Grant provides funds to study Pittsburgh housing program's impact

Whitney Chirdon
April 12, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant will provide funding to a team of Penn State faculty as they evaluate the effect of an innovative housing program on neighborhood racial and economic equity in Pittsburgh.

Support for “The Impact of Pittsburgh’s Innovative Mobility Vouchers and Mobility Counseling Program on Racial and Economic Equity” was provided by a $243,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action program.

The community-engaged project will examine the impact of Pittsburgh’s mobility vouchers program, which was created to address limitations of the Housing Choice Vouchers. The federal program provides a subsidy to families to help them rent units on the private market. Researchers will conduct focus groups, interviews and surveys of landlords and analyze data to track mobility voucher outcomes. The results of the project will inform housing policies aimed at improving economic opportunity and reducing residential segregation. It will also help identify barriers to residential mobility among voucher recipients. 

Grant provides funds to study housing program impact

Selena E. Ortiz, co-principal investigator, project director and assistant professor of health policy and administration, demography and public policy.

IMAGE: Penn State

According to Selena E. Ortiz, co-principal investigator, project director and assistant professor of health policy and administration, demography and public policy, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh and the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania will be invaluable throughout the duration of the two-year project. The Housing Authority will provide administrative data, assist in the assembly of a community advisory board and develop a comprehensive dissemination plan to distribute findings.

“A fundamental piece of our project is the community advisory board since they are the eyes and ears of the project and in its applications for the community. They’ll help us think through our research questions, focus groups, interviews and surveys,” Ortiz said. “We intend to translate these connections into expanded impact, both in understanding the effect of the voucher program and in informing similar approaches in other cities.”

There is currently a nationwide housing affordability crisis with half of renters in the United States spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Rising housing costs have decreased the availability of affordable rental units in high-opportunity neighborhoods for low-income families, explained Andrew Fenelon, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of public policy and sociology.

Grant provides funds to study housing program impact

Andrew Fenelon, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of public policy and sociology

IMAGE: Penn State

“We need innovative housing programs that can address this problem and expand housing choices for all families. Pittsburgh is the second largest city in Pennsylvania and is a natural site for a housing program designed to reduce racial segregation,” he said. “African Americans represent 26% of the population of Pittsburgh, but they make up 85% of voucher recipients, resulting in a disproportionate impact. We hope our findings can inform efforts to improve housing choice and increase racial equity throughout Pennsylvania, as many communities share social and economic characteristics with Pittsburgh.”

Ortiz and Fenelon will apply a mixed-method, community-engagement research study design that moves systematically from formative processes to the collection and analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, coalition building and research dissemination. Through this project, they will focus on the landlord as well as the voucher recipient, which will provide more data about mobility voucher programs. The Center for Health Care Policy and Research will assist with planning and project management.

Ortiz emphasized the study’s focus on the landlord, which will provide an in-depth examination of the mobility voucher programs.

“Our study recognizes the essential role that landlords play within the rental market,” Ortiz said. “Since landlord participation is crucial to the success of housing policies and interventions, it is critical to understand why landlords participate, or choose not to participate, in the mobility voucher or counseling programs.”

Fenelon added, "This project represents a chance to improve housing choice and opportunity, and our hope is to help stakeholders meet their goals of reducing housing inequity and racial segregation. With this research and through establishing these connections, we strive to have a more direct impact on policy with the goal of making change.”

This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

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Last Updated June 23, 2021