Senior Director for Housing Policy and Research
This is the latest in our “Housing Vouchers Work” blog series, which provides the latest facts and figures about the Housing Choice Voucher program, the largest rental assistance program to help families with children, working people, seniors, and people with disabilities afford decent, stable housing.
As a recent PBS Frontline documentary showed, some families that receive Housing Choice Vouchers can’t use them, partly because landlords in most cities and states don’t have to accept vouchers. But state and local housing agencies reissue returned vouchers to other families who can use them, thereby putting nearly every dollar of voucher funds to use in helping needy families. Over the last five years, in fact, agencies have used an average of 99.9 percent of their voucher funds (excluding agencies in a federal demonstration that lets them shift voucher funds to other purposes). In addition, better policies and program management can make it easier for families to use vouchers, especially in neighborhoods with low poverty, low crime, and strong schools.
Vouchers help more than 2 million low-income families keep a roof over their heads. But, due to funding limitations and rising rents, 3 in 4 families in need get no rental assistance and most parts of the country have long waiting lists for vouchers. If policymakers provide funds for more vouchers, agencies could help more struggling families.
In tight housing markets with few vacancies, it’s harder for families to find units they can rent with their vouchers. But even there, effective agency policies can enable a higher share of families to use their vouchers successfully. For example, agencies can encourage owners to rent to voucher holders or provide other help to families having a hard time finding a unit. Agencies can also give families extra time to find a unit if needed and can ensure that voucher subsidies are adequate to cover rents in a wide range of neighborhoods.
Effective agency management can also be crucial to helping families use vouchers, since landlords will be likelier to accept vouchers if agencies carry out tasks such as conducting housing quality inspections promptly and efficiently. In addition, states and localities can prohibit landlords from discriminating against voucher holders, as several dozen already have. And vigorous enforcement of federal fair housing laws would help to better address the racial and ethnic bias that sometimes lies behind landlords’ refusal to rent to families with vouchers.
These measures can help families not only use their vouchers, but use them in low-poverty neighborhoods. Children whose families use vouchers to move to low-poverty areas when they’re young earn 30 percent more as adults and are likelier to go to college and less likely to become single parents, research shows. Already, poor black children in families with vouchers are twice as likely to live in low-poverty areas as poor black children overall; and the practices outlined above could enable the program to do even more to give voucher holders access to high-opportunity areas.