September 30, 2013

Housing vouchers can work better for families

September 30, 2013


Imagine Marie, a low-income mom with two kids, who’s paying more than half her monthly income for an apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. She finds out that she’s eligible for a housing voucher and decides to apply. She’d like to move to a safer neighborhood in a nearby suburb, where the schools are better. So she submits an application to three different Public Housing Agencies (PHAs)—the one in the city where she lives now and the two serving neighboring suburbs. Each has a different application form and each requires her to apply in person.

After a long time on the waiting list, Marie finally hears from the city PHA. She attends an orientation briefing and heads out apartment hunting with her voucher. Marie finds an apartment in a neighborhood she really likes, right across the boundary line between city and suburb. The landlord tells her he’s willing to accept her voucher but doesn’t really know anything about the city PHA that issued it. And a staffer at the city PHA tells her that he’s going to transfer her to the suburban PHA that serves the neighborhood where the apartment is located. That means Marie has to fill out a new set of application forms and attend another orientation briefing before she can go back to the landlord and sign a lease.

Stories like Marie’s aren’t uncommon. Sometimes the complexity of this process confuses and discourages families, so they give up and take an apartment in a less desirable neighborhood. Or so much time elapses that their voucher expires. Or the landlord gets tired of waiting and rents the apartment to somebody else.

We can do better.

Since the 1970s, rental vouchers have been a mainstay of federal housing policy. Recipients choose a house or apartment available in the private market and contribute about 30 percent of their incomes toward rent, while the program pays the difference, up to a locally defined “payment standard.”

Three-and-a-half decades of experience have proven vouchers to be an extremely effective tool for addressing the housing needs of low-income families. Most households that get a voucher succeed in finding a house or apartment where they can receive assistance, and recipients generally live in better quality housing and pay more affordable rent burdens than similar, unassisted households.

But the voucher program can be hard for families to navigate.

In most parts of the country, the housing voucher program is administered by local PHAs. These agencies were originally established to build and manage public housing developments, and this remains the primary function of most. Although they are governed by a complex set of national rules and procedures, local PHAs have considerable discretion over how the voucher program operates within their jurisdictions. Each PHA, for example, accepts applications, maintains its own waiting list, establishes local selection preferences, recruits landlords to participate in the program, and conducts housing inspections. This can pose real challenges for families.

In a new Brookings paper, Bruce Katz and I argue for streamlining the voucher program by shifting its governance to one organization or consortium per metro area. We know this can work because some PHAs are already doing it.

In the Chicago region, for example, eight PHAs, the Metropolitan Planning Council, and a nonprofit counseling agency (Housing Choice Partners) have formed a consortium, which (among other things) will help voucher families that want to move between jurisdictions. With support from HUD, this two-year pilot project is testing approaches to improving outcomes for voucher families.

One element of the pilot will make the boundaries between jurisdictions “invisible.” When voucher families decide they want to move to a different jurisdiction, they are referred to Housing Choice Partner’s “portability advocate” for information on searching for housing and about neighborhoods that offer opportunity. Housing Choice Partners will notify both the sending and the receiving PHA once a family finds a house or apartment. The two PHAs will then handle the transfer seamlessly without additional work for the voucher family.

HUD should encourage more PHAs to adopt similar strategies, using its oversight and regulatory powers to create incentives for them to do so. This kind of smart reform can make a proven program work more efficiently and improve outcomes for the families it serves.

Apartment image from Shutterstock


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


Although your story line may have some merit, it does not entirely paint a correct picture. Larger regional administration can have drawbacks such as delays in time to respond, schedule inspections, longer trips to regional offices for persons that can not travel. A well run HA should have no problem assisting a family with paperwork, and inspecting a unit. In the HA where I serve as ED any request for tenancy to lease a unit is accepted and lease up will occur within two weeks if the unit passes inspection. We serve more than a thousand families with one inspector without an issue. The HUD regulations could be modified with respect to portability and initial lease ups for families coming off of the waiting list. An agency delaying a family through "paperwork" or causing the family to be discouraged has poor leadership. The incentive for HA staff is the admin fee is earned when leased, delays cause the HA to lose money. less money equals less available funds for staff. Although a regional approach may work in some areas, and perhaps some places "can do better," the current system is not a total failure and does work. A regional approach or local approach still needs responsible people performing at a high level with proper leadership. There may not be a single square peg for every situation. I am all for improvements, efficiencies and incentives, but your initiative leaves out many other aspects of the program and local issues that could put a damper on the initiative. For example, the reality is that sometimes affordable units are more plentiful in some areas than others, a regional approach could cause even more families to find a unit in historically lower income areas. Although the poorly run agency can add to a voucher recipients confusion, many of the families themselves do not pursue opportunities for units or the very opportunity of having a voucher vigorously enough and wait until the last minute. This despite weekly follow up by HA staff. There are two sides to every story and approach and the local approach in this jurisdiction achieves 97% utilization rates with nary a voucher expiring because a family can not find a unit in a location that is suitable to their choice.