Where do Housing Voucher Holders Choose to Live?

By Ruoniu Wang (University of Florida, Gainsville)

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a recent study Dr. Wang published in UAR.

In the United States, the differences in what a neighborhood can offer is stark. Some neighborhoods are full of amenities: safe and clean streets, high-performing schools, and abundant employment opportunities and services; other neighborhoods have high crime rates, failing schools, and are physically isolated form services and employment centers. Living in a good neighborhood can positively impact life trajectories.  As a recent study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren shows, children who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods had long-term gains in earnings, college attendance, and successful marriages.1 Despite of this, rising levels of income inequality in recent years have deepened the class segregation that is entrenched in our society.

The Housing Choice Voucher program (HCVP), the country’s largest rental assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), intends to allow low-income households to choose the neighborhood they want to live. If voucher holders are free to select housing, presumably the choice should reflect their needs and interests. However, studies have shown that location outcomes of voucher recipients are unsatisfactory. Many voucher holders concentrate in neighborhoods with higher poverty, lower-quality schools, and higher crime rate than average renters.

Why does HCVP fall short of providing access to opportunity? To understand that, one approach is to explore how voucher holders end up where they do. Part of what leads voucher holders to choose a particular neighborhood is their own preferences for what makes a good neighborhood. In a study I recently published in UAR, I sought to determine the importance of neighborhood preferences among the larger constellation of preferences and constraints that ultimately affect voucher holders’ neighborhood location. This led me to following questions: Do voucher households, in fact, demonstrate strong preferences for particular neighborhood characteristics? If so, do these preferences correspond to the actual locations where they move? Which neighborhood preferences are easier to satisfy than others? Are there factors helping or preventing voucher holders from matching their preferred neighborhood characteristics to their actual locations?

These questions are in part answered through a residential survey in Duval County located on the northeast coast of Florida. Duval County is characterized by rapidly growing population, a strong housing market, and a sprawling development pattern typical of many newer metropolitan areas throughout the country. Survey results show that most voucher households do place a priority on neighborhood characteristics, specifically safety, neighborhood physical condition, and school quality. Poverty de-concentration and racial desegregation, on the other hand, are less important to them.

Voucher location outcome is captured by two indicators: neighborhood opportunity and transportation accessibility to destinations. The first group identifies neighborhoods that offer opportunity to residents, as measured by low poverty, racial diversity, low crime rates, and high quality schools and building conditions. The second group measures residents’ ability to reach various types of destinations, such as employment, schools, shopping, services and recreation, from the housing location. After comparing location outcomes with corresponding neighborhood preferences, it is found that to a large extent voucher holders did not live in places that meet their preferences. As shown in the figure below, nearly 60% of respondents could not satisfy any location attributes, and only 4% were able to find a place that met both opportunity and accessibility preferences. These mismatches generally persist across subgroups of voucher holders, although families with children are somewhat more able to satisfy opportunity and less able to satisfy accessibility than elderly and disabled voucher households.

wang_housingvouchers_graph

Percentage distribution for subpopulations of voucher holders among preference-outcome categories.

My survey results help to explain the preference-outcome mismatch. High preferences for location attributes are overshadowed by stronger priorities for housing unit characteristics, as well as challenges voucher households confront. Specifically, the survey revealed higher priorities for housing unit over neighborhood conditions as well as heavy reliance on property listings provided by the housing authority. Other housing search barriers included limited search time, a scarcity of units with proper size, and landlords reluctant to rent to voucher holders in general. Rents in desired neighborhoods exceeded the program’s maximum subsidy. In short, neighborhood preference is only a subset of choice (neighborhood + unit), and choice is a subset of the reasons that tenants end up where they do (choices + constraints). Hence, the low influence of neighborhood preference on location outcome is due to greater effects of other factors during housing search process.

To promote housing choice and help voucher-holders move to better neighborhoods, mitigating (if not removing) search barriers becomes essential. Based on my findings, one approach is to provide voucher households with information about more housing in more neighborhoods. To this end I am developing an affordable and effective online opportunity housing search tool for voucher households. In addition, more affordable, voucher-accessible housing units are needed in opportunity-rich neighborhoods. Raising the level of subsidy in these neighborhoods is an effective approach that HUD has implemented in a few pilot localities and needs to be expanded in the rest parts of the country.

Chetty, R., & Hendren N. (2015). The effects of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility: Childhood exposure effects and county-level estimates. Boston, MA: Harvard University.


Dr. Ruoniu Wang is a postdoctoral researcher with the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, where he works on multiple research projects pertaining to assisted and affordable housing. His research interests lie in the geography of opportunity, housing mobility, and transportation. Dr. Wang received his Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida.

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