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"Why Don’t Vouchers Do a Better Job of Deconcentrating Poverty? Insights from Fieldwork with Poor Families,"

by Stefanie DeLuca, Philip M.E. Garboden & Peter Rosenblatt September/October 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

Social scientists and policymakers have long understood the harmful effects that living in high-poverty neighborhoods can have on children and adults. Numerous studies underscore the links between neighborhood disadvantage and a host of social problems, including high school dropout, infant mortality, cognitive difficulties, teenage childbearing and exposure to violence (Sampson et al., 2002; Brooks-Gunn, Duncan & Aber, 1997; Sharkey, 2010; Harding, 2003). These studies show that families living in high-poverty neighborhoods face burdens beyond their individual resource constraints in finding jobs, staying safe and raising children. After falling during the decade of the 1990s, both the number of neighborhoods of extreme concentrated poverty (i.e., those that are 40% poor or more) and the number of people living in such neighborhoods rose during the past decade, such that 10% of poor people now live in extremely high-poverty neighborhoods (Kneebone et al., 2011).

Starting in the 1990s, the federal government significantly reshaped housing policy to address the problem of concentrated poverty. Recognizing that public housing projects were helping to create very high-poverty environments, Congress authorized the HOPE VI program in 1992. This program provided funding to demolish public housing complexes, in many cases replacing them with mixed-income communities. While these communities reduced poverty concentration by encouraging middle-class and poor families to share the same neighborhood, the HOPE VI program has contributed to a loss of almost one-fifth of the nation’s supply of public housing since 1995, and many families who had lived in the projects were unable to return to the redeveloped sites.

The families who did not or could not return to public housing after HOPE VI joined the millions of poor families already participating in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. The Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly Section 8) is the largest housing program in the country, subsidizing over 2.2 million households, twice the number served by traditional public housing projects (Schwartz, 2010). The voucher program provides tenants with a rent subsidy which they can use to lease any private-market unit costing less than 40-50% of the metropolitan area median rent.

Because vouchers are not attached to specific developments, the HCV program should theoretically work to deconcentrate poverty by allowing poor families to move to more affluent neighborhoods than they would otherwise be able to afford. Yet, despite this potential, voucher holders often struggle to reach low-poverty areas—on the whole, they are no more likely to enter low-poverty communities than poor renters who do not receive housing assistance (McClure, 2008). There are also significant racial differences in the program. Minority voucher users are even less likely than whites to be living in low-poverty communities, and the proportion of voucher recipients in such neighborhoods shrinks when recipients are mostly black and unassisted households are mostly white (McClure, 2008; Pendall, 2000). In sum, the Housing Choice Voucher program falls short of its full potential to facilitate moves by low-income families into low-poverty neighborhoods. Why?

Mobile, Alabama Study

To answer this question, we embarked on a multi-year study of family dynamics and housing mobility in Mobile, Alabama. While the story of housing and segregation is well known in larger “rust belt” cities in the Northeast and Midwest, less is known about how these processes play out in smaller cities. While our research site differs from those better known to urban scholars, it shares with these cities familiar patterns of racial segregation, concentrated poverty and the distribution of voucher holders; almost a quarter of the HCV households in the Mobile area live in the highest-poverty neighborhoods in the city. Between 2009 and 2012, we talked annually with over 100 low-income African-American families across Mobile about the places they had lived in the past, their reasons for moving, and their neighborhood characteristics, children, finances and family dynamics. Over the course of the study, we spent hundreds of hours with these families and their children, in their homes and in their communities. In order to get a fuller picture of the factors influencing mobility, we talked not only to voucher holders, but also to people in traditional public housing, and unassisted renters and some homeowners. Below we describe some highlights from the stories voucher families in our study shared with us about the strategies they use when trying to secure housing, and the challenges that some aspects of the housing voucher program create for them.


The Time Crunch

The difficulties begin before the families even receive their subsidy. Because the supply of vouchers lags far behind the demand (Rice & Sard, 2009 estimated that only one in four income-eligible families is served by the program), Housing Authorities often maintain waitlists that are thousands of names long. In many cities, the names on the waitlists are so old that administrators have abandoned a “first come, first served” policy and instead select families randomly when turnover vouchers become available.

In Mobile, families told us that their position on the list could change, depending on whether others deemed to be in greater need (such as those in homeless shelters) applied for a voucher, and that the waitlist would often open and then close, leaving families in the dark about when they could add their name to the list and officially start waiting. This unpredictability made it hard for families to plan for when they might get a call notifying them that their voucher was available. “Strong,” a grandmother who lives in Northwest Mobile, where she helps raise her grandchildren, was at work the day the Housing Authority called to tell her that her waitlist number had come up. When she called back the next day with her paperwork, she was told that it was too late and she had lost her spot. On the whole, the high demand for vouchers means that families often move off of the waitlist seemingly at random, years after they put in an application, and without any time to prepare to move.

