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Housing Vouchers Can Do More to Move Families Into High-Opportunity Neighborhoods

As the nation’s largest federal rental assistance program, Housing Choice Vouchers have the unique potential to help low-income families move to neighborhoods with low poverty, low crime, and good schools. Yet families using vouchers in most of the 50 largest metropolitan areas live in less opportunity-rich neighborhoods than the local rental market appears to make possible, our new analysis finds. That strongly suggests that federal, state, and local policymakers and programs can do much more to give voucher-assisted families genuine choices about where to live.

To our knowledge, our metropolitan-level analysis is the first to explore the concentration of voucher-assisted families across multiple neighborhood characteristics. We compare the location of these families to the location of voucher-affordable units using three measures: neighborhood poverty, an opportunity index (using measures such as school quality and job access), and the share of residents who are people of color.

Few metropolitan families using vouchers live in low-poverty, high-opportunity neighborhoods, despite the presence of affordable rental options in these areas. Growing up in these types of neighborhoods can be a catalyst for upward economic mobility, especially for young children, research shows. Instead, most voucher-assisted families are concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, violent crime, and low-performing schools, which harm families’ well-being and children’s long-term success. These large metro areas, we find, have enough rental units to enable a much greater share of families to use vouchers to rent in low-poverty and high-opportunity areas.

The Fair Housing Act requires state and local voucher programs to work to eliminate housing discrimination and segregation for all populations that the law covers. Yet most families using vouchers, including most families of color, live in what the Department of Housing and Urban Development terms “minority-concentrated” neighborhoods — those with a higher share of black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American residents than the metro area overall — even though most voucher-affordable units are located elsewhere. Instead of furthering the goals of the Fair Housing Act, state and local voucher programs may be perpetuating or exacerbating existing patterns of racial and ethnic residential segregation.

Our interactive map lets users examine where voucher-assisted households live in the 50 largest metropolitan areas. Neighborhoods are color-coded according to their poverty rate, score on our opportunity index, and share of residents who are people of color. For some cities, historical Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) “Residential Security” maps — also known as “redlining” maps — are available. HOLC maps were color-coded based on the supposed lending risk of neighborhoods in major U.S. cities and were largely drawn along racial and ethnic lines, helping codify patterns of racial and economic segregation that persist to this day.

Considering these findings, the Housing Choice Voucher program should give low-income families — particularly those with young children — the chance to live in high-opportunity, lower-poverty neighborhoods if the families wish to do so. Some families want to remain in their current neighborhoods to be close to their relatives, child care, or current job. Others, however, would like to move to safer neighborhoods with good schools, and policymakers can do much more to ensure that families can use their vouchers in a neighborhood of their choosing.

For policymakers, that means increasing access to a wide range of neighborhoods so that voucher-assisted families have real choices about where to live as well as investing in the communities where these families already live. The President and Congress should establish and fund the House-approved Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration, which would let selected public housing agencies provide robust housing mobility services to help more families that wish to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

See the full report for additional program and policy recommendations.