September 4, 2018

Improving Housing Voucher Utilization

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As reported earlier in Community Developments, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently launched a new initiative aimed at increasing utilization rates of Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV), formerly known as Section 8 vouchers. The announcement comes on the heels of recent studies commissioned by HUD from the Urban Institute and Johns Hopkins highlighting issues within the HCV program that leave more than 10% of vouchers nationally unused each year. These studies join a body of literature that describes a range of barriers faced by voucher recipients to obtaining affordable housing, including administrative limitations, landlord dissatisfaction, and discrimination against vouchers.

HCVs—funded by HUD and administered by local public housing authorities (PHAs)--are given to households earning up to 50 percent of local median incomes, to cover the difference between 30 percent of that household’s income and open market rents charged by landlords. Because they are allocated to individual households rather than linked to specific units or properties, HCVs give low-income households choice about where to live, which increases their ability to access high-opportunity neighborhoods with better schools, less crime, and more services. The program also leverages privately-owned housing to help fill gaps in the affordable housing supply across the country, while reducing the concentration of poverty that contributed to the failure of many public housing and project-based housing assistance programs. 

Yet, despite eligibility for vouchers outstripping supply by a factor of four, and years-long waitlists of millions of low-income households hoping for their chance, nationwide less than 90% of HCVs are successfully used each year, with even lower utilization rates reported by PHAs in some cities and counties. Among the reasons for unused vouchers are minimum standards for the quality of housing in which voucher recipients can live, limits on the maximum rent that vouchers will cover, locational constraints within the jurisdiction of the voucher-issuing PHA, and short time frames for low-income households to secure an adequate unit. Landlords present another barrier to voucher lease-up, with many rejecting vouchers because of HUD’s quality and cost requirements, or dissatisfaction with the timeliness of PHA inspections and payments. Lastly, as the recent Urban Institute report found, many voucher holders face discrimination in the housing market, with landlords refusing upfront to accept vouchers as part of their rent payment.

The actions announced by HUD last month are important steps towards resolving some of these problems in the HCV program. These include a set of listening forums planned for communities across the county on why more landlords do not accept HCVs, especially in high-opportunity neighborhoods that are traditionally difficult for voucher recipients to access. The first forum will be on September 20th in Washington DC, with additional events planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Salem, OR (dates TBA). Following these, the Landlord Task Force will offer recommendations for programmatic changes to increase participation in the HCV program.

In addition, there are other steps HUD can take to improve voucher utilization rates, such as encouraging PHAs to streamline the administrative requirements and increase the availability of information on voucher-eligible units. Enterprise Community Partners is already working with groups in Atlanta and New York City on programs that facilitate matching homeless voucher holders with available rental units, by offering landlords incentives for participating. HUD can also work with PHAs to improve the portability of vouchers between authorities, so low-income households can better access units in areas that meet their locational and opportunity needs, regardless of which PHA issues their voucher.

At the state and local levels, governments can pass source-of-income anti-discrimination policies that make it illegal for landlords to reject prospective tenants based on their voucher status (These laws also protect other renter families relying on external sources of support like alimony and child support payments or disability income). Indeed, at least 12 states and 72 cities and counties already have such laws in place, with prior research showing between 4–11 percent higher voucher utilization rates among PHAs in these jurisdictions. 

Housing choice vouchers are a vital part of our nation’s affordable housing strategy and a lifeline for the over two million low-income households that use them every year. Enterprise Community Partners applauds HUD’s commitment to improving this program so that more eligible families may benefit from this important resource. We will continue to monitor the issue of housing voucher utilization, so keep a look out for updates on this blog as more information becomes available. 

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