Once families receive their voucher, they are limited in the amount of time they have to search for a unit. With such a high demand, Housing Authorities are under pressure to rescind the voucher if a family can’t find another unit in time, in order to let the next person on the waitlist use it. Federal guidelines provide families with a window of 60 days to search for housing, after which time Housing Authorities can decide whether or not to grant users an extension. This limited window created a time crunch among our respondents; for single mothers juggling childcare schedules and erratic work schedules, often without a car, the search time limit created an acute panic for our respondents.

Mothers responded to this time crunch in a number of ways that reduced their chances of ending up in a low-poverty neighborhood. Some relied on their social networks to refer them to a landlord—this common practice eased anxiety about running out of search time and being left without housing, but often meant that families took a housing unit in a poor or segregated neighborhood, because a relative in such a neighborhood saw a “for rent” sign down the street, or were themselves renting from the same landlord. Others, such as “Red Gal,” believed that “all the good places, they ain’t gonna let you on Section 8,” and did not attempt to spend their already limited time searching for scarce affordable housing in the less familiar, but more affluent, majority white parts of the city. In addition, like most places in the country, Mobile does not have a source of income protection law, which means that landlords can refuse to rent to voucher families.

Another significant factor that limits the geographic scope of the housing search is “the list,” a sheet of available properties and participating landlords given to families by the Housing Authority. This list is notoriously inconsistent—as “Strawberry” explained, “sometimes the house [on the list] isn't even available. The house ain't been fixed up yet. I'll call people, wait on people two or three months, to fix on the house, and they haven't fixed it.” In spite of its errors, many people told us the list was their primary resource during the housing search, and some believed (incorrectly) that they were not allowed to use their vouchers at places that weren’t on the list. We obtained a copy of the list from the Mobile Housing Authority, and when we geocoded the nearly 200 properties on it, we found that all but nine were in segregated neighborhoods in the city, and only seven were in low-poverty (less than 10% poor) areas.

Keoma’s story is especially instructive about how hard it is to find housing in the face of limited information and resources. We took Keoma, a recovering addict trying to escape public housing, to search for units when she was fortunate enough to get her voucher during our field period one summer. Using “the list,” the newspaper and our cell phones, we drove Keoma all around the Mobile area, looking at houses on the list and calling at least a dozen others. Despite the benefit of having fieldworkers transport her for eight hours and make phone calls, we could not help Keoma even get a lead on an available unit that day, let alone one in a non-poor area. Most of the apartment complexes themselves had waitlists of several years, and the landlords of several other units would never call back to let her know either way. A year later, we found out that Keoma’s voucher had expired and she was struggling severely, living paycheck-to-paycheck in a poor-quality, unassisted unit.

Residential Instability

The time crunch is not the only aspect of the voucher program that leads families to make panicked decisions about housing. When we asked families about their residential histories, the most common reason people moved was due to unit failure (DeLuca, Wood & Rosenblatt, 2011). These were cases when the housing families were paying for deteriorated to such a degree that they had to move, because the house could not pass the annual voucher inspection. The HCV program requires that all subsidized units be inspected every year, to provide some protection for families, encourage landlords to preserve valuable rental stock, and ensure that federal money is not being spent on uninhabitable places. Yet these inspections were also a major catalyst for mobility among families in our sample, as failing an inspection forced them to make an unplanned move, and again negotiate the voucher time crunch as they searched again for housing (see also Rosenblatt & DeLuca, Forthcoming for similar findings in Baltimore).

“Miss Jones” had lived in more than a dozen places since moving out of a public housing project with her voucher less than ten years ago. She recounted numerous unexpected moves that she and her four sons had to make because housing units they were living in failed inspections. She told us about gas leaks and mold growing on her bedroom walls, conditions that had forced her to leave prior units and go through the search process again. During one of our visits with her, she had found a place in a northern suburb of Mobile, in a mostly white neighborhood where her children loved the local school and her sons had white friends for the first time. But plumbing problems were causing regular flooding in the house, and disputes with her landlord led him to shut off all power to the house. She contacted the Housing Authority about the problems with her landlord, but in the meantime, in order to make her house livable in the Alabama summer for her asthmatic son, she bought a generator to run an air conditioning unit. She explained to us that:

“I have NO power. I have no way of cooking. I have no way of keeping food cool. I have lost a lot of food because I was thinking I can go to the store and keep the generator [on]. Well, if I run the generator when I leave throughout the day, I still have to turn the generator off [later] to burn less gas. So that means you’re leaving your FOOD in the refrigerator that’s going to be getting hot and cold, hot and cold. And you going to lose. So we have been living like scavengers. Like refugees. In this house.”

