PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Section 8 in the Suburbs: The Milwaukee County Security Deposit Assistance Program as an Incentive,"

by Peter Rosenblatt March/April 2015 issue of Poverty & Race


As in many metropolitan areas in the United States, the Milwaukee region has significant divisions between city and suburb. In addition to racial divides and growing income segregation, opportunities for employment and high-quality education in the Milwaukee region are starkly divided along city-suburb lines. Our study, “Take a Chance on Me: A Review of the Milwaukee County Security Deposit Assistance Program” examines an innovative program in Milwaukee that can help address these divides by assisting low-income families and children to reach higher-opportunity neighborhoods across the metropolitan region. The Milwaukee County Security Deposit Assistance Program (SDAP) provides families who use Housing Choice Vouchers with a grant of up to $1,000 to pay for their security deposit on rental units in the suburbs. The structure of the SDAP provides a unique opportunity to study the potential of an incentive for encouraging families to move to higher-opportunity areas.

Once an industrial center, the City of Milwaukee has fallen behind its suburban neighbors in a number of ways. The city is now home to only one-fifth of the region’s remaining manufacturing. Since the mid-1990s, job growth in general has been overwhelmingly in the suburbs; Milwaukee City has lost 28,000 jobs while the nearby suburbs of Milwaukee County have gained 16,000 jobs (Levine 2013). Educational opportunities for children are also unevenly apportioned. Of the more than 400 school districts in Wisconsin, Milwaukee City ranks next to last in reading performance and third to last in math. By contrast, school districts in the Milwaukee County suburbs rank in the 56th and 57th percentile in reading and math on average, with six of these districts in the 90th percentile or better statewide (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction 2014). These city-suburb divides are compounded by racial segregation. Milwaukee is the most racially segregated metropolitan region in America (Logan & Stults 2011) with most African-American families in the region concentrated in the northern part of the city, surrounded by majority-white suburbs. In addition to separating black families from opportunities, this racial division has deep implications for neighborhood inequality—in metropolitan Milwaukee, the average white household lives in a neighborhood that is 8.5% poor, while the average black household lives in a neighborhood that is 27% poor (Logan 2011).

The Housing Choice Voucher Program offers one way to address metropolitan divides by helping low-income families move to higher-opportunity areas. By providing a subsidy (usually the difference between 30% of family income and a local Fair Market Rent) directly to tenants, the voucher program should theoretically allow families to move to better-off, well-resourced neighborhoods across the metropolitan area in which they would otherwise struggle to find affordable housing. In practice, however, voucher holders in the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas are more often found in central cities than in suburbs, and tend to be more segregated, more spatially clustered, and more concentrated in poor neighborhoods than unassisted low-income families (McClure, Schwartz & Taghavi 2014; Metzger 2014).

This study examines one way to improve the performance of the voucher program and address metropolitan divides, by exploring the potential of security deposit assistance to encourage voucher families to search for housing in suburban areas. We can expect a program like the SDAP to only address a small part of the uneven geography of opportunity in the Milwaukee region. Yet a nuanced look at the program allows us to appreciate the ways families can be assisted in moving against this gradient of place-based inequality, as well as understand how the specific features of the region inhibit wider successes.

Origins of the Program

The Milwaukee County Security Deposit Assistance Program originally arose from concerns for families whose housing units failed the annual inspection that is part of the voucher program. These families are required to leave their homes and generally do not have time to save for a security deposit on their next place, putting them at risk of losing assistance altogether if they cannot find a new unit before their voucher search time runs out, generally in 60 days. Staff at the Milwaukee County Housing Division obtained approval to use funds from the HOME program (a Federal block grant given to states and local governments) for security deposit assistance, and the SDAP went into effect in September 2013. Security deposit assistance takes the form of a payment to landlords on behalf of voucher tenants, and is paid back to tenants at the conclusion of their lease, meaning it is available for use on a future rental. Due to jurisdictional boundaries in the use of HOME funds, the SDAP is limited to the 18 suburban municipalities outside of the city, but within Milwaukee County. This means that the SDAP can only be used to support a lease in the suburbs.

This unique arrangement provides a chance to effectively isolate one particular type of housing intervention and study how security deposit assistance works as an incentive for voucher families to search for housing in the suburbs. Our research questions are: 1) Did the SDAP encourage families to search for housing in the suburbs? and 2) What other factors shaped the housing search?

To study the program, we used phone surveys carried out by a local fair housing organization, supplemented by 20 in-depth interviews with families who expressed an interest in the program. The surveys were conducted with 72 people between February and June of 2014. We interviewed household heads from a subsample of surveyed families in September and October 2014. The interviews were done in order to get more information about how families weighed the SDAP when searching for housing, and understand the other factors that shaped the housing search. At the time of our data collection, no new families were being enrolled in the Milwaukee County Housing Choice Voucher Program. This means that all families were established voucher users and heard about the SDAP at their annual recertification or when they notified the housing authority of their intent to move from their address.


