Spotlight Exclusives

Housing Choice Vouchers: When Increased Options Don۪t Lead to Increased Opportunities

commentary commentary, posted on

Researchers and advocates widely embrace the Housing Choice Voucher program, which, unlike other subsidized housing programs, gives renters subsidies to help them rent apartments on the open market and thereby enjoy greater housing choice. But many have questioned whether vouchers actually provide meaningful housing choice in practice.    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


To answer this question, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy examined school quality and crime levels in neighborhoods where voucher recipients live. Our results show that families with vouchers are not reaching areas with better schools or significantly less crime compared to the areas that are home to the typical poor family. While the voucher program is highly successful in reducing rent burdens, it is not making a significant difference in where families live.  


The Housing Choice Voucher program is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development۪s (HUD) largest housing subsidy, serving over two million households. With this portable voucher, the theory goes, households will be able to live in neighborhoods with better schools, lower crime rates, and greater economic opportunity than they would without the voucher. 


We tested this theory by examining how and under what circumstances the vouchers connected families to neighborhoods with better schools and less crime, through research supported by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the MacArthur Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


In our access to schools study, we analyzed the elementary schools nearest to both voucher holders and families with children living in three types of place-based, subsidized housingpublic housing, Project Based Section 8 developments, and housing developed through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.  We compared the schools around families receiving vouchers or housing assistance to the schools nearest to all families, all renters, and all poor families. 


We found that children who receive vouchers live near schools that have lower test scores than the schools that are close to children in low-income households generally. Surprisingly, we also found that children receiving vouchers live near schools that have lower test scores than those near children in all other types of assisted housing, with the exception of public housing. 


In our crime study, we found that households receiving vouchers live in safer neighborhoods than other subsidized households. Voucher recipients also live in slightly safer neighborhoods than other poor households. When it comes to violent crime, however, households with vouchers are as vulnerable as other poor renters. 


The findings raise some puzzles and some concerns. The voucher program was created, in part, to provide households with the flexibility and additional purchasing power needed to live in better neighborhoods. But our research shows that voucher holders are not using their vouchers to move to “better” neighborhoods, at least where better is defined by school quality and crime level. 


While some voucher holders may be affirmatively choosing to stay in existing neighborhoods, others may experience constraints to moving or lack information about alternatives. Identifying and addressing factors that limit such mobility would make the voucher program an even more effective tool for improving the lives of low-income households.


HUD has recently experimented with a number of initiatives to expand mobility for voucher holders.


First, HUD has proposed a number of reforms that could make moves between the public housing authorities (PHAs) that administer the program easier. Moving between PHAs with a voucher can be accompanied by red tape, and, at times, resistance from PHAs that do not want to bear the expense and administrative burden of a new household. Proposed reforms would include requiring a receiving PHA to obtain HUD approval before refusing an incoming household, adding additional time to the voucher term to accommodate the moving process, and requiring PHAs to “absorb” incoming households in certain circumstances.


Second, HUD has initiated a Small Areas FMR Project. In the voucher program, HUD pays the difference between 30 percent of a tenant۪s income and the rent of any unit, up to a rent level that is pegged to the area۪s “Fair Market Rent” (FMR). Because FMRs are set at the 40th percentile rent of the metropolitan area, households with vouchers may be concentrated in lower rent communities, which also have higher crime rates and poorer performing schools. The Small Areas FMR Project will allow HUD to establish separate FMRs for individual zip-codes. The goal of the initiative is to give voucher holders potential housing options in every zip code within a metropolitan area, thus increasing the variety of different neighborhoods they can live in.


Third, HUD has also recently partnered with GreatSchools to provide PHAs with information about local educational options, which can be but is not required to be shared with voucher holders.


These are welcome steps forward, but we encourage HUD and housing authorities around the country to continue to work to broaden the neighborhood choices available to voucher holders.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Ingrid Gould Ellen is a professor of urban planning and public policy at NYU۪s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and co-director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Jessica Yager is the policy director at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.


The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at


« Back to Spotlight Exclusives