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Housing Vouchers Can Help More Families Live in Higher-Opportunity Areas

Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) not only enable low-income families to afford decent, stable housing but they can also help them live in better neighborhoods, which research shows has a powerful impact on children’s chances of long-term health and success. Yet 315,000 children in families using vouchers live in extremely poor neighborhoods. Our major new report recommends four sets of interrelated federal policy changes that can improve the performance of the nation’s largest rental assistance program in enabling families to move to safer, higher-opportunity areas with good schools:

  • Help interested families live in high-opportunity areas. The President and Congress should establish and fund the HCV Mobility Demonstration in the final 2019 funding bill for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Authorized by a nearly unanimous, bipartisan vote of the House, the demonstration would let public housing agencies provide robust housing mobility services, including pre- and post-move support (such as financial coaching) for voucher holders who want to move to a higher-opportunity area. The Administration should support funding for the demonstration in the 2019 HUD funding bill (which congressional leaders plan to enact by September 30) and implement it quickly and effectively.
  • Create strong incentives for housing agencies to improve location outcomes. HUD should encourage agencies to reduce the share of voucher families living in extreme-poverty areas and increase the share in low-poverty, high-opportunity areas. HUD could, for example, pay higher administrative fees to agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas to offset the added costs often associated with these moves. HUD also could give added weight to location outcomes in measuring agency performance.
  • Modify policies that discourage families from living in lower-poverty communities. Some voucher program policies impede families from moving to low-poverty areas. For example, families’ rental subsidies are generally based on rental costs of modest housing over an entire metropolitan area, so they’re often too low for neighborhoods with low poverty, low crime, and strong schools. HUD can address the problem by effectively implementing the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) regulation; SAFMRs better reflect actual market rents and thus make more units available to voucher holders. HUD should also require agencies to identify available units in higher-opportunity, low-poverty communities and give families seeking to make such moves added time to search for housing.
  • Minimize jurisdictional barriers to families’ ability to live in high-opportunity communities. In most metropolitan areas, one agency administers the voucher program in the central city and different agencies serve suburban cities and towns. That often impedes families’ efforts to use vouchers in higher-opportunity areas. HUD should encourage agencies in the same metropolitan area to unify their program operations and reduce financial disincentives for agencies to encourage moves across jurisdictional lines.

Some families will choose to remain in their current neighborhood —to remain close to their job, family, or child care, for example — even if they face fewer barriers to moving to areas with more opportunities. But the policy changes listed above could enable many more families that choose to move to significantly improve their lives and, together, those policy changes would take a modest but important step forward in reducing intergenerational poverty.