The Dream Revisited

Supporting, Protecting Low Income Residents Is Essential to Ensuring Successful SAFMR Implementation

by Diane Yentel | July 2016

Almost 14 million people live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and the number is growing, nearly doubling since the year 2000 (Jargowsky, 2015). The impacts of this trend are felt most within communities of color. One in four poor black families and one in seven poor Latino families live in concentrated poverty, compared to one in 13 poor white families (Jargowsky, 2015). The recent work (PDF) by Raj Chetty and colleagues affirms the profound impact of place on the trajectory of our lives. On average, the years that a young child spends in a deeply poor neighborhood contributes to lifelong negative outcomes – lowering educational attainment, lifetime earnings, even life expectancy (Chetty, Hendren, and Katz, 2015). Given this knowledge, it is distressing that so many recipients of HUD subsidized assistance live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

Recent legal and policy developments may help to reverse this troubling pattern. Last summer HUD published its long awaited Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, providing communities with tools, incentives and an obligation to advance strategies that reduce disparities of access to opportunity. HUD’s intent to expand the use of Small Area Fair Market Rents (SAFMRs) is another important and much needed step forward.

As Rob Collinson points out, SAFMRs are meant to make it easier for those in the Housing Choice Voucher program to move out of areas of concentrated poverty. This change has the potential to provide voucher households easier access to lower poverty neighborhoods with higher quality schools, lower crime rates and better access to jobs.  His research indicates that they have accomplished this result in at least one area of the country.

Still, to ensure SAFMRs achieve the intended outcome, other policy improvements are needed at the federal, state and local levels to address remaining obstacles for under-resourced families to live in higher cost neighborhoods. Many voucher households who wish to move may be limited by very low rental vacancy rates. Others may face financial barriers to moving such as an inability to afford a security deposit or moving costs. High-quality mobility counseling may be necessary for voucher holders to successfully locate and retain homes in new neighborhoods. Landlords may reject vouchers, particularly in high-demand locations, because of limited program knowledge, unwillingness to wait while the housing authority schedules inspections, or outright housing discrimination. Expansion of ‘source of income’ protections are needed; only a handful of communities proposed to transition to SAFMRs offer such protections. And retrofitting of more affordable units to be accessible for elderly or disabled tenants may be necessary for them to successfully move to another community.

At the same time, we must ensure that SAFMRs don’t harm those voucher holders who choose to remain in their communities. Some may want to remain close to social and other networks. They may be better able to find housing units of the size or structure that best suits their families’ needs in current neighborhoods. Others may be elderly or living in households without children, and choose neighborhoods for qualities other than schools, transportation, or access to child care. For the residents who stay in low rent/higher poverty communities, the change to SAFMRs may mean reduced voucher subsidies, which can result in increases to their share of rent payments and increased housing instability. Lowered voucher subsidies may drive some landlords who currently accept vouchers to leave the program, resulting in displacement of current voucher households and a further reduction of homes affordable to people who need them the most. In these cases, strong tenant protections accompanying SAFMRs are necessary, including exempting current voucher holders from lowered payment standards for as long as they remain in the same unit and phasing in the changes over an extended period of time.

Ultimately, supporting and protecting voucher participants will be essential to ensuring successful SAFMR implementation and to truly creating new opportunities for low income people.

Diane Yentel is President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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