by Leah Catotti
There are a lot of things near the top of Biden’s first-100-days agenda – housing must be one of them.
Access to stable housing is deeply related to the ability to live a safe, secure, and healthy life. While this has been true for decades, the COVID-19 crisis has made the linkages between housing, health, and collective safety clearer than ever. With millions of people out of work and struggling to pay rent – and renters of color facing the greatest hardship[i] – Biden needs to follow through on his campaign promise to expand Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible family.[ii]
Housing is about much more than shelter. Housing can provide safety, comfort, and dignity. It can also provide opportunity. Various housing policies – from the famous Moving to Opportunity study to the more recent Small Area Fair Market Rent Demonstration – have shown that housing and mobility are intricately linked. Increasing access to opportunity for all, but especially for poor families and families of color, should be an explicit goal of the incoming administration.
Housing policy has long been an effective tool for increasing opportunity, most visibly in the way post-World War II mortgages for returning veterans built the white middle class. It has also been a tool for exclusion and marginalization, as people of color have been systematically excluded from accessing homeownership and fair housing through redlining, exclusion from federal loan programs, discrimination in appraisals, landlord discrimination, and other racist policies.
It is past time for us to truly expand access to opportunity through housing policy. But, what does that look like in practice? How does one define – not to mention measure – opportunity?
Policymakers should co-design metrics with impacted communities that define and measure opportunity on community members’ own terms. Understanding that impacted people know best the solutions to the problems they face, and that their wisdom can and should drive policy change, is the way forward. Co-developed opportunity indicators may be around stability, safety, comfort, dignity, respect, or something else – as defined by poor communities and communities of color who have been historically excluded. These metrics can and should be supplemented by additional evidence-based indicators that predict long-term mobility and life outcomes, such as indicators assessing ability to pay rent, neighborhood poverty rates, access to quality schools, access to quality health care, adverse childhood experiences, access to higher-paying jobs, and other economic mobility metrics. Together, these indicate that opportunity is about having choices over the course of one’s life.
Fully funding the Housing Choice Vouchers program is the best way to boost opportunity through housing. Currently, around three in four households that are eligible for rental assistance through Section 8 do not receive it.[iii] By fully funding Section 8 voucher-based and project-based programs so that all who qualify for this support can receive it, an estimated 17 million low-income families will receive assistance.[iv] The housing choice voucher program was designed in part to “eliminate concentrations of poverty” and “provide poor households with greater access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods” – expanding it now will do just that.[v]
Vouchers are a federal government program that assists very low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities.[vi] Voucher recipients are able to choose their own housing in any neighborhood, as long as the housing meets health and safety standards and other requirements, and have their rent subsidized by government payments to landlords.[vii] Ample evidence demonstrates that vouchers reduce housing instability and overcrowding,[viii] reduce number of moves over a five-year period by 40% on average,[ix] slightly improve access to safer and lower-poverty neighborhoods,[x] and may have longer-term positive effects on children’s economic outcomes.[xi]
Not all who receive housing vouchers receive these benefits. Discrimination from landlords remains a persistent reason that some voucher holders are unable to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.[xii] Biden’s campaign promise to enact a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against renters receiving federal housing benefits will help mitigate this problem.[xiii] In addition to expanding vouchers and enacting renter protections from discrimination, Biden should ensure that outreach to landlords and relocation counseling for voucher holders are part of his plan. Research has found that when provided with sustained housing-search counseling, families are more likely to move to neighborhoods of opportunity and stay there.[xiv]
While there is no current requirement for voucher holders to move to neighborhoods of opportunity, expanding access to vouchers, preventing landlord discrimination, and providing housing counseling will ensure more families are able to move to areas with better-resourced schools, safety, and stable housing.
Larger structural measures are needed to ensure that all neighborhoods offer opportunity, mobility, and safety for all residents. Vouchers are only a partial solution to growing inequality and lack of opportunity for all, but they are a good start – and a change in administration is our best chance at expanding this program in years.
Now that we’re (almost) through this election season (looking at you, Georgia!), we need to hold Biden’s feet to the fire to truly deliver opportunity for the American people. Housing vouchers are the first step.
Leah Catotti is a second year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.
[i] Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships. (2020, August 12). Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and
[vi] Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet | HUD.gov / U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2020, from https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet
[vii] Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet | HUD.gov / U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2020, from https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet
[viii] Wood, M., Turnham, J., & Mills, G. (2008). Housing affordability and family well‐being: Results from the housing voucher evaluation. Housing Policy Debate, 19(2), 367–412. https://doi.org/10.1080/10511482.2008.9521639
[ix] Mills et al., “Effects of Housing Vouchers on Welfare Families,” prepared for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research, September 2006.
[x] Lens, M. C., Ellen, I. G., & O’Regan, K. (n.d.). Do Vouchers Help Low- Income Households Live in Safer Neighborhoods? Evidence on the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 25.
[xi] Ellen, Ingrid, and Justin Steil (eds.) (2019) The Dream Revisited: Contemporary Debates About Housing, Segregation, and Opportunity. (Discussions 20, 22, and 23)
[xiv] Ellen, Ingrid, and Justin Steil (eds.) (2019) The Dream Revisited: Contemporary Debates About Housing, Segregation, and Opportunity. (Discussions 20, 22, and 23)