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New Guide to Help Families Use Housing Vouchers to Move to High-Opportunity Neighborhoods

Housing vouchers can give families access to better opportunities.  Using a voucher to move out of an extreme-poverty neighborhood sharply reduces deaths from disease or accidents among girls. And where housing policies have allowed low-income children to attend high-performing, economically integrated schools over the long term, the students scored significantly higher on math and reading tests than comparable children who attended higher-poverty schools.  These types of positive results have helped the voucher program generate broad bipartisan support.

But evidence shows that a core feature of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program —  families’ ability to choose where to live — often hasn’t had the hoped-for results.  Families with vouchers live in only slightly less poor neighborhoods than similar tenants without housing assistance, although neighborhood outcomes are somewhat better for black voucher households and significantly better than for the public housing and project-based Section 8 programs.  Moreover, a recent analysis shows that a smaller share of voucher households with children live near schools ranked in the top 50 percent than poor households generally.

As I explained last week on the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce blog, it’s critical to give those helping Housing Choice Voucher families the tools they need to help these families move to more opportunity-rich neighborhoods — especially as policymakers consider cuts to housing programs as part of the current budget debate.


A new toolkit from the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and the Urban Institute (to which I contributed) is a starting point for public housing agencies, state and local governments, and non-profits that are working with these families.

The guide shows how to:

  • Set goals in light of local markets and priorities;
  • Identify opportunity-rich neighborhoods;
  • Reach out to landlords effectively;
  • Recruit and assist target families;
  • Use existing discretion under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policies — or get waivers of HUD rules — to expand families’ search time, set adequate subsidy levels, and provide security deposits; and
  • Fund a local or regional program.

The toolkit is a good start, but HUD can do more to help the voucher program achieve its full potential.  Modifications of some of HUD’s policies — such as the “portability” and “consortia” rules that affect families seeking to use their vouchers in other cities or counties and the measures used to assess agency performance — could make it easier for agencies and families to succeed, and would encourage agencies to adopt policies to achieve better results.