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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Using a Full Portfolio of Tools (Including Vouchers) to Expand Access to High-Opportunity Communities

The three papers from the rich and provocative A Shared Future symposium that focused on what it would take for housing subsidies to overcome affordability barriers to inclusion in all neighborhoods provide a multi-faceted and nuanced set of approaches that would expand possibilities for lower-income, non-white families to live in higher-opportunity communities. While these are important approaches that should be part of the policy portfolio, efforts to expand opportunities should also recognize that tenant-based vouchers are, and will likely remain, the primary policy tool for enabling poor and near-poor families to live in higher-opportunity communities.

In his paper, Chris Herbert reminds us that, typically, the housing stock in high-opportunity communities is predominantly owner-occupied. So, as part of a comprehensive portfolio, it’s important to consider strategies to make it possible for low-income (and other) families of color to purchase homes in such neighborhoods, including those where rents are starting to rise. However, even a robust set of tools to overcome downpayment and credit barriers may not be sufficient to make for-sale homes in neighborhoods with good schools and other amenities in many regions within reach of low-income families.

Both Steve Norman and Margery Turner highlight the key role acquisition by committed owners of multifamily rental properties can play, both in keeping rents affordable in “emergent” (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhoods and in making more units available to families with housing vouchers in those and already higher-rent communities. Federal housing policy has neglected such acquisition strategies: grants are rarely available to reduce the amount of debt such purchases will require, and tax credits are restricted to new development or substantial rehabilitation. Like the King County Housing Authority, some other mission-driven organizations, such as the National Housing Trust, have patched together state or local assistance with private market debt (and potentially project-based vouchers) to make such acquisitions feasible. Facilitating loans and grants to purchase rental properties tied to long-term affordability restrictions – including obligations not to discriminate against voucher holders – should be a goal of federal housing policy, including housing finance reform.

While it’s important to include for-sale and multifamily acquisition strategies in a comprehensive strategy portfolio, tenant-based vouchers will likely remain the primary tool for enabling more poor and near-poor families to live in higher-opportunity communities. That’s true, given vouchers’ current scale — more than 2.2 million Housing Choice Vouchers are now in use — and their flexibility to rent virtually any type of decent-quality dwelling at a wide range of price points.

Yet vouchers can do much more to expand housing choice. The implementation of HUD’s new Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) policy is a promising step, but other federal policy changes are needed to create stronger incentives for housing agencies to promote better locational outcomes. It’s also vital to make more funding available, from public as well as philanthropic sources, to meet agencies’ additional administrative costs of promoting voucher mobility. And federal policy should not only permit but encourage agencies to target vouchers combined with mobility assistance to families with young children living in the most severely distressed neighborhoods.

Such efforts to foster inclusion may cost more, though experience with SAFMRs shows this isn’t always the case. But if we really care about outcomes for families over the long term, we can’t wait until there are sufficient resources to make housing affordable to all before we start paying attention to the types of neighborhoods families live in. The desperation and long-term harm of homelessness and housing insecurity create understandable pressure to spread the limited subsidy resources to help as many families as possible. Yet mounting evidence demonstrates the real long-term harm of growing up in a very poor, violent neighborhood and attending low-performing schools. Affordable housing alone doesn’t improve life chances; where families are able to live must also be a first-order concern, not one that we’ll pay attention to if and when we remedy the shortage of subsidies.

While housing practitioners work to do the best job possible with the available resources, we must also build the political will to expand investments in housing subsidies, so that more families have the chance to overcome affordability barriers and live in communities of their choice. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, along with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and others, has just launched the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, a long-term effort to achieve this goal.