Healthy Communities, Housing Choice Vouchers, and Segregation: How Do You Solve a Problem That Won't Go Away?
A new report released by the Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project (IHARP) shows that Chicago families in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program continue to live in overwhelmingly poor, African American neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. These neighborhoods also experience high rates of crime, mortgage foreclosures, poor health, and high levels of lead.
The HCV program is supposed to give families the chance to rent in “healthy communities,” meaning areas with job opportunities; good schools, services, and transportation options; and low rates of crime. But this study and others like it shows that the majority of HCV families don’t live in those communities.
Being stuck in communities without opportunities is a significant issue not just for HCV families but for all low-income families, especially minority families. A recent Urban Institute report on residential mobility found that “residential churning,” or moving short distances due to financial stresses and housing problems, is prevalent in low-income communities. Nearly half of families originating in the report’s study areas were described as “churning movers” who gained little in neighborhood amenities and opportunities by moving. Strikingly, higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic families who moved were “churning movers” than white families who moved.
This may be due to the fact that minority households face race-related barriers to residential mobility, and remain in poor neighborhoods due to racial segregation and social and economic inequities. As cited in the Urban Institute report, African Americans are less likely to move to better neighborhoods than other groups, even when they have achieved the same levels of income and education as other groups who moved out.
We can do more to help HCV families move to healthy neighborhoods. Mobility counseling must be offered and supported provided both before and after families move. The rents offered by the HCV program must also be adjusted to reflect the block-by-block distinction of many communities, particularly in urban environments. If the rents are not set high enough to compete with the actual market rents in a healthy community, then no amount of mobility counseling will make a difference. As well, too many HCV families across the country are denied the chance to live in a healthy community because of open discrimination by property owners. Only by protecting voucher holders against source-of-income discrimination will these types of practices end. Finally, some thought should be given about how to make these moves to healthy communities more permanent--converting some of these vouchers to site or project-based subsidies (so the housing subsidy remains even after the tenant leaves but the tenant receives another voucher) could secure a long-term supply of affordable housing in these communities.
All in all, we need to reconsider how many housing choices not just low-incomes families really have under the current HCV program, but all low-income families in this country have.
This post was co-authored by Elizabeth Frantz.