Hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans receive housing vouchers to help them afford a place to live. The Housing Choice Voucher Program subsidizes part of a household’s rent (up to a designated cap) and lets families pick their neighborhood and housing type. A major goal of the program is to break up concentrated poverty and provide wider access to higher-quality neighborhoods, but years of research have shown that voucher households tend to stay in poor and distressed neighborhoods.
Though local outcomes of voucher programs vary greatly, the persistent concentration of voucher households suggests a lack of housing choice and housing market information. A 2005 Urban Institute study of Chicago voucher households showed that they concentrate in predominantly black, mid- to high-poverty neighborhoods. More recently, a PRRAC and NYU study built on this evidence, showing that voucher holders throughout the country tend to live near lower-performing, high-poverty schools compared to other poor households. The outcomes of voucher households in the District of Columbia are in line with these national trends. Like other housing authorities, the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) has had trouble moving voucher households from high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods despite considerable effort.
Recently, DCHA commissioned the Urban Institute to look at the quality of the DC neighborhoods where voucher holders live and compare them with other affordable neighborhoods. Using 2010 DCHA administrative data on voucher holders and neighborhood indicators from NeighborhoodInfo DC, we looked at where most voucher holders reside and assessed the quality of those neighborhoods. We also estimated which neighborhoods have a majority of houses and apartments that would be affordable to DC voucher households.
The overall pattern is clear. Voucher holders are concentrated in neighborhoods with higher poverty, crime, and infant mortality rates and with lower performing schools than neighborhoods where they are not living. Even when we examine neighborhoods with a majority of affordable housing, voucher holders still seem to concentrate in those neighborhoods that are distressed.
We spoke with several voucher holders seeking to move to different homes. Most were unsatisfied with their current buildings or neighborhoods. When asked about searching for new housing, many said they had difficulties navigating the rental housing market in DC. Some believed that their status as a voucher holder discouraged landlords from even setting up appointments to view apartments. In DC, landlords are not allowed to discriminate based on an applicant’s source of income, such as voucher subsidies. However, a 2011 report from the Equal Rights Center found that almost half (45 percent) of the DC voucher holders they observed in test housing searches faced discrimination from landlords.
The reasons for voucher concentration are complex and interrelated. Voucher holders may choose to stay in neighborhoods where their family and friends live and where the demographic makeup reflects their own household. On the other hand, voucher families may have limited options because of landlord discrimination or their own lack of knowledge about how to navigate the market. The most significant factor limiting choice is rental housing supply and demand. The tighter the rental market, the more difficult it is for a voucher household to find a unit and a landlord willing to accept the voucher. In DC, an increasing population is driving vacancy rates down and housing costs up in all parts of the city, creating a challenging environment for anyone searching for housing.
We have much to learn about the constraints voucher households face when shopping for housing and deciding on a neighborhood. Once we understand the root causes of concentration, we can identify programs and policies to address barriers to choice. DCHA for its part has launched mobility tools and programs that aim to reduce concentration, such as a database of rental housing in high-quality neighborhoods and rent exemptions that raise the subsidy amount in high-cost areas. DCHA also provides housing counselors to advise people about options in opportunity neighborhoods. Further research may help us better understand why voucher families tend to concentrate in poor and distressed neighborhoods and how policymakers can ensure these families have a true choice in where they live.