In Pursuit of a “Both/And” Housing Policy–The Case of Housing Choice Vouchers

Readers of Shelterforce are accustomed to seeing commentary about the perceived tension between community development and housing mobility. Almost everyone agrees at this point that there is a place for […]

Readers of Shelterforce are accustomed to seeing commentary about the perceived tension between community development and housing mobility. Almost everyone agrees at this point that there is a place for both strategies in a balanced, “both/and” low-income housing policy. There is some disagreement about how much “balance” the various players in the system would like to see, and also some disagreement about how much choice the families who are the consumers of federal housing assistance really want. But the basic idea of a balanced policy is a common source of agreement.

But the little secret underlying this ongoing dialogue is that there is almost no “housing mobility” policy being pursued at the federal level. Our four largest low-income housing assistance programs continue to replicate patterns of poverty concentration and segregation in the segregated metropolitan areas where most units are located. There is very little actual balance, and achieving a “both/and” strategy is still a long way off. 

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is a case in point. This is the one federal housing program that is not tethered to specific physical locations, yet it is not delivering on its promise to give families a wider choice of communities, including neighborhoods with low crime rates, high performing schools, and low rates of poverty and racial concentration (for example, a PRRAC/Furman Center 2012 report on housing and school location found that the median voucher family lived near an elementary school with 74 percent of children receiving free and reduced price lunch, and that less than 7 percent of voucher families were living near elementary schools with less than 20 percent low-income children).  

The impression that we have a “both/and” housing policy probably traces its roots to the highly visible “Moving to Opportunity” (MTO) experiment and the scores of academic articles that have been written about it. It is true that the five-city MTO demonstration provided a magnificent dataset for researchers, but in the end fewer than 2,000 families received the targeted “experimental” vouchers—compared to the now more than 2 million families in the voucher program as a whole. And contrary to widespread misconceptions, these MTO families generally did not move to high opportunity communities. Without active mobility assistance, most of those who actually used their vouchers relocated to neighborhoods within the same city and school district, and many soon moved to higher poverty areas.
The two most successful housing mobility programs today—in Baltimore and Dallas— are larger than MTO but exist only because of successful class action lawsuits against HUD. Other, smaller programs in Chicago, Philadelphia, and a handful of other cities, struggle to maintain funding.

HUD has known for years what needs to be fixed in the Housing Choice Voucher program to actually provide families more choice: 

  •  The regional Fair Market Rent system provides inadequate subsidies in opportunity areas and encourages family moves to high poverty neighborhoods;
  • The administrative fees paid out to public housing agencies (PHAs) are the same no matter where a family moves, thus incentivizing the easiest moves for financially strapped agencies;
  • The annual assessment of PHA performance doesn’t demand deconcentration results – instead the assessment prioritizes renting up as many vouchers as possible, regardless of location, and compliance with other technical requirements;
  • An anachronistic system of separate PHA jurisdictions and “portability” rules for families crossing municipal borders creates numerous obstacles to choice;
  • Limits on search time, segregated PHA apartment listings, and landlord discrimination have predictable impacts on families’ willingness to move;
  • Most importantly, with a few notable exceptions, HUD has not sought funding for the kind of housing mobility counseling services that have been shown to make a real difference in helping families overcome barriers and break into higher opportunity communities – even though these programs have a relatively low cost per family compared to place-based programs. 

Yes, HUD knows all of this, and experts inside the agency have been working on the problem—yet HUD still has very little to show for its efforts after five years. This lack of progress is particularly frustrating because almost all the program design issues that drive segregation and limit choice in the voucher program are internal to HUD—they are not required by Congress, nor is Congressional action required to undo them.

HUD knows what needs to be done. Now it’s time to move ahead quickly with these reforms so we can get a little closer to our “both/and” ideal. Time is running short.

(Photo by Anastasia Tantaros)

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