Academic journal article Cityscape

You Can't Always Get What You Want: The Role of Public Housing and Vouchers in Achieving Residential Satisfaction

Academic journal article Cityscape

You Can't Always Get What You Want: The Role of Public Housing and Vouchers in Achieving Residential Satisfaction

Article excerpt


Using data from the 2009 American Housing Survey, this research examines neighborhood and housing satisfaction among assisted and unassisted renters. Studying the effect of housing assistance on neighborhood satisfaction allows for an assessment of the role that housing vouchers play in promoting household mobility to higher quality housing and neighborhoods compared with public housing developments or unsubsidized housing units. A major goal of this study is to shed light on the effectiveness of a predominant form of U.S. government-sponsored housing assistance at providing expanded housing choices for low-income families. Our findings show that housing voucher holders and public housing residents achieve higher levels of housing satisfaction and choose more desirable dwellings than do unassisted low-income renters. Housing assistance, however, does not enable recipients to locate to better neighborhoods.

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Policies and programs that federal, state, and city governments support for the provision of subsidized housing have changed dramatically since their emergence in the post-Great Depression era. Initially, policy to provide housing to extremely low-income families supported large-scale, project-based subsidized housing developments, often isolated from the surrounding community.

Project-based public housing developments created physically and socially isolated neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and decay that were lambasted from all sides of the political spectrum. In recent years, subsidized housing development and housing subsidies for the low-income have focused more on integrating new housing and families into the physical and social fabric of local neighborhoods. The goals are to decrease poverty and racial concentration, to improve neighborhood conditions, and to enable assisted renters to move to better neighborhoods.

In 1974, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began providing eligible households with Section 8 rental certificates (vouchers) that cover a set percentage of their rent payments for private-market housing. These subsidies enabled low-income households to move to private-sector housing rather than live in public housing. HUD requires the housing rented under this program to meet standards for quality. To participate, landlords must be willing to accept government rental subsidy payments. The premise of this market-based approach is that these vouchers (demand-side subsidies) will provide better living environments than place-based housing assistance (supply-side subsidies) by offering recipients choices about where they live. Today, the program, now known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP), is the largest housing subsidy program for low-income individuals in the United States. HCVP households comprise 42 percent of all HUD-assisted households, an increase from 34 percent in 1993 (Schwartz, 2010).

By encouraging housing mobility, vouchers intend to provide low-income renters better quality housing and neighborhood choice and to promote racial and economic desegregation (Schwartz, 2010). Yet, a growing body of research shows that voucher holders, particularly minority households, often live in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty and racial concentration and that they are more likely to live in inadequate housing compared with unassisted renters (Comey, 2007; Devine et al., 2003; Koebel, 1997; Pendall, 2000; Popkin, 2010; Popkin, Levy, and Buron, 2009). To understand these disparate outcomes, researchers are examining the constraints that voucher households face when they search for housing in the private rental market. Race- and class-based discrimination are two possible constraints.

Whether the HCVP increases the housing and neighborhood satisfaction of voucher recipients is an unanswered question. Increasing the amount of housing and neighborhood choices available to low-income renters and ultimately improving accessibility to more satisfactory housing and neighborhood situations are major goals of the HCVP. …

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