1. Governance
August 27, 2020updated 04 Aug 2023 8:28am

The promise and peril of the United States' affordable housing vouchers

By Jake Blumgart

The United States suffers from a profound affordable housing shortage. Of the tens of millions of Americans who are poor enough to qualify for a subsidised home, only one-fourth actually receive government support. Many of the rest are left to pay an astronomical amount for shelter: A quarter of renter households spend over half their income on rent and utilities. 

Much of the assistance that is provided comes through government partnerships with the private sector; the traditional public housing program lost favour after decades of divestment and neglect. Today 2.2 million Americans receive Housing Choice Vouchers, freeing these tenants from crushing costs by covering the great majority of their rent. In many U.S. cities, the demand for a voucher is so great that there are waiting lists many thousands of households long.

Eva Rosen set out to study the effect of Housing Choice Vouchers on recipients, particularly in the Baltimore neighbourhood of Park Heights, where 17% of rented homes are backed by the program. Her book, The Voucher Promise, is “an “ethnography of a policy.” To study the programme, which is colloquially known as Section 8, Rosen lived in Park Heights and got to know residents who received vouchers, renters who didn’t, low-income homeowners, and the landlords who profit from the system.

CityMetric spoke with her about how housing vouchers could be improved, the loopholes in the policy that still result in concentrated poverty, and the possibility that a Democratic win in November’s elections could result in a massive expansion of the program. 

Housing Choice Vouchers are one of the principal ways the United States provides support to low-income renters. What do you think the policy does well, and what does it do poorly?

For those people who are lucky enough to receive a voucher, what it does well is that it houses them. There are all kinds of things that get in the way of people being able to maintain a stable home. What the research shows is that when people get a voucher, they are less likely to be doubled up with other family members. They’re less likely to have overcrowding. They tend to move less. They’re less likely to be evicted. Their homes become affordable because tenants only have to pay a third of their income in rent, and the government pays the rest.

There’s something else it does well that I wouldn’t have understood quite as viscerally if I hadn’t spent time living in this Baltimore neighbourhood. Vouchers provide renters with flexibility over where they live, which is something that people who have money don’t think twice about. But for a lot of them the alternative they imagine is either public housing, where you really didn’t have a choice in where you ended up, or just being so poor that you can’t afford to move.

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That being said, there are all kinds of ways in which those choices are restricted. One of the things I was really interested in learning was why is it that if a voucher holder has a choice to move to a fairly wide range of neighbourhoods, why is it that they end up in a neighbourhood like Park Heights? The rents there are much lower than their voucher would afford them, so they’re not even using the full value of their voucher. 

So why do we see so many voucher holders moving to neighbourhoods like Park Heights?

In some cases, people are making choices. They have family, they have social networks, they want to have child care from a family member. But the big explanation that I dug up was related to the way that landlords pull tenants into neighbourhoods like Park Heights. In terms of the things the voucher program is not doing well, it’s not doing a great job at providing real choice.

When we look at the kinds of neighbourhoods where voucher holders end up, they may be doing a bit better in terms of poverty level or racial integration as compared to, say, public housing. But on average, especially when we look at voucher holders of colour, they tend to be within neighbourhoods that are more segregated and more impoverished. We see the mechanisms of the regular low-income housing market being reproduced in the voucher market. If we believe public policy can undo patterns of segregation instead of recreate them, then we have work to do.

There are a lot of landlords who embrace vouchers because they make for much more reliable tenants. But that means they’re incentivised to attract more voucher holders to their holdings in poor neighbourhoods, means patterns of segregation aren’t broken. Are policymakers doing anything to change this?

Some think the answer doesn’t matter because the official goal of the program isn’t to create mobility. It’s to house people. 

Then when we think about landlords, we need to think about two different kinds of neighbourhoods. Landlords in more well-off neighbourhoods really stigmatise voucher holders and don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy in the program. Or they may be racially biased and conflate voucher holders with people of colour. These are folks who, whether or not there are local laws that say they can’t do this, often turn voucher holders away. There’s a study in Chicago where they just went on Craigslist and counted how many times they saw “no vouchers accepted,” which is completely illegal [in that city]. But we see it all over the place. There’s some enforcement, but there’s not a lot, so it’s not hard for them to do that. 

On the flip side, you have the landlords who I really focus on in the book, in poorer neighbourhoods. There’s that reliability factor that most of that payment is coming directly from the Housing Authority, direct-deposited into the landlord’s account every month. In some cases, like in the neighbourhood I studied, there is a voucher premium too. Because of the way rent ceilings for vouchers are set at the larger metropolitan area, a voucher tenant may actually be providing more rent than a landlord could get for a regular tenant. 

