Panelists Propose Solutions to Improve the Efficacy of Housing Choice Vouchers

June 10th 2024 | Ben Hitchcock, Yael Gonzalez Meiler

Panelists at the Furman Center’s State of the City launch event on May 21 discussed the challenges of administering a federal voucher program and proposed a range of solutions to improve its function—including expanding housing supply, offering more operational flexibility for localities, strengthening protections against discrimination from landlords, and coaching people as they navigate the program so they are empowered to move into new neighborhoods. 

Across the country, more than 5 million low-income Americans rely on housing choice vouchers to help cover their housing costs. Vouchers significantly reduce rent burden and provide stability for households that might otherwise be vulnerable to facing severe rent burden, housing instability, and homelessness. Yet the program faces critical implementation challenges both in New York City and nationally. Many people who are awarded a voucher are not able to find an apartment where they can use it, and those who do find apartments often lack opportunities to move to high-resourced neighborhoods, according to new research from the NYU Furman Center

"We need an all-of-the-above approach,” said Solomon Greene, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who spoke at a breakfast reception before the presentation and panel. “The crisis of affordable housing is too great for us to be fighting for little pieces of the solution.”

Solomon Greene, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development © Jolly: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

Housing choice vouchers subsidize housing costs for low-income families—voucher holders spend about 30 percent of their income on rent and the program covers the rest.  In New York City, about four percent of households use these highly sought-after vouchers. On June 3, NYCHA reopened the voucher waitlist for the first time in 15 years, and received over 150,000 applications in just a few hours, underscoring the importance of a well-functioning voucher program. 

Vouchers are effective—when people manage to use them 

Almost 90 percent of voucher holders who manage to rent an apartment are not rent-burdened, according to the Furman Center’s report. Holding a voucher is associated with a lower risk of eviction, and vouchers serve an increasingly vulnerable population that would have few housing options otherwise. Previous research shows that vouchers reduce the risk of homelessness, lower rent burdens for low-income people, improve the quality of housing for voucher holders, and improve children’s academic performance. 

Panelist Richard Monocchio, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called it “the best housing program that's ever been created” and discussed witnessing the positive impact of the program during his time as Building Commissioner in Chicago. 

"If I saw four houses on a block, and one of them had a voucher, I knew a couple of things,” Monocchio said. “[That household] wasn't going to be rent burdened, they had enough money to pay for food, their kids were probably going to do better in school, and the house probably did not have hazardous conditions or code violations. I couldn't say that about the other three houses. That's how important this program is.”

Despite those benefits, only 53% of voucher recipients in New York City were able to successfully use a voucher to rent a home in 2022, the Furman Center report finds. Even when vouchers were used successfully, it took the median recipient in New York City almost 6 months to find a lease, more than twice as long as the national average. Such a low uptake rate undermines the benefits of the vouchers—but panelists offered a number of policy suggestions to improve the effectiveness of the program.

1. Expanding housing supply

Voucher holders’ difficulty reflects the national shortage of available housing. The supply shortage is particularly severe in New York, with the vacancy rate reaching a 55-year low of 1.4 percent in 2023

"This problem is so massive that it’s going to take all levels of government,” Monocchio said. “We need more housing supply. We have to do everything we can with the tools we have to make it easier [to build].”

Panelist Lisa Bova-Hiatt, CEO of the New York City Housing Authority, agreed, adding that policymakers should take a multipronged approach, expanding both the voucher program and building more housing to meet the city’s acute housing needs. 

"We don't have an option to just put all of our eggs in one basket,” Bova-Hiatt said. “We have so many people who are in dire need of affordable, stable, and safe housing.”

2. Helping people navigate a complicated system

Compounding the housing shortage is the complexity tenants face when utilizing the voucher program. After receiving a voucher, they have to jump through numerous hoops to find a suitable apartment, often with little support. 

"They have to figure it out for themselves—and we're talking about people who may have never had to navigate finding housing on their own,” said panelist Baaba Halm, Vice President and New York Market Leader at Enterprise Community Partners. “They don't know where to start. They don't know what resources are available to them. They don't know how to ask the right questions. They don't even know how to go out looking for a unit.” 

