Vice President for Housing Policy
Recent anecdotal reports suggest that some newly developed suburbs hit hard by the foreclosure crisis have seen an increase in the number of homes occupied by renters rather than owners, and that some of these renters are low-income families using federal housing vouchers. Critics accuse voucher holders of causing neighborhood decline, but the charge is inaccurate and unfair.
Here’s the background. Roughly 2 million low-income families use vouchers from the “Section 8” Housing Choice Voucher program to help pay for rental housing that they find in the private market. Independent studies have found vouchers to be a highly cost-effective way to lift families out of poverty and protect children from homelessness and housing instability.
Vouchers can also help families move out of high-poverty neighborhoods and into communities with more jobs, less crime, and better schools. It’s worth noting, though, that families with vouchers live in only slightly “better” communities — as measured by neighborhood poverty rates — than families with similar incomes who don’t have housing assistance.
Blaming vouchers for neighborhood decline isn’t new. Critics charged that the program contributed to changes in parts of Boston in the late 1980s, Philadelphia and Baltimore a decade later, Memphis a few years ago, and recently the suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco. But careful investigations have shown that families with vouchers typically represent a very small share of new movers into an area, and that their moves tend to follow, not cause, declines in local property values.
Nor is there evidence that new residents with vouchers cause an increase in neighborhood crime rates. In fact, families responsible for drug-related or violent criminal acts lose their housing assistance.
Given the continuing high rates of foreclosures and declining number of families willing and able to buy their homes, the fact that some families are using vouchers to move to hard-hit neighborhoods should be good news, not a cause for alarm. Under federal rules, properties that receive assistance under the voucher program must receive regular inspections and be well-maintained, making these homes an asset to the neighborhood. In contrast, vacant homes are often an eyesore and attract vandalism, and unsubsidized rental properties are rarely subject to government enforcement of housing standards.
There’s another benefit, too. If moving into such homes gives low-income families more opportunities to build a better future for themselves and their children, both they and society as a whole will be better off.