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Expanding “Moving to Work” Could Narrow Families’ Housing Choices

A Senate bill’s sharp expansion of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration could make it harder for low-income families to use vouchers to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods and into areas with less crime, better schools, and more job opportunities, my colleague Barbara Sard and I explain in the latest issue of Poverty & Race magazine.  Here are some excerpts:

Despite its name, MTW isn’t focused on mobility or employment.  Instead, it’s a broad deregulation initiative that allows housing agencies to obtain sweeping waivers of federal statutes and regulations, receive voucher funds through special block grant formulas, and shift program funds to purposes not normally permitted.  While some MTW agencies have taken steps to broaden the housing choices available to low-income families, a large expansion of MTW without major reforms — as the Senate bill would mandate — would pose significant risks to low-income families and to the goal of creating more integrated and inclusive communities. . . .

MTW flexibility (as currently interpreted by HUD) permits agencies to adopt policies that restrict housing choice in addition to those that support mobility, and many agencies have done so.  At least nine MTW agencies have obtained waivers allowing them to place broad restrictions on “portability” — the right of voucher holders to move outside the jurisdiction of the agency that issued their voucher.  More than a dozen other agencies are considering portability restrictions or have limited housing choices for certain groups of voucher holders. . . .

Even more fundamentally, MTW results in many fewer families receiving vouchers than could be assisted with available funds. In 2014, MTW agencies shifted $590 million — 19% of their total voucher subsidy funding — from the voucher program to other purposes or accumulated the funds as reserves.  More than 63,000 families were left without vouchers as a result.  The Senate bill’s MTW expansion could raise the number of families left without vouchers by as many as 55,000.  And, because the bill would also block HUD reforms that could require current MTW agencies to put 30,000 vouchers back to use, the net loss of vouchers could reach 85,000.

As we explain, there is much that HUD and state and local housing agencies can do to broaden low-income families’ access to high-opportunity communities without expanding MTW.  And if policymakers decide to expand MTW, they should also reform it to require more agencies to take strong steps to expand housing choice and prohibit the restrictions and deep voucher cuts that often accompany MTW today. 

Click here for the full article.