Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new report out of New Orleans shows that children living in voucher-assisted households are more likely to live in violent neighborhoods.
Housing vouchers allow the federal government to offer quality homes to low-income families. Allocation of the vouchers has expanded tremendously in the post-public housing landscape. Research shows, however, that in cities including New Orleans, vouchers have mostly reshuffled poor families to other impoverished neighborhoods.
A report from The Data Center of New Orleans last year showed that most families currently using housing vouchers in the city live in highly racially segregated, low-income neighborhoods, as was the case even before Hurricane Katrina. The vouchers have seemingly done little to improve the lives of the poorest households.
A new report from the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center shows something additionally troubling: Children living in these homes of modest means continue to experience heavy exposure to violence. Fewer than 2 percent of children in voucher-assisted families live in one of the 13 New Orleans neighborhoods that has averaged zero shootings between 2011 and 2015. Meanwhile, 55 percent of kids living in voucher-assisted households live among the 12 neighborhoods that have averaged more than 10 shootings annually during that same time period.
“We are particularly concerned about the nearly 19,000 children in the program, many of whom we have moved directly into harm's way in terms of exposure to gun violence and other public health risks,” said the fair housing organization’s executive director, Cashauna Hill, in a press statement.
The health risks Hill references are babies born underweight and with dim life-expectancy rates, which both register highly in neighborhoods with dense volumes of voucher users. The same neighborhoods also have the highest rates of people who have to wait an hour or longer for a bus service, according to the report.
That all said, the fair housing organization still vouches for the housing voucher system, saying that it can be helpful in moving families to safer, healthier communities if structured right. For New Orleans, that means changing the formula under which the value of housing vouchers are created. Right now, that value is determined largely by what the average costs are to rent an apartment or house across a city, per U.S. HUD guidelines (though HUD may be relaxing those). Under a “small-area fair market rent” methodology, voucher values would be based on average rental costs across a zip code, with higher values for more expensive neighborhoods.
The report notes that cities that abide by the “small-area” method have done so without increasing the costs of the voucher program and without shrinking the number of families served by the program. Also, when public housing agencies (the entities that administer vouchers) offer counseling services to families to assist them with their housing search, this increases the chances that they’ll move into better communities. Citylab’s Tanvi Misra recently reported that these kinds of “mobility counseling” services have made Baltimore’s voucher program a quite successful one.
These are both good suggestions for improving a family’s chances of escaping a neighborhood it feels is too saddled with violence and environmental neglect. However, for a city like New Orleans, what’s needed just as much as coupons for better housing is better income. As The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White reported last year, the culture of low wages in New Orleans is just as culpable in making housing unaffordable as high rents or low housing supply, if not more. Writes White:
In New Orleans, unemployment is about 6.3 percent, which is higher than the national average, and average weekly wages are about $980, which is lower than the national average. Louisiana is also one of only five states with no minimum wage law on the books. For workers there, wages automatically default to the federal minimum of $7.25, a number that hasn’t changed since 2009. That helps explain why comparably low rental prices can be so onerous, and why the city’s poverty rate is so high, with around 27 percent of the population living in poverty in 2013, compared with only 16 percent nationally.
The value of a housing voucher is produced not only based on average rental costs, but also on how much money the family applying for it makes. Raising wages in New Orleans would be helpful in ensuring that the supplemental income that vouchers provide will cover families’ actual living costs. Providing wages that people can actually live comfortably on could also help reduce gun violence, making neighborhoods into places that families have fewer reasons to escape from.