A month after our visit, Miss Jones’ unit failed inspection. After living in her car while she waited for another place to pass the initial inspection, she moved her family into another apartment, but in a neighborhood outside of the previous school district. She reported that her son in middle school was making his ninth school change since first grade.

Stories of unit failures like these were pervasive through our interviews. We were shown cracks in the walls and windows, and warned to walk around collapsed portions of the floor. Families also gave us tours of their homes to point out evidence of water damage from a leaky roof and the charred walls that resulted from small fires due to electrical problems. Our respondents shared horror stories about waking up with large rats sitting next to them in bed, eating their food or jumping out of cabinets. Roaches crawled up and down the walls and tables of a number of homes we visited, and respondents reported a wide variety of techniques and poisons they employed to try and keep vermin away, many of which created a toxic breathing environment. All of these things contributed to more residential instability.

Even after finding a unit within the voucher search time crunch, families had trouble staying put. Faced with a shortage of affordable housing in Mobile, some families told us how they undertook repair jobs on their own, in order to prevent their unit from failing inspection, or to make sure a unit would pass the initial inspection that would allow them to move in. “Tyra” told us that “I try to fix [the house] myself because…if he don’t fix and fix it right, they go make me MOVE!” She was so worried that she would have to move after reporting housing problems that she preemptively packed up all of her family’s belongings—only to end up staying in the house. Families also talked about withholding rent in a desperate attempt to force landlords to fix up the unit. Yet this strategy was risky—Marie withheld rent and tried to explain to the housing inspector that her landlord “ain’t never come and fix nothing,” but she was terminated from the voucher program for non-payment, and now pays three times as much in rent, which stretches her wages as a part-time nursing assistant.

Lack of exposure to lower-poverty neighborhoods

As noted above, the time crunch experienced by voucher users and the sudden and unpredictable nature of the low-income rental market makes it difficult for families to undertake the thorough search needed to locate quality housing in low-poverty areas. But our interviews in Mobile also revealed how families lack information and experience with low-poverty neighborhoods and as such do not necessarily view them as part of the “choice set” from which they selected where to live (see also Krysan & Bader, 2007; Rosenblatt & DeLuca, Forthcoming).

Many of our respondents saw the voucher primarily as a way to help them afford housing, and secondarily as a way to “get out of the projects,” or access neighborhoods with better-quality housing. While many differentiated between good and bad neighborhoods in the city, a few of our respondents expressed the belief that it did not matter where you live, or as “Ms. Blues,” a janitor who spent 30 years living in or near public housing, explained, “all neighborhoods are bad.” This belief is similar to that expressed by low-income respondents in Baltimore, who told us that “it’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” or “we don’t live outside, we live in here” (Rosenblatt & DeLuca, Forthcoming). These attitudes are part of how families manage life in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, both for themselves and their children. It is important to recognize that with this backdrop of limited information and experiences, families are not necessarily inclined to seek housing in more affluent, less segregated areas, especially when faced with the constraints on searching for housing. Without housing counseling or other incentives to help them learn about the potential benefits of a low- poverty neighborhood, families’ default strategies and resources are unlikely to help them escape the pattern of repeated mobility into poor, segregated neighborhoods.


These stories make it clear that families who use the Housing Choice Voucher program face a number of constraints that limit their ability to make a careful, calculated search for housing. Not only do they face difficulties finding affordable housing where landlords will take their voucher in the first place, but with the loud ticking clock on their voucher, they are often forced into desperate and last-minute choices about where to live. Landlord referrals, the Housing Authority’s limited property list and a general unfamiliarity with better-off neighborhoods helped channel families into other poor, segregated neighborhoods (cf. DeLuca, Wood & Rosenblatt, 2011). Under these circumstances, it would be misleading to say that many of the families we studied were affirmatively “choosing” their neighborhoods.

These barriers are reinforced by some aspects of the HCV program’s administration that reduce the capacity and incentive for Public Housing Authorities to implement programs that leverage vouchers to deconcentrate poverty. For example, the way HUD has traditionally chosen to set maximum “Fair Market Rents” (FMRs), at the 40th (or 50th) percentile of overall metropolitan rents, tends to place rental units in many higher-opportunity communities out of reach. Also, HUD’s tool for assessing the annual performance of each Public Housing Authority (PHA) in the country, the Section Eight Management Assessment Program (SEMAP), allocates only 10-15 out of 155 total points for efforts relating to deconcentrating poverty, meaning that PHAs have little incentive to build safeguards against further concentrations of poverty into their programs. Furthermore, the balkanized nature of voucher administration, with PHAs often assigned to administer housing programs within a jurisdiction rather than across a metropolitan area (Katz & Turner, 2001), means that families wishing to move between jurisdictions, such as from a center city to a surrounding county, must go through additional time-consuming steps to arrange for the transfer of their voucher (a few of our families recounted how difficult this was). This process of portability provides little incentive for sending PHAs to encourage families to move to another jurisdiction, even though such mobility can dramatically improve families’ chances of accessing housing in less poor, less segregated communities (see DeLuca, Garboden & Rosenblatt, Forthcoming for more details).

