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Voucher Mobility

Housing vouchers were created as an alternative to publically owned and subsidized affordable housing developments. Housing vouchers give low-income households a housing subsidy that they can use to make a privately owned apartment affordable, giving them mobility—the ability to move where they want. With a voucher, the tenant is responsible for paying rent that equals 30 percent of their income and the voucher pays for the difference between the cost of rent and 30 percent of the tenant’s income. Public and subsidized affordable housing were historically located in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and housing vouchers are a theoretical tool to help households leave neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Housing vouchers are intended to support household mobility by giving households a choice in where they want to live and allowing them to pick private housing they deem to meet their needs as long as it meets the requirements of the voucher program.  The goal of many housing voucher programs is to offer low-income households access to neighborhoods with greater opportunities, high-quality schools, jobs, healthcare and other services. The most common housing voucher program is the federal Housing Choice Voucher program (historically referred to as ‘Section 8’), though some state and local communities also run their own similar voucher programs.

How the Housing Choice Voucher Program Works

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is a federally funded program administered by local public housing authorities (PHAs), with oversight from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that assists low-income households in affording privately owned rental housing. Typically, a household with an HCV pays 30 percent of its monthly income toward rent, and the PHA pays the landlord the difference between that amount and the full rent, up to a set limit. This limit is calculated using HUD standards for Fair Market Rent, which is assessed on a regional scale. The amount of the subsidy for each unit is referred to as the “payment standard” and usually varies by unit size. Roughly 2.2 million families in the United States have housing vouchers.

Barriers to Successful Housing Voucher Programs

The HCV program is the single largest federal housing subsidy program for low-income renters.   Since the program’s inception in the 1970s, however, the goal of expanding housing choice has not been fully realized, as a disproportionate number of voucher holders continue to live in impoverished, majority-minority neighborhoods, with lower-performing schools than do other renters.

In theory, a housing voucher can be used at any property, provided that a landlord agrees to accept it. However, in nearly every state it is legal for a landlord to refuse to accept vouchers as payment. Generally voucher acceptance by landlords is popular in areas where rental demand is low. In high rental demand neighborhoods, landlords do not need voucher holders to fill units and have little interest in participating in screening and inspection requirements that come with voucher holders. Additionally, low-income voucher holders face more practical barriers to moving to low-poverty and high-opportunity neighborhoods, including limited public transit access, the loss of support networks and high rent deposit requirements, among others.

Many state and local governments have created their own housing voucher programs to try to resolve the overwhelming unmet demand for the HCV program. The wait lists for HCVs can be years long, and many PHAs have closed their wait lists. On a national level, only one in four eligible low-income households actually receives a voucher.

Mobility assistance programs help households that secure vouchers overcome obstacles to using housing vouchers in safer neighborhoods with higher-quality schools and therefore better access to jobs and services. Successful mobility programs often use a combination of direct assistance, legal strategies and administrative policies in order to provide a comprehensive set of services for voucher holders.

Resources 2016. Partnered by: American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, The Aspen Institute, Inclusive Communities Project, Housing Choice Partners, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, National Fair Housing Alliance, Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

Recent Books, Articles, and Reports on Housing Mobility, Housing Assistance, and Family Outcomes 2012–2015. 2015. By Audrey Berdahl-Baldwin. Washington, D.C.: Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

State, Local, and Federal Laws Barring Source-of-Income Discrimination. 2015. Washington, D.C.: Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

More Choices for More Families: 6th National Conference on Housing Mobility Program Booklet. 2015. Chicago, Ill.: Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

How Chicago Is Trying to Integrate Its Suburbs. 2015. By Alana Semuels. Washington, D.C.: The Atlantic.

Driving to Opportunity. 2014. By Rolf Pendall, Christopher Hayes, Arthur (Taz) George, Zach McDade, Casey Dawkins, Jae Sik Jeon, Eli Knaap, Evelyn Blumenberg, Gregory Pierce, Michael Smart. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

Expanding Choice: Practical Strategies for Building a Successful Housing Mobility Program. 2013. By Molly Scott, Mary Cunningham, Jennifer Biess, Jennifer Lee O’Neil, Phil Tegeler, Ebony Gayles, Barbara Sard. Washington, D.C.:  Poverty & Race Research Action Council and the Urban Institute.

Streamline Administration of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 2013. By Bruce Katz and Margery Austin Turner. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

Potential Sources of Funding for Housing Mobility Counseling Programs. 2012. Washington, D.C.: Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

Improving Neighborhood Location Outcomes in the Housing Choice Voucher Program: A Scan of Mobility Assistance Programs. 2010. By Mary Cunningham, Molly Scott, Chris Narducci, Sam Hall, Alexandra Stanczyk. What Works Collaborative.

New Homes, New Neighborhoods, New Schools: A Progress Report on the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program. 2009. By Lora Engdahl. Baltimore, MD: Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign.


Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership

Inclusive Communities Project

Kirwan Institute

Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership

Metropolitan Planning Council (Chicago)

Poverty & Race Research Action Council

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