Your neighborhood determines the quality of your children’s schools and your access to jobs, transportation, even fresh food.
But a new study found that in nearly all 50 of America’s biggest metropolitan areas, low-income families using federal housing vouchers remain overly concentrated in impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods with little opportunity — even with plenty of affordable apartments available in higher income neighborhoods.
The difference between where families with vouchers could be living and where they actually live has long-term consequences, said researchers with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.
“It’s going to be a wake-up call for a lot of housing authorities that their programs are quite concentrated and don’t necessarily reflect where families want to live,” said Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. “There are plenty of rental opportunities out there. It’s the job of housing authorities to help remove the barriers that are keeping families from accessing these neighborhoods and communities.”
Giving low-income families the option of living in wealthier neighborhoods with better schools and less crime leads to better outcomes. Their children are more likely to go to college and find better-paying jobs, other studies have shown. They are more likely to live in better neighborhoods as adults and less likely to become single parents.
But too few families with housing vouchers live in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Researchers developed an index of opportunity using HUD measurements of school quality, poverty, labor market engagement, access to jobs, and access to public transit.
Overall, just 5 percent of metropolitan families using vouchers live in high-opportunity neighborhoods even though those areas account for 18 percent of all affordable rentals.
The opportunity gap is highest in San Francisco, San Jose, and Austin.
In San Francisco, 18 percent of voucher-assisted families live in high-opportunity neighborhoods, even though 46 percent of affordable apartments are located there.
In New York, the region with the most families using housing vouchers, only 7 percent live in neighborhoods considered to be high opportunity, even though 28 percent of affordable units are located in those communities.
And in Birmingham, Ala., fewer than 1 percent of families using housing vouchers live in those neighborhoods although 13 percent of affordable units are located there. Instead, 77 percent of impoverished Birmingham families use their housing vouchers in low-opportunity neighborhoods — far exceeding the 49 percent share of affordable rentals.
The study also shows black and Hispanic families with vouchers are more likely than other low-income minority renters to be segregated in minority neighborhoods — although most affordable units are located outside of heavily minority neighborhoods.
(Three of four households that qualify for federal rental assistance do not receive any aid because there is not enough money to meet everyone’s needs.)
The finding suggests local housing voucher programs may be exacerbating residential segregation, the researchers said, and undermining the aim of the 1968 Fair Housing Act to reduce racial segregation in local jurisdictions. In Milwaukee, Birmingham and New Orleans, more than 80 percent of minority households with children use vouchers to live in “minority-concentrated” areas.
“If voucher families appear to be even more segregated than similar renters of color, that signals that housing authorities need to be doing more to uphold their responsibility to the Fair Housing Act,” said Alicia Mazzara, a housing analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who co-authored the report with Brian Knudsen.
Multiple barriers keep families from moving to better neighborhoods, researchers said, including widely varying practices and policies of regional housing agencies such as how the value of vouchers are calculated.
Many low-income renters simply are not aware they could afford apartments elsewhere. Vacancy rates as well as current and historical patterns of segregation also contribute.
And landlords continue to discriminate against voucher holders, according to a recent HUD study. Communities where landlords are more likely to deny renting to voucher holders also tend to have tighter rental markets and less-generous payment standards for housing vouchers.
Tegeler said housing agencies should issue vouchers that reflect the rental prices in specific Zip codes, instead of averaging across an entire metropolitan area. Providing higher government subsidies for apartments in more expensive communities — and lower subsidies for units in poor neighborhoods — would help low-income families afford apartments in more affluent neighborhoods and encourage them to move to places with better education and job opportunities, he said.
Two dozen metro regions, including Atlanta, Charlotte, San Diego and Honolulu, are already required to do so under an Obama-era rule that went into force in January 2017. (A federal judge ordered HUD to implement the rule after HUD Secretary Ben Carson had tried to suspend it).
Carson suspended another Obama-era rule mandating communities fix long-standing patterns of segregation. Carson has dismissed government interventions in desegregating American neighborhoods as “failed socialist experiments” and has dialed back investigations into systemic housing discrimination.
Federal law does not require landlords to accept housing vouchers, although some local jurisdictions do. Fair housing advocates are urging more municipalities and states to take similar measures.