While these constraints are daunting, there are policy changes that can directly impact them, some of which are currently under consideration at HUD. We should encourage HUD to strengthen the deconcentration factor in the SEMAP rule, streamline the portability process, and experiment with smaller area FMR limits (which would set voucher rents by zip code rather than metropolitan area, thus increasing the rent limit in low-poverty areas while decreasing it in high-poverty ones). The findings highlighted here suggest that HUD could also extend the voucher search time, especially for families who are trying to rent the difficult to find units in low- poverty neighborhoods.

There are also a number of special “mobility programs” that have been implemented in several metropolitan areas across the country. These programs, often resulting from desegregation lawsuits, provide counseling to low-income, minority families to help them find housing in low-poverty or non-segregated neighborhoods. These programs—which include Chicago’s Gautreaux program and Baltimore’s Thompson program—provide a wealth of knowledge on the benefits and problems associated with helping families overcome the constraints outlined here (see DeLuca & Dayton, 2009; DeLuca, Wood & Rosenblatt, 2011). Our findings and the lessons from mobility demonstrations suggest that a combination of policy revisions designed to help Housing Authorities administer the program more effectively, alongside concerted mobility counseling for families, could open our metropolitan regions for the over 2 million households who use this program to secure housing for themselves and their families.

Works Cited

Brooks-Gunn, J. Duncan, G. & Aber, J.L. (Eds.), 1997. Neighborhood Poverty I: Context and Consequences for Children. New York: Russell Sage

DeLuca, Stefanie & Elizabeth Dayton. 2009. “Switching Social Contexts: The Effects of Housing Mobility and School Choice Programs on Youth Outcomes” Annual Review of Sociology 35(1): 457-491

DeLuca, Stefanie, Philip M.E. Garboden & Peter Rosenblatt, Forthcoming. “Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low-Income Minority Families” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Special Volume, “Rethinking Urban Disadvantage: The Role of Systems, Institutions, and Organizations” (Mario Small & Scott Allard, Eds.)

DeLuca, Stefanie, Holly Wood & Peter Rosenblatt, 2011. “Why Poor People Move (and Where They Go): Residential Mobility, Selection, and Stratification” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Las Vegas, NV, August 22

DeLuca, Stefanie & Peter Rosenblatt, 2009. “Walking Away from The Wire: Residential Mobility and Opportumnity in Baltimore” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco

Harding, David J., 2003. "Counterfactual Models of Neighborhood Effects: The Effect of Neighborhood Poverty on Dropping Out and Teenage Pregnancy" American Journal of Sociology 109(3): 676-719

Katz, Bruce J. & Austin Turner, 2001. “Who Should Run the Housing Voucher Program? A Reform Proposal” Housing Policy Debate 12(2): 239-262

Kneebone, Elizabeth, Carey Nadeau, & Alan Berube. 2011. The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s. Washington. DC: Brookings

Krysan, Maria & Michael Bader, 2007. “Perceiving the Metropolis: Seeing the City Through a Prism of Race” Social Forces 86(2): 699-733

McClure, Kirk, 2008. “Deconcentrating Poverty with Housing Programs” Journal of the American Planning Association 74(1): 90-99

Pendall, Rolf. 2000. “Why Voucher and Certificate Users Live in Distressed Neighborhoods” Housing Policy Debate 11(4): 881-910

Rice, Douglas & Barbara Sard, 2009. Decade of Neglect Has Weakened Federal Low-Income Housing Programs. Washington, DC.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Rosenblatt, Peter & Stefanie DeLuca. Forthcoming. “'We Don't Live Outside, We Live In Here': Residential Mobility Decisions Among Low-Income Families.” City and Community 11(3): 254-284

Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenoff & Thomas Gannon Rowley, 2002. “Assessing ‘Neighborhood Effects’: Social Processes and New Directions in Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 28:443-478

Schwartz, Alex F., 2010. Housing Policy in the United States, Second Edition. New York, NY: Routledge

Sharkey, Patrick, 2010. “The Acute Effect of Local Homicides on Children’s Cognitive Performance” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 11733–11738.

Stefanie DeLuca , a PRRAC Social Science Advisory Board member, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.
Philip M.E. Garboden is a doctoral student in sociology at Johns Hopkins University.
Peter Rosenblatt is Asst. Prof. of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago.

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