700, her share has ranged between $87 and $345 a month, depending on variations in her income as a temporary secretary. The location, so close to Los Angeles International Airport that the planes seem headed for her balcony, has made it easier to accept more work, she said.

Most important, Jordan, the single mother of two sons, 9 and 14, is thankful for her new peace of mind. Her previous public housing apartments at Imperial Courts and Nickerson Gardens were ransacked repeatedly and gang members peddled drugs just outside her front door.

"I didn't want that for my kids," said Jordan, 31. "I guess if that's all you're around, that's all you know. The environment really does make a difference."

Her new landlord, Richard Wong, said he was happy too, describing Jordan as "a very good, very cooperative, very nice and quiet tenant."

Another big help, some participants say, is the counseling and help in apartment and job hunting for the families who have had to move to more affluent areas. Compared to those in the other four cities, Los Angeles families have had easier house hunts because of relatively high vacancy rates. Also, the more diverse nature of many neighborhoods here has eased the transition, officials said.

Jean Russo, manager of another Los Angeles building, reported no major problems with her two Moving to Opportunity tenants, but complained that they at first wanted her to scour bathrooms and clean ovens. Similarly, counselors nationwide report that some families needed training in housing maintenance.

"Some of them didn't know that on Wednesday you've got to put your trash out and separate the recyclables," said Robert Gajdys, head of Community Assistance Network, the nonprofit agency working with the program in Baltimore.

Nicole Pagourgis of the Sherman Oaks-based On Your Feet agreed. "It's not just a change of neighborhood, it's a change of lifestyle and a change of culture," said Pagourgis, executive director of the nonprofit agency that offers Moving to Opportunity counseling in Los Angeles.

One Family's Success Story

Before moving to Cheviot Hills on the Westside two years ago, Maricela Quintanar, 28, had never worked outside the home. Then, with the help of Beyond Shelter, the agency that began Moving to Opportunity counseling in Los Angeles, she started earning her high school diploma at an adult school. She now works part time in a school cafeteria and is studying to be a supervisor. Her husband, Carlos, also 28, recently completed a trade school course in printing while receiving disability pay for a work injury.

The Quintanars' children, a boy in fifth grade and a girl in sixth, are doing much better in reading and writing English, the parents said.

"We are very lucky," Maricela Quintanar said in the two-bedroom apartment near Hamilton High School, for which the family pays $200 of its $700 rent.

Yet life is also a bit lonelier.

The Quintanars--both born in Mexico and now legal residents applying for U.S. citizenship--initially found the Westside frighteningly unfamiliar. Now they hope to settle permanently in nearby Culver City, attracted by its school system. But they still return to East Los Angeles every weekend to shop, attend church and visit relatives.

Old neighborhoods have a strong pull. Many families in the unrestricted group stayed relatively close to their original housing projects. And 16 of the 137 Los Angeles families in the so-called experimental group have left the middle-class districts after the required year of residence; some complained of transportation problems, loneliness and racial tensions. Most of the 16 have used their continuing vouchers to move closer to their original homes but remain in areas with less poverty than in public housing. Housing officials insist that such an amount of movement is to be expected.

Although the program has produced no political problems in Los Angeles, it has triggered opposition in Baltimore. Police suspect that a recent anonymous telephone death threat against HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo may be linked to sentiment against Moving to Opportunity. In 1994, politicians there protested the possible program-sponsored immigration of black families from the city projects into mostly white suburbs. The election-time protests caused Congress to kill expansion of the program.

In total, about 1,800 families nationwide, including 438 in Los Angeles, are expected to eventually participate. Backers want to systematically test the findings of a desegregation effort in Chicago that moved low-income black families to more upscale suburbs in the 1970s and '80s.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that only 5% of black children who moved to integrated Chicago suburbs dropped out of school, compared to 20% in the program who stayed in the city. The suburban youngsters went on to college at higher rates too, 54% compared to 21%. That program showed less dramatic differences on adult employment rates. And new suburbanites struggled with maladjustment and racial bias.

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James Rosenbaum, the Northwestern sociologist who headed those studies, recently said that having Moving to Opportunity in five cities should provide new insights. "It's entirely possible that this works well in some cities and not in others," he said.

In contrast, Howard Husock, director of case studies in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, complains that the program paternalistically relocates families without requiring hard work and sacrifice. "To me, the process of working one's way up is what changes lives, as opposed to being placed there," he said.

On a broader note, he and other critics question the very reason for Moving to Opportunity to exist. Even if it proves successful, they ask, does anyone believe that the federal government is going to move massive numbers of poor people into middle-class neighborhoods?

In response, HUD official Paul Leonard said the program's potential lessons would not require that it be replicated on a vast scale.

"If we know it's true that having poor families live in low-poverty neighborhoods substantially changes their life outcome, then even people who don't get subsidies may make greater sacrifices to get there," he said.

At the Ramona Gardens housing development, some residents considered the program a plot to dump families on the street. But Sergio and Maria Estrada and their four children took a chance. Now they seem stunned at their good luck to be 24 miles to the northwest, renting a gray-and-white stucco house in Sylmar. Since they moved a few months ago, the Estradas have planted tomatoes and started taking their older girls to swimming lessons at a nearby park.

Their main problem is transportation. They can't afford to fix the 1986 Mustang that sits in the garage. So the Estradas push a shopping cart a mile and a half through the hot suburban landscape to the supermarket.

"Sometimes, I am nervous when I'm walking because I'm poor and I see people who have money and have two cars and they aren't walking," said Sergio, a 28-year-old house painter. "But I say to myself, 'This is for my family, because I want a better life for them. So I can sacrifice.' "

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