By Seungbeom Kang (University of Florida)
For the last few decades, rent hikes and stagnated incomes in the United States have consistently fueled a nationwide force that makes it hard for low-income households to be stably housed. According to the recent report by Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 10.9 million renters—or one in four—spent more than half their incomes on housing in 2018 and many low-income renters’ housing situations may be easily destabilized by minor financial shocks.
In response to tight market environments, U.S. housing policies have served to provide affordable and decent housing to millions of low-income households. Although there are numerous housing programs designed for different purposes, one common goal of all these programs has been to provide stable housing to program participants—in other words, to help them to avoid housing instability, often represented by negative forms of residential relocations that entail housing-related hardships.
As to the role of housing programs in alleviating housing instability, some may assume that housing programs do provide stable housing to program participants because they are designed to do so. In many ways, this sounds a reasonable expectation. Housing programs are designed to reduce program participants’ housing costs so that they can be relatively free from housing-cost-related risks such as falling behind on rent payments. For example, if a low-income household is fortunate enough to be chosen to receive a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) or to enter a public housing unit, probably after waiting for many years, the household is often required to pay only 30% of their household income for rent. In these programs with the income-based rent design, they may be able to keep their homes in response to unexpected financial shocks. That is, if their income declines, these changes are often tracked by local housing authorities and the rent amounts can be lowered. Even in the case of housing programs without such income-based rent design, program participants can pay a much lower amount of rent than market-rate rent for private rental units with similar quality.
Despite our expectation for housing programs as a tool to alleviate housing instability, several studies have pointed out that some subsidized households still suffer from housing-related hardships. They appear to be still severely burdened by housing costs—largely because their incomes are too small. Moreover, if utility allowances do not offset the costs, they may struggle to pay for utilities. Some may even fall behind on rent payment, violate lease contracts, and be evicted.
In particular, tenant-based program participants, in most cases, HCV holders—those who need to look for their housing units by themselves in private rental markets—tend to be exposed to additional risks originated from private market conditions, compared to place-based program participants—those who reside in housing units tied to housing subsidies. For example, HCV holders are often subject to income discrimination by private landlords; in most areas, it is still legal for landlords to refuse to accept HCV holders’ applications based on the status of housing assistance receipt. When HCV holders need to relocate (e.g., moving for larger space), unlike private market renters, they may have to find their next homes within a limited time—usually 60 to 120 days—to maintain their vouchers. If they do not locate housing, PHAs can rescind their vouchers. HCV recipients often have to accept low-quality, but available, housing that soon proves unsatisfactory and may require them to move again.
The potential risk of housing instability may be much higher among households that leave their housing programs involuntarily. Different from the expectation that leaving housing assistance is an entirely voluntary decision, some program leavers who leave because of housing-related problems and other negative reasons (e.g., lease violations, eviction, or inability to find a new place before their voucher is rescinded) may not be ready to fend for themselves completely in private rental markets.
Despite the potential risk of housing instability that may exist among housing program participants and leavers, little is known about the associations between the various statuses related to receiving or leaving from a certain type of housing assistance and the subsequent housing instability experience.
In my UAR article, “To Whom Do Housing Policies Provide Stable Housing? Examining Housing Assistance Recipients and Leavers,” I explored the associations between the five statuses related to receiving or leaving from a certain type of housing assistance and the subsequent housing instability experience. These statuses include households that (1) reside in a public or project-based subsidized housing (PH) unit, (2) leave a PH unit, (3) receive an HCV, (4) withdraw from the HCV program, and (5) are unsubsidized but income-eligible to receive housing assistance. In particular, I focused on examining the distinctive roles of the two major approaches to alleviating housing instability in U.S. affordable housing programs, place- and tenant-based programs. By analyzing the Panel Study of Income Dynamics data from 1999 to 2009 combined with the Assisted Housing Database and the Geospatial PSID datasets, I tested the following four research hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: All housing program participants, including place- and tenant-based program participants, are less likely to experience housing instability than are income-eligible unsubsidized households that do not receive housing assistance.
Hypothesis 2: Participants in tenant-based programs are more likely to experience housing instability than are participants in place-based programs.
Hypothesis 3: All housing program leavers, including PH and HCV leavers, are less likely to experience housing instability than are income-eligible, unsubsidized households that did not receive housing assistance.
Hypothesis 4: Those who withdraw from the HCV program are more likely to experience housing instability than are those who move out of PH units.
In my article, housing instability is indicated by two negative types of residential mobility. The first type is churning residential mobility, which indicates situations in which households relocate in response to housing-related hardships but continue to struggle with those hardships after they move because of a lack of options for stable residence. To be specific, it refers to situations where a household moved at least once from and to the status of living in unaffordable, overcrowding, or doubled-up housing at the beginning and end of a certain two-year period. As a supplementary measure to capture the housing instability experience that occurs amid a two-year period, if a household moved at least once for involuntary reasons and ended having at least one type of the three housing-related problems (i.e., living in unaffordable, overcrowded, or doubled-up housing), I also considered it a housing instability experience.
The results revealed that housing programs’ role may be not as straightforward as many of us anticipated. Although this study confirms that housing assistance recipients are much less likely to experience housing instability than are income-eligible, unsubsidized households, in my analytic sample, approximately 6% of PH residents and 12% of HCV recipients still experienced housing instability. More importantly, HCV recipients are more likely to experience housing instability than PH residents; to be specific, the likelihood of housing instability among HCV recipients is 2.6 times higher than that among PH residents. This finding supports the argument that potential market-related risks imposed disproportionately on HCV recipients could contribute to heightening the risk of housing instability.
This study finds no evidence supporting the policy expectation that housing assistance’s positive effects persist after program participants exit from their programs, particularly among those who withdraw from the HCV program. This finding is consistent with previous studies that have suggested that a significant proportion of those who leave housing programs, particularly HCV leavers, suffer from housing-related hardships.
I believe that this study contributes to expanding our knowledge about the HCV program’s double-edged role. On the one hand, the program has been viewed as an improvement over conventional public housing and other place-based housing programs because it is designed to help reduce concentrated poverty and expand subsidized households’ housing options. It is also true that to some extent, the HCV program’s flexibility has worked well to help its recipients move out of economically and racially segregated areas, particularly when the program is combined with mobility counseling such as the Baltimore Mobility Program. On the other hand, some HCV recipients may still suffer from housing-related hardships, particularly those who struggle to find housing units that accept vouchers and, at the same time, need to meet their housing needs in the private rental housing market.
The results in my article provide several policy implications for developing strategies to alleviate housing instability. First, local housing authorities need to understand whether their local rental housing markets are ready to provide their HCV recipients stable housing. Particularly, in tight rental housing markets, the approach to converting place-based subsidized units to HCVs, such as the Choice Mobility option in the RAD program, should entail policy efforts to build positive connections with landlords who are willing to accept voucher holders, so that households that choose the Choice Mobility option have decent options for stable housing. Second, when HCV recipients relocate, providing exemptions from many existing voucher rules—for example, through the Moving to Work (MTW) program—should be considered to (1) increase HCV recipients’ housing choices and (2) avoid the unwanted loss of housing vouchers. Third, comprehensive housing programs that involve mobility counseling or social supports should focus on those who remain exposed to the risk of housing instability while they receive housing assistance or those who are likely to leave their programs prematurely.
Seungbeom Kang is an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida. His research interests include housing instability, affordable housing policies, residential mobility, and urban poverty. He holds a PhD in city and regional planning from the Ohio State University.