A pilot program that helps low-income families move to better neighborhoods will soon expand its reach.

In November, Move to Prosper, an initiative that creates opportunities for low-income families to move to neighborhoods where they have a chance to thrive, announced a big expansion. The small-scale pilot program, in which 10 families are enrolled, will ramp up to include 100 families, offering them three years of rental support in neighborhoods deemed high opportunity, along with focused coaching to help them flourish in their new homes.

“You’ve heard the phrase, ‘a ZIP code determines your life’s destiny?’” says Amy Klaben, Move to Prosper’s founder and project facilitator. Klaben, a former partner at the law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, served 15 years as CEO and president of Homeport. “We’ve seen, from a lot of research, the benefits of moving to opportunity.” In fact, several other cities have mobility initiatives that allow people who live in areas of concentrated poverty to use housing vouchers to move to better resourced areas. But no such program existed in Columbus.

It was the participation of landlords that made the initiative possible, Klaben says. She credits Steve Heiser, a senior adviser at SVN Wilson, a commercial real estate company, with encouraging her to reach out. Eventually, several landlords signed on, agreeing to offer rent reductions to participants for three years. Ohio State University’s Department of City and Regional Planning agreed to house the initiative; Move to Prosper offers coaching and additional rent support.

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Participants are single moms with one to three children below age 13; their income must be between 30 and 50 percent of the median for the region. They must have jobs and access to transportation. The 10 families who have been in the program since 2018 moved from troubled neighborhoods around Columbus to apartments in Gahanna, Dublin, Lewis Center and Hilliard. It’s based on the success of this pilot program that Move to Prosper plans to expand the initiative. Initial support for the expansion, which will ultimately cost $6.4 million, comes from Humana, which is providing a seed grant of $75,000 plus health care and research expertise. Columbus Monthly spoke with Klaben last week; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a high opportunity neighborhood, and how do you decide where to place participants?
The definition of a higher opportunity area [comes from] the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, based on a framework developed by the Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. It's a combination of access to higher performing schools, job opportunities, healthy housing, safe neighborhoods, access to grocery stores and other amenities. There is mapping that is available and used quite often where you can see the difference between neighborhoods.

We do not match the participants to neighborhoods. What's very important is that people understand that we’re providing the privilege of choice to families who have historically been prevented from building wealth and choosing where they live. So we say, here are the pilot neighborhoods—seven different neighborhoods where landlords own properties and are willing to work with us. And the families then, with the aid of coaching, figure out which neighborhood they want to live in.

Did you have a lot of applicants?
We had over 300 applicants for 10 spots.

How have the families in your pilot program been affected by their move?
In the evaluations, we asked about health changes, and half the families had a child or children that had asthma. Four months after the relocation, their health had improved. And then at a year and four months, when we did the second evaluation report, there were significant changes and fewer visits to the emergency room that our evaluator valued at $30,000 for five families.

This was not a criterion—that the kids have to have asthma. This is just what we found after families entered the program. And it was because they were living in substandard housing with lots of mold, infestations—old homes. It was making them sick. And that means that the moms were missing work, and the kids were missing school, along with all the out-of-pocket expenses and the cost of going to an emergency room.

The families have said that their stress has been significantly reduced because they're not worried about the safety of their kids. Literal safety. One family had told us about a shooting right outside their [former] apartment. And so now they're in safe neighborhoods where the kids can go out and play and the schools are good. Three of the kids have been found to be gifted in their new schools because of the resources that the schools have. One of the boys told us about his little brother, who was always a problem at school, and then after he got to the new school and they had done some testing, they identified him as gifted, and he's just doing beautifully because … they are recognizing it and giving him the support he needs.

What about the moms?
One mom, by living in a safe neighborhood and not worrying about her job and her kids all the time—and it took a while to relieve the stress—but she's been able to focus on herself. She ended up changing jobs, and she's now on a career path. And recently she started a business along with working full time. A number of the moms now have second jobs to bring in more income because they've learned to budget. They're thinking differently about finances and savings. They all had savings for rent when the pandemic hit, and none of them have missed a payment. 

Were there emotional costs for the families of leaving their neighborhood for somewhere new, especially if only three years of rental support were guaranteed?
Before moving, we did focus groups like, “Would you really want to move for three years and move from where you're living to these new neighborhoods?” And the comments were that they didn't have stability necessarily before. And so having three years of stability is very meaningful. It's not something that maybe somebody that's owned their own home for 15 years would understand. But for people who have lacked stability, it was very meaningful to them to be able to move to a safe neighborhood for three years.

There's a story of one of the women who, after she moved in, somebody knocked on her door and left a note. And the woman didn't know what to do, and she called her coach and said, “Gosh, what do I do with this?” And, you know, the coach said, “Oh, well, she's just welcoming you to the neighborhood. Go knock on her door and say hello.”

When you've been living in a neighborhood where you do not open the door because it's not safe and nobody knocking on your door is doing so for good reasons, you have a certain outlook on life. And she had never experienced, just, neighbors being nice.

Tell me about the coaching.
We intentionally wanted to try a different model. You'll notice that I always talk about coaching. We do not do case management. We're not doing counseling. It's coaching for a reason. Because as you help people set their own goals and help them remove the obstacles and hold them accountable, that's how people's lives change.

We know that. But we don't offer that to lower wage workers. We offer it to people who have money. People [with money] can go out and get a life coach, financial coach, health coach. Our belief was, well, gosh: This is what's needed to help people sort of move up.

It's a big jump to go from 10 to 100 families. What made you decide you're ready to scale up like that?
We were asked by Humana to submit a proposal for support. And they really believe what we're doing is important, and that what we're studying in the demonstration project is important. And we need to understand more about how to make mobility work. When we’re going from 10 families to 100, it's not 100 overnight. It will be phased in to study the impact. And then hopefully from there, we will show the community the importance of mobility programs.

So [Humana] has provided funding to us to help us design the evaluation, and as we move forward, we can then submit for grants and actually submit together for some proposals.

We've heard from others in the community as well … that this is important, what we're doing. So we got to a point that we said, no, we don't have the money yet. We have to raise the rest of the money to do the demonstration, but it's important to our community.