Where children grow up can affect their lifelong health and success, and improvements to federal rental assistance programs could substantially better their life outcomes, as my colleague Douglas Rice and I explain in a new report.
Importantly, most of these programmatic improvements can be made even without congressional action or more federal funding.
Nearly 4 million children live in families that receive federal rental assistance. But just 15 percent of the kids whose families receive rent subsidies through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) three major rental assistance programs — the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, public housing, and Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance — live in high-opportunity neighborhoods with access to good schools, safe streets, and high employment rates.
More kids in assisted families — 18 percent — live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor.
The research shows the difference location can make. Kids who are exposed to extremely poor and violent neighborhoods often suffer cognitive, health, and academic deficiencies, while those who grow up in safer neighborhoods with better schools fare better.
Policymakers have tried for several decades to reduce the concentration of low-income families receiving federal rental assistance in distressed neighborhoods. To improve these families’ access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, they’ve relied increasingly on housing vouchers (rather than housing projects that often are in very poor, segregated neighborhoods) to give families greater choice in where to live.
The HCV program has performed much better than HUD’s project-based rental assistance programs in enabling more low-income families with children to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods (see chart). Having a housing voucher also substantially reduces a family’s likelihood of living in an extreme-poverty neighborhood.
Nevertheless, a quarter of a million children in the HCV program live in these troubled neighborhoods. The HCV program simply doesn’t deliver on its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods.
Two near-term goals for federal rental assistance programs could help improve on this track record: 1) the programs should provide greater opportunities for families to choose affordable housing outside of extreme-poverty neighborhoods; and 2) they should provide better access for families to low-poverty, safe communities with better-performing schools.
We can make substantial progress toward these goals in the next few years.
Federal, state, and local agencies can take four key actions to help more families live in better locations:
- Create stronger incentives for local and state housing agencies to help families move to better neighborhoods. HUD could provide incentives for agencies to reduce the share of families using vouchers in extreme-poverty areas and increase the share living in low-poverty, high-opportunity areas in three ways: 1) give added weight to location outcomes in measuring agency performance; 2) reinforce these changes with a strong fair housing rule — one that requires recipients of federal housing and community development funds from HUD to take steps that foster more inclusive communities; and 3) pay additional administrative fees to those agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas.
- Modify policies that discourage families from living in higher-opportunity communities. Currently, various policies unintentionally encourage families with housing vouchers to use them in poor neighborhoods that are often racially segregated. (Most extremely poor neighborhoods are predominantly African American and/or Latino). For example, the caps on rental subsidy amounts often are too low to enable families to rent units in areas in more demand; HUD should set those caps for smaller geographic areas than it does currently so they better reflect local price trends. Also, agencies should be required to identify available units in lower-poverty communities and extend the search period for families seeking to move to these communities.
- Minimize jurisdictional barriers in the HCV program that make it more difficult for families to choose to live in high-opportunity communities. Nearly all of the largest metro areas have one agency that administers the Housing Choice Voucher program in the central city and one or more that serve suburban cities and towns. This separation makes it harder for families to move to safe neighborhoods with high-performing schools. HUD should encourage agencies in the same metropolitan area to unify their program operations and simplify “portability” procedures to use vouchers in areas served by other agencies.
- Better assist families in using vouchers to live in high-opportunity areas. State and local governments and housing agencies should adopt policies—such as targeted tax incentives and laws prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders—that expand the number of landlords participating in the HCV program in safe, low-poverty neighborhoods with well-performing schools. These reforms would increase the number of housing choices available to families in these neighborhoods. Programs such as mobility counseling — supported by state or local funds or philanthropy — could also help interested families use their vouchers in these communities.
Kids benefit from living in safer neighborhoods with good schools, and the nation benefits when children have better life outcomes. These changes to the HCV program would make a big difference for many of the 2.4 million children in families that currently use housing vouchers.