This post originally appeared at Neighborhood Effects, a Mercatus Center blog where we write about state and local policy issues as well as the broad concepts of economic freedom.
A new Brookings study by Kenya Covington, Lance Freeman, and Michael Stoll finds that increasingly, recipients of housing vouchers are using these subsidies to move from inner cities to suburbs. The authors support low-income people moving to high-income suburbs because they suggest that this is where they would have the best job prospects.
However the study authors find that about half of all HCV recipients moved to low-income suburbs rather than high-income suburbs, and they assert that this is a problem because low-income suburbs do not have as many job opportunities as their high-income counterparts. This result is unsurprising, though, since vouchers go further in areas with lower housing costs. The study does not take into account the individualized process of housing decisions because it relies on aggregate statistics and looks only at the ratio of people to jobs, ignoring other variables such as availability of housing and transit.
In the executive summary, Covington, Freeman, and Stoll suggest that “policies that … reevaluate existing zoning laws and development impact fees … could give HCV recipients access to a broader range of high-quality residential environments,” but they do not pick up on these themes in their policy recommendations. Instead they focus on shaping the way that individuals choose to use their housing subsidies. By relaxing density restrictions both in urban cores and in suburbs, policymakers would allow landlords to build housing that is accessible to a wider range of incomes with and without housing vouchers.
HCVs offer a major improvement over publicly provided housing specifically because they allow individuals to choose the best place to live for themselves, using local knowledge rather than top-down planning. The Brookings authors discount this important asset of vouchers, suggesting that voucher recipients need help in determining where to live:
There is some evidence to suggest that mobility counseling, whereby HCV recipients are made aware of housing opportunities in low-poverty neighborhoods and local housing authorities recruit landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods to participate in the HCV program can have an impact [in encouraging program participants to use their vouchers in neighborhoods that have low poverty rates].
This policy prescription takes a step backward, dampening the market incentives that allow voucher recipients to select where they live for themselves. If policy makers relaxed density restrictions to allow construction of affordable housing in a wider range of neighborhoods, HCV recipients would have increased housing options without needing counseling to choose the best neighborhood to live in.