Baaba Halm, Vice President and New York Market Leader at Enterprise Community Partners © Jolly: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

Panelists agreed that housing authorities should offer much more assistance to voucher applicants and recipients as they navigate the program and search for housing. 

"Automatic navigation assistance for every voucher holder, that really talks to them and counsels them about neighborhoods, so that they have a good horizon when they're going out into this,” would be a vital addition to the voucher program, said Halm.

3. Streamlining the move-in process 

All units must be inspected before the voucher holder moves in, which typically takes weeks, extending the time between the lease signing and the voucher holder occupying the unit. Panelists said this regulatory requirement is yet another administrative obstacle keeping voucher holders out of apartments. The delay, they said, is inconvenient for both voucher holders and disincentivizes landlord participation in the program, since that time equates to lost rental revenue. 

Streamlining the inspection process could improve the program’s function without endangering tenants, panelists said. 

Monocchio, who administered Cook County, IL’s voucher program before moving to his role at HUD, stressed that during his tenure in Chicago, the voucher program would work with landlord’s business models to expedite housing and payment. That meant allowing for inspections before the lease was signed and getting the unit ready ahead of time, so that when a prospective tenant came off the list they could quickly move in, he said.

Though New York is experiencing a shortage of overall units, Halm said that, in general, while the quality of the city’s housing stock has improved, there is room for improvement as to how inspections are currently conducted. “As we think about streamlining and what we can do to open up more housing choice and opportunity, I think that idea should be on the table for consideration as well,” Halm said. “Those are some of the ideas on the table as we think about streamlining.”

4. Fighting discrimination against voucher holders

Voucher uptake rates are also low due in part to source of income discrimination—landlords refusing to rent to a household purely based on its use of a voucher. Though the practice of discriminating based on source of income is illegal in New York City, it remains pervasive, according to panelists. 

"Landlords are developing increasingly sophisticated mechanisms to deny voucher holders,” said Manon Vergerio, Head of Data and Advocacy at Unlock NYC, a nonprofit that works directly with voucher recipients to help them find housing. “They're not saying that they don't take Section 8 and CITYFHEPS. Instead, they’ll use income requirements, or they'll ghost people once they've mentioned their voucher, or they'll manipulate the price of the apartment so that it’s just above the vouchers’ payment standard, so that people with vouchers are automatically excluded.” 

Manon Vergerio, Head of Data and Advocacy at Unlock NYC © Jolly: Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

Panelists agreed on the need for more robust protections against source of income discrimination, which is not banned federally. 

Additionally, panelists suggested that when violators are found, fines should be tied to the size of their housing portfolio. For example, Unlock NYC’s clients often have problems with large landlords who own dozens of buildings, and who may not be deterred by the current fine structure. 

The City of New York also has no database to track source of income discrimination claims. Better data tracking would help root out bad actors. “We think it’s really important for the city to start publicly tracking that, so the city can know if a landlord is found to always discriminate against voucher holders,” Vergerio said.  

Landlords can also discriminate based on credit. Some voucher holders are subject to credit checks when they apply for housing, which Monocchio called “an abomination.” “FICO scores were never meant to determine if somebody can pay rent,” he said. 

5. Empowering voucher holders to consider more neighborhoods

One of the goals of the voucher program is to combat residential segregation by allowing low-income people to access high-resourced neighborhoods. But even when voucher holders manage to use their vouchers to rent a home, they remain highly concentrated in just a few neighborhoods, according to the Furman Center’s report. 

In New York City, 34 percent of voucher holders live in 5 percent of the city’s census tracts, which data show are less safe and less resourced than the average New York City census tract. 

Navigation assistance and mobility counseling could help voucher recipients with the logistical challenges of finding housing—and also break down some of the psychological barriers that prevent people from seeking out new, high-resourced neighborhoods. 

"When we were interviewing our community members, they said ‘I don't really apply for those neighborhoods because I'm so afraid of being rejected in the first place, because the discrimination is so bad. And then also I'm scared that if I move there, I'm not gonna belong,’” said Vergerio. 

One-on-one coaching could also help the voucher program achieve its full potential, panelists said. 

"It's really effective at making people feel like, ‘I deserve the best kind of housing. I deserve to live in a building with all the best amenities and a really transit-rich neighborhood,’” said Vergerio.

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