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4 Ways to Help More Families Use Vouchers to Live in Low-Poverty Neighborhoods

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program has reduced families’ housing cost burdens and homelessness and

their housing stability, but its performance in helping families live in low-poverty, high-opportunity neighborhoods has been disappointing, as we explain in our recent paper.

Overall, just about 20 percent of the families with children who use housing vouchers live in high-opportunity neighborhoods with access to good schools, safe streets, and high rates of employment.  Almost 10 percent — including a quarter of a million children — of families in the program live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor.

In most metro areas, there are enough rental units to enable a much larger share of families to use their vouchers to live in better areas.  That more families don’t reflects, at least in part, the constraints families face in using vouchers to access neighborhoods that provide greater opportunities.

Federal, state, and local agencies can make four sets of policy changes that can help more HCV families to live in better locations:

  1. Create strong incentives for local and state housing agencies to achieve better location outcomes.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could provide incentives for agencies to reduce the share of families using vouchers in extreme-poverty areas and increase the share living in low-poverty, high-opportunity areas in three ways: 1) by giving added weight to location outcomes in measuring agency performance, 2) by reinforcing these changes with a strong fair housing rule — the rule that will revise HUD grantees’ planning for how to achieve outcomes that further fair housing goals — and 3) by rewarding agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas by paying these agencies additional administrative fees.
  2. Modify policies that discourage families from living in lower-poverty communities.  Various HCV policies unintentionally encourage families to use their vouchers in poor neighborhoods that often are highly racially concentrated.  (Most extremely poor neighborhoods are predominantly African American and/or Latino.)  In addition to finalizing its fair housing rule, HUD should set its caps on rental subsidy amounts for smaller geographic areas than it now does, and — at least where necessary to help families move from extreme-poverty, highly racially concentrated neighborhoods to higher-opportunity communities with less poverty — require agencies to identify available units in these lower-poverty communities and extend the search period for families seeking to make such moves.
  3. Minimize jurisdictional barriers to families’ ability to choose to live in high-opportunity communities.  In 95 of the 100 largest metro areas, one agency administers the HCV program in the central city and one or more different agencies serve the suburban cities and towns.  This balkanization makes it harder for families to move to safe neighborhoods with high-performing schools.  HUD could substantially lessen these barriers by encouraging agencies in the same metropolitan area to unify their program operations and by simplifying “portability” procedures to use vouchers in areas served by other agencies.
  4. Assist families in using vouchers to live in high-opportunity areas.  To expand housing choices in safe, low-poverty neighborhoods with well-performing schools, state and local governments and housing agencies should adopt policies to expand HCV participation by landlords in these neighborhoods.  Programs such as mobility counseling — supported by state or local funds or philanthropy — would assist interested families to use their vouchers in these areas.

We can make substantial progress toward these goals in the next few years, even in the current fiscally constrained environment and even without congressional action or more federal funding.

We can also do more to help families in project-based rental assistance to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods.  We’ll take a look at two such promising programs in a post later this week.