Achieving Housing Choice and Mobility in the Voucher Program: Recommendations for the Administration is in the latest edition of the American Bar Association Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law (Vol. 27-1).
The article recognizes the Housing Choice Voucher Program as vital to helping homeless individuals and low-income families’ overcome barriers to housing stability, and a powerful tool to deconcentrate poverty and decrease racial segregation in our nation’s communities. While acknowledging the program’s potential to improve individual lives, families, and communities, the article discusses the program’s failure to meet its housing and community goals:
Tenants with a voucher disproportionately live in low-rent, racially segregated neighborhoods. In fact, almost a quarter million children in the voucher program live in neighborhoods of extreme poverty. Many voucher families are unable to obtain rental housing outside of areas of poverty and, in some cases, fail to lease up at all.
Existing Barriers to Housing and Policy Recommendations
The article addresses existing barriers to housing stability for voucher holders and provides six policy recommendations:
(1) increasing the value of vouchers to reflect market rent by improving HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) methodology,
(2) improving landlord participation in the voucher program by prohibiting voucher discrimination and creating landlord incentives,
(3) funding mobility counseling programs that will assist voucher families who want to move to areas of opportunity,
(4) revising consortia and portability regulations to make it easier for families to move around in a given region,
(5) creating an effective incentive to deconcentrate in the Section 8 assessment system, and
(6) enforcing housing authorities’ duties to affirmatively further fair housing.
San Diego’s Failure to Enact Voucher Discrimination Hurts Homeless Veterans
The article’s discrimination section, “Prohibit Discrimination or Incentivize Landlords to Accept Vouchers,” identifies San Diego for its failure to enact a Section 8 discrimination ordinance:
In cities like San Diego, for example, where hundreds of veterans remain on the street because they have nowhere to use their housing vouchers, government officials are desperately seeking landlords who will accept vouchers and help house the nation’s veterans. This is particularly disturbing because vouchers are largely responsible for the reduction in homeless veterans nationwide.
The blanket refusal of some landlords to house voucher holders increases the harm and severity of the country’s rental housing crisis, continues a cycle of poverty and segregation, and perpetuates housing barriers that are often based on misguided stereotypes. Yet there are a number of ways to address this issue.
The article cites banning source of income discrimination as the primary way to address this issue:
Ban source of income discrimination: One of the most effective ways to improve housing choice and mobility for all voucher families would be to prevent unreasonable discrimination against voucher tenants or otherwise legally require landlords to accept vouchers.
HUD should work with Congress to create a federal prohibition on discriminating against voucher families by expanding the Fair Housing Act to explicitly protect individuals who pay rent using a federal housing voucher. HUD should also consider working with Congress to craft federal legislation that would require landlords to accept tenants that meet all of their eligibility requirements.
The failure of landlords to accept vouchers is so pervasive that many states and local jurisdictions have adopted “Source of Income Protection” (SOI) laws to protect voucher families from discrimination. Such laws broaden housing opportunities for low-income voucher families by increasing the amount of housing available. They also help reduce the stigma associated with using a voucher.
Research demonstrates that state and local SOI antidiscrimination laws improve outcomes for voucher holders. Several studies have found that the probability of successfully using a voucher within the allowed search time was significantly higher in jurisdictions with a SOI antidiscrimination protection.
How San Diego’s Undervaluing of Vouchers Exacerbates Homelessness
The article’s voucher value section, “Set Rent Levels That Compete with the Local Market,” explains the crux of the Housing Choice Voucher Program: voucher value must reflect current market rents.
Some voucher tenants simply cannot compete for private housing because the value of their voucher is less than market rent.
The two main factors at play are HUD’s setting of “fair market rents” and housing authorities’ setting of “payment standards.” First, HUD sets “fair market rents” (FMRs) for Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) around the country.
FMRs are meant to reflect gross rent estimates in a given geographical area and are used by housing authorities to set the maximum assistance that a housing authority will pay for a particular bedroom-sized unit, i.e., the “payment standard.”
Housing authorities have considerable discretion in setting their payment standards, but HUD generally requires them to be set at 90 percent to 110 percent of FMR. In some cases, the FMR is lower than average rents but the PHA still maintains a low payment standard.
These decisions reduce both the amount of assistance a family can receive and mean that there may be very little housing available to voucher families in low-poverty, high-opportunity neighborhoods.
Undervalued vouchers prevent low-income families and homeless individuals with vouchers from accessing housing, further exacerbating a locality’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis.
Low-income families rely on voucher values. It is vital that voucher values reflect current market rents. If market rents are higher than the voucher value, the voucher holder cannot rent that unit. The voucher holder must seek rental units that are below the payment standard.2 The voucher value therefore limits the units that the voucher holder can access.
Locally, San Diego City Council has continued to approve outdated voucher values that reflect years-old market rents despite local rents rising at a higher rate than the rest of the country.1 San Diego’s current voucher values reflect 2015 rents, not market rents.
Fair Market Rents are calculated by HUD on an annual basis. Fair Market Rents determine the value of a housing voucher.
As shown below, San Diego Housing Commission has set voucher values significantly below 2018 Market Rents. In one third of the zip codes*, San Diego has issued the same voucher amount since 2015, despite rents skyrocketing since 2015. As shown below, local vouchers values do not reflect current market rents, which prevents low-income families and homeless individuals with vouchers from accessing housing.
|San Diego Zip Code||Fair Market Rents for 2018||San Diego-Issued Vouchers for 2018|
Fair Market Rents for 2018 issued by HUD based on 2018 Market Rents for each zip code in San Diego. Access here: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/fmr/fmrs/FY2018_code/select_Geography.odn
San Diego-Issued Vouchers for 2018 issued by San Diego Housing Commission for three tiers of zip codes in San Diego. Access here: https://www.sdhc.org/uploadedFiles/Media_Center/Fact_Sheets/Choice-Communities-Initiative_FS.pdf
*2015 Rents – For 11 of the zip codes, San Diego Housing Commission has issued the same voucher amount since 2015 despite skyrocketing rents. Access 2015 voucher values here: http://sdhc.org/uploadedFiles/Rental_Assistance/Payment%20Standards_Income%20Limits%20Website%20Sheet.pdf
(1) The local government agency (referred to as the public housing authority, the public housing agency, or the PHA) authorized to issue vouchers is the San Diego Housing Commission, which is governed by the Housing Authority of the City of San Diego, comprised of the nine members of the San Diego City Council. San Diego’s Housing Authority has final authority over San Diego Housing Commission’s budget and major policy changes.
(2) In some circumstances, a voucher holder can rent a unit even though the payment standard is higher than the rent. However, in these situations, the voucher holder has to pay the difference between the payment standard and the rent (this is in addition to the voucher holder paying her portion of the rent after the voucher is used). If, however, the voucher holder’s total payments towards rent (her portion of the rent after the voucher is used, and the difference between the payment standard and the rent) is more than 40% of her monthly income at the time she is trying to rent the unit, she cannot use her voucher there (the 40% rule only applies upon lease-up – if her rent later increases beyond the payment standard, she can continue living there despite the high percentage of her income that is going to rent).
Photo by Ed Yourdon – Homeless and Cold, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Herb Neufeld – San Diego, CA, Flickr Creative Commons