Both our survey and interviews showed that families overwhelmingly searched for housing in the suburbs. More than three-quarters of the families who applied to the program searched in at least two different suburban communities. All but one of the 18 suburban municipalities in Milwaukee County was a destination for at least one housing search by program applicants. Most of the household heads who expressed interest in the SDAP were women, and three-quarters were African-American. Most survey respondents had at least one child, although roughly one-third had no children living with them. Overall, 15% of those surveyed were able to use the security deposit assistance by signing a lease in the suburbs
More families searched in the suburbs than were able to lease there. Our interviews suggest that the SDAP played an important role in encouraging these searches. James, a 60-year-old grandfather, explained that his most recent housing search was different than prior ones “mainly because of the security deposit program. Other than that, I probably wouldn’t have looked in the suburbs, period.” Other respondents talked about how the program encouraged them to “branch out a little more” in their housing search, or discussed the significance of accessing better schools or grocery options in suburban areas. Only two of our 20 interview respondents refused to search in the suburbs because they were “too far away.” One of these respondents thought that if she had reliable transportation she would have considered it, while the other explained that her reluctance to search was based on past experience with landlords in Milwaukee County who refused to accept the rent assistance voucher.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that a desire to be close to family or friends would prevent household heads from searching in the suburbs. While a common thread in the interviews was a desire to be close to family, respondents generally did not equate this with a need to be in the same neighborhood. Instead, interviewees reported searching in nearby suburbs, a trend that was supported by our survey, which showed the most popular search destinations to be towns on the northeastern or western borders of the city. Another factor that encouraged families to search in nearby suburbs was access to transportation; since half of our interviewees were without a car, bus access was a key component of their suburban housing search. Ashley explained she ruled out more distant suburbs in her search, although she was ultimately able to use the SDAP: “Especially if you don’t drive, and you have to get on a bus, if there isn’t a bus that goes there, you’re shit to hell out of luck.” Ashley credited a housing authority staff member with helping her find her current unit in the suburbs, not far from a bus line that she uses to commute for an hour and a half to work in the city every morning.

Discrimination and prohibitively expensive housing were the two most common factors that prevented families from leasing in the suburbs. More than three-quarters of our interview respondents described encountering either racial discrimination or landlords refusing to accept housing vouchers during their suburban housing search. Past experience with source of income discrimination also shaped how respondents thought about the possibility of moving to the suburbs. As Kim explained, “I want to get away from the north side [of Milwaukee] and move somewhere, different environment, and they’ll be decent buildings, decent homes, but they don’t accept rent assistance.” Finding a unit that met voucher payment standards was also challenging. While respondents searched in almost all suburban towns, the majority of leases were in the suburbs with the least expensive rental housing. As one of our respondents, Susan, explained, “the problem with going into the suburbs of any city with the [voucher rent] cap that I have is you’re not going to find a place for the amount that they give you.” Susan talked her landlord into lowering the rental price of her apartment in order to successfully use the SDAP.

Susan’s landlord persuasion technique was not uncommon in our interviews. Respondents talked about “begging” or “talking my way in” to get landlords to “take a chance” and rent to them. Another tactic for finding housing was to turn to social networks. Family members and friends were enlisted to look out for units in other parts of the city or lend cars to help with the search. Extended social networks, such as acquaintances from prior neighborhoods or a housing authority worker, played a significant role in expanding the housing search and helping respondents connect with landlords. One interviewee even explained how she asked strangers at her job in the suburbs about their housing in order to extend her knowledge about availability and cost.


Our study indicates that families responded positively to the SDAP and searched extensively in the suburbs. Our survey showed that program applicants on the whole made a geographically broad housing search, and most individuals looked for housing in multiple suburbs. Our interviews suggest many families undertook this search in response to the promise of security deposit assistance, even though most were not able to lease in a qualifying suburb. Because our data come from families who expressed interest in the SDAP, we cannot say how all voucher families might respond to such a program. Future research could test the conclusions we draw here, perhaps by designing a randomized trial as part of a future program.

Our study also shows how the policy landscape and housing market of the Milwaukee region shaped the housing search. With no law barring source of income discrimination against voucher holders, respondents encountered widespread unwillingness on the part of landlords to rent to them. Other household heads found it difficult to find a unit that was affordable, even with financial assistance. Faced with these barriers, respondents made use of social networks and several attempted to persuade reluctant landlords to rent to them, becoming advocates for both themselves and the voucher program. These findings highlight how the security deposit incentive needs to be combined with other policy changes to truly improve access to suburban communities and help low-income families overcome the divides of the Milwaukee metropolitan area (see Rosenblatt & Cossyleon 2015 for a further discussion of relevant policy changes).

Peter Rosenblatt is Asst. Prof. of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List