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Subsidies in the Suburbs

Guest post by Kenya Covington, Lance Freeman, and Michael Stoll

Housing vouchers, like most Americans, have gone suburban. In a new Brookings report, we found that nearly half of housing choice voucher (HCV--previously known as Section 8) recipients within the nation’s largest metro areas live in the suburbs, a proportion that increased, albeit modestly, during the past decade.

This shift shouldn’t be a huge surprise. HUD enacted policies in the 1990s to help expand the portability of vouchers and housing location choices for low-income families, affording some the ability to move away from high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Other programs like HOPE VI actively de-concentrated federally subsidized households away from such neighborhoods. Meanwhile, as suburban communities age, some of their housing units are becoming more affordable to renters of modest means, including voucher holders. Indeed, the suburbanization of HCV recipients during the 2000s accounted for about 20 percent of the overall rapid growth in America’s suburban poor population.

So what do these trends mean for HCV recipients and the communities in which they live?

In many cases, new poor residents moving into suburban neighborhoods trigger a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) response. That reaction may be spurred by preconceived stereotypes of the poor, what kind of lifestyle they live, and fears about what people and activities they may attract to the neighborhood. Some argue that these households place additional strains on resources, even in the face of stressed local budgets for basic services.

This narrative, unfortunately, overlooks a couple of ways that vouchers provide important support to many suburbs today. First, the growing instability of suburban communities faced with historically high foreclosures and long-term unemployment or underemployment has pushed long-established suburbanites into poverty. Many are experiencing poverty for the first time in their adult lives, and consequently eligible for needed assistance like housing vouchers.

Second, financially-troubled suburban homeowners may be more likely to enlist their units into government programs like housing choice vouchers, which guarantee rental income and may help these households avoid foreclosure. This increase in affordable housing may in turn allow additional HCV recipients to relocate into suburban neighborhoods in the short run.

Of course, these factors also highlight that not all suburbs are alike. Some are rich with education and job opportunities, and others--especially those that may rely more on the HCV program--tend to lack those opportunities. And though some progress has been made, HCV recipients are still more likely to end up in lower-income, lower-opportunity suburbs. They have yet to penetrate higher-income suburban neighborhoods in any meaningful way, in part because housing costs are much higher there. Yet those neighborhoods are likely to place poor families in proximity to the kinds of economic opportunities that can markedly improve their life outcomes.

The voucher program can’t alone accomplish the goal of moving recipients into better suburbs. Public policy makers must also provide greater incentives for building multi-family housing and improve enforcement of fair housing laws and encourage re-evaluation of local zoning regulations. In particular, minimum lot sizes should be discouraged and loopholes around local requirements for inclusionary zoning eliminated.

But there are opportunities to fine tune the voucher program to facilitate its use in higher-opportunity suburban neighborhoods. For one, counseling is critical to the success of voucher recipients, yet housing authorities do not uniformly offer it. This limits household access to information about housing options in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Using technology and smarter search engines could provide more cost-effective ways to provide counseling that also help bridge the gap in information about high-quality neighborhoods.

In higher-income communities, efforts to strategically locate mixed-income, densely constructed housing closer to commercial corridors and transit stops in these neighborhoods can create more livable and sustainable places to live. Linking affordable units within these developments to the voucher program could guarantee low vacancy rates and generated greater demand for corridor businesses. For instance, mixed-income housing goals in programs like HUD’s Sustainable Communities could specifically set aside units for voucher recipients. HUD could also support regions like Chicago where housing authorities pool resources to provide voucher holders with enhanced access to high-quality communities.  

At the same time, the deep recession and weak recovery still gripping most parts of the country has triggered a more intense need for affordable housing for very low-income households. Housing for these households is among the scarcest, and demand is growing. Suburbs cannot house all of the poor, and attempts to relocate HCV recipients into thriving suburban neighborhoods may meet with even less success given current circumstances. As a result, urban neighborhoods will continue to house a significant share of our lowest income residents.

If we intend for housing policy to provide a platform for greater opportunity for low-income families, then urban neighborhoods require coordinated investments--in areas like education, transportation, and economic development--that afford these families such opportunities. Promising new programs such as Choice Neighborhoods could do more to ensure that communities undergoing redevelopment create housing opportunities for voucher holders, who tend to have incomes far below the area median.

One silver lining to these difficult economic times is that they have created a natural experiment for using existing housing policies in new and more effective ways. Seeing how programs like housing choice vouchers operate under economic stress can yield a wealth of lessons to help families and communities overcome pressing housing challenges. More deliberate strategies to make housing subsidies a platform for family success, in both suburbs and cities, can and should emerge from this uncertain period.

Kenya Covington is an assistant professor in urban studies and planning at California State University Northridge; Lance Freeman is director and associate professor of the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University; Michael Stoll is a Brookings nonresident senior fellow and professor and chair for the Department of Public Policy at UCLA.