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Delivering on Housing Vouchers’ Potential to Give Families Real Choice

Today’s Supreme Court decision maintaining the Fair Housing Act’s power to combat housing segregation and discrimination reinforces that public policy can give more families real choice over where they live.  That’s also a critical challenge for the Housing Choice Voucher program, the nation’s largest rental assistance program for low-income families. 

Vouchers prevent homelessness, reduce housing instability and crowding, and lift more than a million people out of poverty.  But they haven’t realized their potential to give families access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, as Alana Semuels noted yesterday in The Atlantic.  A quarter of a million children in voucher households live in high-poverty neighborhoods despite the better options that a voucher should give them. 

Two recent, groundbreaking studies show that children whose families move to better neighborhoods have lower teenage birth rates, higher college attendance and marriage rates, and larger earnings gains as adults, relative to children who remain in less advantageous neighborhoods.

Our major report documented the voucher program’s disappointing performance in this area and outlined federal, state, and local actions to help more families with vouchers live in places with better schools and less crime and where more families have adequate incomes.  Fortunately, policymakers have begun to take some positive steps, but much work remains to finalize key policy changes by the end of 2016.

One key step is basing voucher subsidies on rents in a given neighborhood rather than the entire metropolitan area, as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) plans to do by regulation in metro areas where voucher users are most concentrated in poor neighborhoods.  As we’ve explained, this will broaden housing opportunities for voucher holders and won’t require new funding.  In fact, it will likely save money, freeing up funds that could help families now on voucher waiting lists.

In another key step, HUD is expected soon to issue a final rule detailing how state and local housing agencies that administer the voucher program and other HUD programs can meet their legal obligation under the Fair Housing Act to not only fight discrimination but also affirmatively promote fair housing. 

But HUD can make other important changes without new authority from Congress or more funding, such as:

  • requiring housing agencies to provide lists of landlords in diverse neighborhoods who may be willing to rent to voucher holders;
  • streamlining “portability” procedures that enable families to use a voucher issued by one agency to rent a unit in another agency’s jurisdiction; and
  • rewarding agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas by giving them added administrative fees.

States and localities also have important roles to play.  Today’s Supreme Court decision may encourage states to use more of their federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits to expand low-income families’ housing options in safe neighborhoods with good schools.  That would broaden opportunities for voucher holders, since properties supported by these tax credits can’t discriminate against voucher holders. 

States and localities also could adopt and enforce anti-discrimination laws to protect voucher holders.  Only 13 states (including the District of Columbia) have such laws.