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Housing Perspectives

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

What Would it Take for Housing Subsidies to Overcome Affordability Barriers to Inclusion in All Neighborhoods?

The design of housing voucher programs, site selection for new subsidized units, and federal, state, and local housing programs can all encourage—or hamper—efforts to create more inclusive residential communities. Three new papers released today by the Joint Center for Housing Studies examine many of the issues and historic legacies that policymakers need to address as they strive to meet this goal. The papers, which were presented at A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality, a symposium hosted by Joint Center last year, are:​

Margery Austin Turner,
Urban Institute

What Would it Take for Housing Subsidies to Overcome Affordability Barriers to Inclusion in All Neighborhoods? by Margery Austin Turner, the panel moderator, begins by noting that, while there are many benefits associated with moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, the voucher and tax credit programs that are currently the largest source of federal subsidies for affordable housing often fail to offer those opportunities to low-income families. Part of the problem, she argues, is that too often, policies aimed at expanding access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods (i.e. fair housing policies) are pursued separately from housing subsidy policies, rather than as part of a strategic portfolio of investments. Such a portfolio approach would use different investment and interventions to four different types of neighborhoods. In severely distressed neighborhoods, subsidized housing probably should not be further concentrated, while in stable, low-income neighborhoods, subsidized housing investments should focus on renovation and preservation of the affordable housing stock. In emergent neighborhoods, preservation and expansion of affordable housing options should be the top priority, while in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, housing subsidies should be deployed (along with other policy tools) to expand affordable housing options.

Stephen Norman &
Sarah Oppenheimer,

Expanding the Toolbox: Promising Approaches for Increasing Geographic Choice by Stephen Norman and Sarah Oppenheimer reviews the King County Housing Authority’s (KCHA) ambitious efforts to use federal housing subsidies to provide families with broader neighborhood choice. Informed by growing national evidence on the effects of neighborhood quality on life outcomes, they note, KCHA has used both tenant-based mobility approaches and site-based affordability approaches to expand low-income families’ access to a wider set of neighborhoods in the county, which includes Seattle and many surrounding communities. KCHA’s tenant-based mobility strategies have included offering to pay higher rents in higher-opportunities areas and providing extensive counseling to voucher holders. The site-based strategies have focused on acquiring and preserving housing and using federal vouchers to support new development in higher-opportunity areas. As a result, about 31 percent of KCHA’s federally-subsidized households with children currently reside in low-poverty areas.

Christopher Herbert,

Expanding Access to Homeownership as a Means of Fostering Residential Integration and Inclusion by Christopher Herbert, Managing Director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, notes that efforts to foster more inclusive communities have to confront issues related to housing affordability not only in more expensive, higher-opportunity neighborhoods, but in gentrifying ones as well. While many discussions about these issues focus on subsidized rental housing, Herbert argues that efforts to make homeownership more affordable should also be part of the portfolio of approaches used to foster more racially-, ethnically-, and economically-integrated communities. Potential appealing policies, he contends, fall into four broad categories: changes in federal income tax policy related to the mortgage interest deduction and savings; increased support for housing counseling; maintaining or modifying “duty to serve” obligations that affect mortgage lending; and better targeting and potentially expanding funding for downpayment assistance. He notes that, while these are not the only areas where action is needed to expand residential choice, they are critical (and sometimes overlooked) elements that should be included in a broader effort to foster more inclusive communities.