Urban Wire Housing vouchers can work better for families
Margery Austin Turner
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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

Research Areas Social safety net Housing
Tags Poverty Infrastructure Housing vouchers and mobility Housing markets Housing and the economy Housing affordability Housing subsidies Public and assisted housing