The Center's work on 'Vouchers' Issues

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

October 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

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

Improving Children’s Chances of a Better Life

October 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm

In a new commentary for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, CBPP Vice President for Housing Policy Barbara Sard outlines steps that federal, state, and local agencies can take to help tens of thousands of children and their families avoid living in violent neighborhoods of extreme poverty — and enable more of them to choose to live in low-poverty neighborhoods with high-quality schools.  Here’s the opening:

Nearly 4 million children live in low-income families that receive federal rental assistance, which not only helps them keep a roof over their heads but also has the potential to enable children to grow up in better neighborhoods with more opportunities.  Unfortunately, we’ve fallen badly short on the latter ambition.

As of 2010, only 15 percent of the children whose families participate in the major rental assistance programs lived in low-poverty neighborhoods, while 18 percent lived in very high-poverty neighborhoods.  The good news is that we can make substantial progress in the next few years — without congressional action or more federal funding — to help more families live in neighborhoods that will improve their children’s chances of a better life.

Click here for the full commentary.


What Housing Vouchers Mean to Poor Minority Families, Part 2: Help in Avoiding Extreme-Poverty Neighborhoods

October 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm

I explained earlier today that housing vouchers make a big difference for minority families’ ability to live in a low-poverty neighborhood.  They also help poor black and Hispanic families with children avoid neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Researchers generally agree that living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty, in which 40 percent or more of the inhabitants are poor, is particularly harmful to children.  Nationwide, nearly 15 percent of poor children live in such neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are more likely than others to have high rates of crime and violence, poorly performing schools, few college-educated adults, low employment rates, and limited opportunities for physical recreation.

Extreme-poverty neighborhoods are predominantly African American and Latino.  Poor black and Hispanic children are more than five times as likely to live in a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the residents are poor than poor non-Hispanic white children.  Living in an extremely poor neighborhood may be particularly harmful for children when families live in such neighborhoods for several generations, as occurs more among African American families.

But housing vouchers improve these statistics substantially for poor black and Hispanic families with children.  For these families, vouchers cut their likelihood of living in extreme-poverty neighborhoods by nearly half for black children and more than a third for Hispanic children, compared with poor children of the same race or ethnicity (see chart).

These are encouraging statistics, but the Housing Choice Voucher program can do more to deliver on its potential to help families avoid living in neighborhoods likely to hurt their children’s economic prospects and future health, as we detail in our recent paper.  We’ll look at these recommendations in greater detail in a future post.

What Housing Vouchers Mean to Minority Families, Part 1: They’re Better Able to Live in Low-Poverty Neighborhoods

October 20, 2014 at 2:38 pm

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program falls short of its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods, as I’ve explained.  Although a voucher makes little difference in a poor white family’s ability to live in a low-poverty neighborhood, it makes a large difference for minority families.

Among poor families, more than twice the share of black children — and close to double the share of Hispanic children — using housing vouchers lived in low-poverty neighborhoods (those with less than 10 percent poverty) in 2010, compared with poor black and Hispanic children generally (see chart).  In contrast, poor white children in families with vouchers were slightly less likely to live in low-poverty neighborhoods than poor white children overall.

For minority families, using a voucher to rent housing also slightly improves the schools that their children are likely to attend, compared with their poor counterparts.  The median school nearest to both black and Hispanic voucher holders ranked higher on math and reading tests than the median school nearest to poor black and Hispanic households generally.

At least some of this positive impact of voucher assistance on black and Hispanic families’ access to low-poverty communities likely results from moving to low-poverty suburban neighborhoods.  The share of black HCV recipients living in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas rose by more than 12 percent between 2000 and 2008, helping to drive the overall increase over that eight-year period in the share of metropolitan vouchers used in suburban areas.

These are positive trends, but more low-income families should be able to use their housing vouchers to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods and to access high-performing schools.

We’ll discuss how vouchers affect minority families’ ability to avoid extreme-poverty neighborhoods in another post later today.

Housing Vouchers Help Families Live in Better Neighborhoods — But They Can Do More

October 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Policymakers over the last several decades have tried to improve low-income families’ access to low-poverty, higher-opportunity neighborhoods.  With this goal in mind, they’ve relied increasingly on housing vouchers so that families can choose where to live rather than be limited to government-funded projects that often are in very poor, segregated neighborhoods.  Despite these efforts, the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program falls short of its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods, as we explain in our new paper.

On the plus side, families with vouchers generally have succeeded in finding a home in a safe neighborhood, research from 91 large cities shows.  On average, families used vouchers in neighborhoods that had a 6 percentage-point lower crime rate than all poor renters in the same cities.

Families receiving assistance through the HCV program — particularly minority families — are more likely to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods, and less likely to live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, than their counterparts in HUD’s project-based rental assistance programs or than poor children generally.

But many children in the HCV program continue to live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, where crime rates are likely to be high and school performance inadequate, despite the better options that a voucher should make available to their families.  A quarter of a million kids receiving HCV assistance — spread across almost every state — live in these troubled neighborhoods (see map).

Lack of access to well-performing schools for children in the HCV program is particularly discouraging.  In one study, only one in four families with children receiving HCV assistance in metro areas lived near an elementary school ranked in the top half in their state in 2008.  They were also more likely to live near a school ranked in the bottom 10 percent than poor families generally.

The HCV program makes housing stable and affordable for more than a million families with children.  But it can do better to deliver on its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods, beginning with changes that HUD can make to improve families’ ability to move to lower-poverty, higher-opportunity neighborhoods.  We’ll look at these recommendations in greater detail next week.