As Housing Program Moves Poor to the Suburbs, Do Tensions Follow?

Friday’s New York Times article on Section 8 households in Antioch, Calif., has attracted a great deal of attention. I couldn’t wait to read it because I recently published a book, Neighborhood Choices, on Section 8 vouchers that includes a case study of the Bay Area and because I had just finished a journal manuscript reviewing the recent literature on housing vouchers in America and Europe. I found the article helpful in answering the questions that guided my literature review. How well do voucher families do in the suburbs and what effects if any do they have on their surrounding neighborhoods?

My short answer is that the poor do well in some ways but not others — and that this inner-city to suburban movement can have adverse neighborhood impacts.

First, to state the obvious, the voucher program is highly successful in helping poor households find affordable housing. This demand-side approach is more cost-effective than supply-side strategies (subsidies for private development, public housing).

Second, some evidence exists to show that housing-voucher recipients move to “better” neighborhoods. However, in many studies “better” is defined to mean a lower level of poverty in the new neighborhood than the old one. These studies suffer from a major flaw: There is a weak correlation between census indicators like the poverty level and how people evaluate their neighborhoods with respect to crime, schools, and other amenities that are really important to them.

Third, there is little evidence that voucher programs promote self-sufficiency. Interim results from the Moving-to-Opportunity program show that those in the experimental group (i.e., who received intensive counseling and who were required to move to low-poverty neighborhoods) did no better with respect to employment and educational outcomes than those in the comparison group (i.e., who received a regular Section 8 voucher). Given these results it is hardly surprising that studies of the regular voucher program show that it has no impact on employment or schooling.

Fourth, (and most relevant to the New York Times article) there is important evidence that the re-concentration of voucher recipients in central city or suburban neighborhoods that are already vulnerable to change often has adverse neighborhood impacts.

  • George Galster and colleagues, in a 1999 Housing Policy Debate article on Baltimore County, Md. (Volume 10, Number 4) support the existence of negative externalities. “Negative price impacts — statistically significant impacts occurring at all distances up to 2,000 feet — appear confined to neighborhoods that we hereafter will call ‘vulnerable’: areas comprised of low- to moderate-value homes that have declined in real value since 1990. We also note that all Baltimore County racially mixed to predominantly black neighborhoods (20 percent black or more) fall into this category…” (p. 903). Unfortunately, this article has been widely misused by housing researchers and housing activists who have focused on another finding; that in census tracts that were experiencing price increases prior to Section 8, proximity to voucher units was correlated with price increases. Surely, the former result is more relevant to communities like Antioch that are experiencing weak market conditions and that are vulnerable to decline.
  • George Galster and associates in a 2005 journal article (Economic Development Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2) and a 2008 book chapter (Revisiting Rental Housing by N. Retsinas and E. S. Belsky, (editors) use computer simulations and sophisticated econometric techniques to show that neighborhoods have thresholds or tipping points with respect to the level of poverty. Once the neighborhood poverty level exceeds a certain point (in the range of 10 to 20 percent), neighborhood decline as measured by price declines, accelerates. His research indicates that in communities like Antioch vulnerable to decline policymakers need to keep the proportion of assisted housing recipients low in order to minimize the risk of negative spillover effects. Antioch’s weak housing market (a result of the national housing crisis) may make Section 8 recipients more attractive to landlords. If so, the resulting in-migration of more Section 8 families could speed the process of decline that is already taking place. Housing officials in the Bay Area need to counsel voucher families against re-clustering in communities like Antioch. Obviously, this will not be easy because the Section 8 program involves free choice and because affordable rental housing is so scarce in that region.
  • A 2001 HUD-funded study on Section 8 controversies at eight sites, including Patterson Park, Baltimore, shows that problems like crime and gangs often do occur at Section 8 hotspots and that these problems are worsened by poor Section 8 program administration. The study called on HUD and local officials to listen to neighborhood residents and their concerns and not to dismiss their sometimes realistic concerns as simply the product of racial prejudice.

I personally think the Section 8 program is a good one, but if its image is to be improved local officials need to improve the administration of the program (1) by requiring stricter screening of participants, (2) by encouraging voucher residents to disperse and not to concentrate in neighborhoods experiencing racial change and (3) by promoting self-sufficiency.

Finally, I would be hesitant to call Antioch an opportunity area, to borrow a phrase that Mary Cunningham and colleagues used in a 2001 Urban Institute report. No longer can we assume as perhaps we could two decades ago that a move to the suburbs from the inner city represented a move up. Within the past decade city problems have shifted to the inner suburbs.

Because of rising fuel costs and overbuilding at the suburban edge, some distant suburbs are now beginning to experience urban problems like crime. I highly recommend Alan Ehrenhalt’s August 13 New Republic article for a more detailed discussion of this latter subject.

How can we move away from oversimplified notions of what constitutes an opportunity area? I agree with Briggs’ and Turner’s suggestion of defining destination areas “through tangible indicators of opportunity, such as access to entry-level jobs or high-performing schools” (Journal of Law and Social Policy Volume 1, Number 1). Clearly it will be a challenge to operationalize these concepts but it will be a necessary step toward improving the geography of opportunity.

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David Varady is professor of planning at the University of Cincinnati. He has published six books and more than 60 articles on housing, neighborhood upgrading, and residential segregation. His most recent book, Neighborhood Choices: Section 8 Housing Vouchers and Residential Mobility, coauthored with Carole C. Walker, was published in 2007 by the Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University.

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