The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 9, 2013

Are housing vouchers good for my neighborhood?

May 9, 2013

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Last week, my blog post explored the role investor-buyers play—for good or ill—in recovering housing markets like my Prince George’s County neighborhood. What about housing vouchers, aka Section 8 housing? I’ve studied the performance of the federal Housing Choice Voucher program for years but was still a little surprised to see a sign saying “We welcome Section 8” around the corner from my house.

Housing vouchers help low-income families pay the rent for housing available in the private market. Recipients choose the house or apartment where they want to live and contribute about 30 percent of their income toward rent, while the program pays the difference up to a locally defined “payment standard.” Today, the housing voucher program supplements rent payments for about 2.2 million low-income families and individuals nationwide.

One of the voucher program’s greatest virtues is that it gives recipients choices about where to live, rather than requiring them to live in a publicly subsidized housing project.  And the program works best when it gives poor families the opportunity to live in good neighborhoods, where they can benefit from safe surroundings, well-performing schools, well-stocked grocery stores, and a healthy environment. My own research (along with others’) shows that when families who’ve used vouchers to escape from distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods can live (for several years) in low-poverty communities, their physical and mental health improves, parents work and earn more, and kids do better in school.

Often, people who live in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods object to the idea that properties in their neighborhood might accept vouchers. They fear that the arrival of subsidized renters will increase crime and undermine property values. But careful research has found these fears to be unfounded as long as the voucher program is properly administered. In fact, because vouchers provide landlords with reliable rent payments each month, they can support good property maintenance, contributing to the well-being of the surrounding neighborhood.

However, if the local public housing agency fails to effectively monitor and manage housing vouchers, they can sometimes play a role in neighborhood distress and decline. Specifically, local housing agencies should:

  • Reach out to encourage rental property owners in every neighborhood to accept vouchers, so recipients aren’t forced into just a few locations.
  • Make sure inspections, lease approvals, and rent payments all occur on time and with minimal red tape, so responsible landlords want to participate.
  • Monitor the locations of voucher holders to make sure they’re getting access to as many different neighborhoods as possible, rather than clustering in just a few.
  • Promptly investigate any community complaints about voucher holders or landlords and require participating landlords to maintain their properties and enforce lease terms.
  • Identify both poor-performing landlords and tenants who violate lease terms and exclude them from participating further in the program.

Prince George’s housing agency scores “high” on HUD’s management assessment scale. So I’m optimistic that housing vouchers will help recovering neighborhoods like mine, at the same time they benefit low-income families struggling to find affordable housing in healthy communities.

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