I saw houses and units that went for $100 to $300 more than the landlord would have been able to get from someone else. There is a dual dynamic of exclusion from the wealthier neighbourhoods and, to borrow a term from Keeanga Yamata Taylor, predatory inclusion where you’re actually profiting off of poor people and the subsidy that they bring with them.

You could argue there are benefits in terms of forcing landlords to increase the quality of the homes in poor neighbourhoods, because voucher units have to be inspected annually to ensure they are up to code.

Certainly, the landlords will say that part of this money is being used to renovate these properties and that’s good for the neighbourhood and it’s good for tenants. The people I got to know who had housing vouchers were living in properties that were in better condition than the people who were living in unsubsidised properties. 

However, to me that is a different problem that perhaps should be funded separately. Should we be investing in revitalising neighbourhoods? Absolutely. But to take money from, essentially, the pockets of tenants and use it to subsidise landlords renovating their property so they can charge more rent? 

The goal of the voucher program is not to revitalise neighbourhoods. Certainly, we want to make sure that properties are up to code, but shouldn’t all properties be up to code? If they’re not, that’s a problem with code enforcement. 

One idea that’s gained a lot of currency is that Congress should expand the voucher program to ensure it covers everyone who is eligible for it. As a result, some of the issues we’re talking about might be solved because you’d have inspectors proactively coming to all low-income housing units every year. 

Under the current program a tenant has to use their voucher within a few months or they lose it. If it expanded, that wouldn’t be necessary because we wouldn’t have waiting lists. 

Possibly the issue of stigma could be lessened too, if vouchers were a more common thing that landlords encountered more frequently. They might realise that these are tenants like any other tenants who need somewhere to live and who will respect your property about as much as anyone else.

It’s something that Joe Biden proposes in his housing plan. I think it solves a lot of problems, but there are also some dangers in the way that the voucher program reproduces residential segregation. If we were to scale it out, those problems might become larger. There need to be safeguards in place that give some power and choice back to the tenants, so that it’s really not the landlord pushing them into the property where the tenant will be most profitable for the landlord. 

As we think about scaling up the voucher program, we should pass a federal law that says it’s illegal to discriminate against voucher holders. And actually enforcing it.  The other really important thing is to broaden a ruling that was proposed by the Obama administration and wasn’t actually implemented until 2018 because the Trump administration tried to stop it. 

Instead of calculating the rent ceiling based on the entire metropolitan area, it uses the average rents just for that ZIP code, so the amount the Housing Authority is willing to pay for a particular voucher is more in line with the local market. That means in wealthier neighbourhoods vouchers will be worth more. Then in higher poverty neighbourhoods, vouchers will be worth less so we’re not overpaying landlords in those areas. This is a program that was implemented in a handful of cities across the country in 2018, but it should be implemented more widely.

Even with the universal voucher program, wealthy neighbourhoods would still have many barriers to entry because there are all these ways around laws that try to prevent discimination against voucher holders, right?

There should also be reforms at the public housing authority level. Landlords’ number one complaint about the voucher program is the bureaucratic red tape, how much time it takes to get a voucher holder approved, how long it takes to get that first rental payment. Another place to focus our efforts would be on making that process easier and quicker for landlords, so renting to the voucher program isn’t much more onerous than renting to other tenants.

What about in terms of zoning reform?

If an area is zoned for single-family homes, that means it’s often more expensive to rent than the voucher price ceiling. You’re going to be blocking voucher tenants out of that area. Advocates have called for an end to single-family zoning and I think that would also open up opportunities for voucher holders. Even in a more affluent neighbourhood, you might have an opportunity to build an apartment building that has units that are more affordable than a single-family home and that would actually allow voucher holders to access that area.

Do you see this moment as being potentially more ripe for reform? And do you see landlords pushing for something like expanding vouchers, which would probably help them out a lot because a lot of tenants now simply can’t pay the rent?

Universal vouchers during a pandemic could really benefit landlords. We have seen landlords who already rent to voucher holders talking about how grateful they are for the program, because these are the tenants who they are getting reliable rent payments from. But as to whether there are new landlords who want in on it, we don’t know the answer to that yet. I think you and I can both look at the situation and say, well, this would be really good for you. But I don’t know if they know that. Landlords don’t want to be forced to accept a tenant that they don’t want. They feel very strongly that that’s a civil rights issue for them. I can certainly see that there may be some opposition from certain landlords because it’s hard to imagine implementing a universal program without also implementing an anti-voucher discrimination law. 

But, yes, I think we are at a unique moment because of the pandemic where people can see how important housing is and how many dominoes will fall if people continue to be unable to pay their rent. That really does open up a window to talk about this issue and Joe Biden’s plan is very promising. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.

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