Imagine you just landed a new job and want to move to a different neighborhood to shorten your commute. How long do you think it would take for you to fully prepare and complete your move? You could start about a month before your current lease is set to end, but the tasks will pile up before you know it: touring new homes, reading over leases, finding a moving service, cleaning out your closet, and more. On top of the time it takes to move, many of the financial costs unexpectedly pile up, from application fees to security deposits.

In short, moving is an arduous task that can easily require far more money, time, and mental resources than people initially imagine. These discrepancies in planning for the future are rooted in a psychological bias known as the planning fallacy. People tend to optimistically underestimate how much time and effort tasks will require, especially when a task, like moving, happens infrequently.

The consequences of having a hard time planning for a move can be even greater for low-income earners using housing vouchers to relocate. A select number of Americans receive rental assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher program, through which they receive a housing voucher to take to the private rental market. When they find a landlord willing to rent to them, they pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent, and the government pays the remainder. Despite this reduced burden, they still maintain moving responsibilities at full cost, with additional hurdles like finding landlords who rent to voucher recipients, scheduling mandatory unit inspections, and filling out 13-page rental assistance paperwork with their new landlord.

And yet, moving can have the greatest payoff for families with housing vouchers. In one of the largest housing mobility experiments in the U.S., called Moving to Opportunity, a team of researchers randomly assigned low-income families to receive either a traditional housing choice voucher,  a voucher that could only be used in a low-poverty neighborhood, or  no voucher at all. Since then, multiple studies have shown that recipients who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods have had positive outcomes like improvements in physical and mental health. Most recently, researchers reported on the outcomes of children who were younger than 13 when their families moved. Twenty-one years later, these children were more likely to attend college, earn higher incomes, and live in better neighborhoods as adults than their counterparts in the control group.

Low-income Americans receiving housing vouchers reap tremendous benefits from moving to high-opportunity areas. But like all people, regardless of income or voucher status, they fall prey to planning fallacy. Our behavioral science research lab partnered with the St. Louis Housing Authority and Ascend STL, organizations that administer vouchers and facilitate their use in St. Louis, Missouri, to better understand how we might help voucher recipients better navigate the moving process. In a preliminary analysis of a random sample of 369 Housing Authority clients, we found the following:

  • Many voucher recipients hope to move in any given year. In 2017, 28 percent of families requested a new voucher, indicating intent to move nearly two months before their lease expired. Many cited violence in their current communities as their rationale for moving.
  • Despite wanting to move, a full third of families who requested new vouchers ended up not moving. Of the families who moved, 36 percent were unable to do so within seven days of their lease expiration, resulting in an extended and potentially costly period between leases.
  • People who had tried to move in recent years were more successful in moving in 2017. We saw evidence that voucher recipients who had tried but failed to move within the last three years had more practice with the moving process and thus were more successful. Fortunately, 50 percent of those who moved were able to relocate to areas with lower rates of poverty.

Based on these insights, it seems that St. Louis voucher recipients had trouble accomplishing all of the tasks necessary to move before their leases expired. To counteract this difficulty in planning, research suggests that people produce more accurate estimates of how long it will take to complete a task when they break it down into smaller sub-tasks, a phenomenon called the segmentation effect. This effect can be leveraged to reduce the planning fallacy by providing people with more structured tasks that ultimately lead them to completing a larger goal.

In an upcoming experiment with Housing Authority participants, we plan to apply the segmentation effect by developing a multi-week, text-based intervention program, in which voucher holders receive a text message each week with a single task that, if completed, will lead them one step closer to a successful move. To provide participants with more time, we will also start this program at least three months in advance of their lease expiring.

The first generation of research on the Housing Choice Voucher program demonstrated that vouchers, when used in low-poverty areas, are an effective poverty alleviation tool. To continue to build this narrative, we propose a research model that incorporates small, scalable behavioral interventions to better understand the factors that promote successful moves. In doing so, we aim to ensure that the positive outcomes of these federal programs are as widely accessible as possible