A map of Section 8 housing in Dallas, Texas.
In cities like Dallas, renters with housing vouchers are largely locked out of affluent neighborhoods. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council

HUD and census data show how landlords nationwide shut their doors on renters receiving housing assistance. A new federal law would prohibit that.

Where to live is one of the most important decisions the leader of a household has to make. But for the most vulnerable families in the nation, there really isn’t any choice at all.

Families with children who receive federal housing aid often live in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty and lower opportunity. The decision’s just not up to them. Landlords decide. Specifically, landlords who refuse to rent to tenants that use Housing Choice Vouchers, via a federal program more commonly known as Section 8, have great sway over outcomes for these families.

There’s a bill before Congress that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters based on the source of their income, a cause that is already finding purchase (both for and against) at the city and state level. The problem warrants federal action: Discrimination against voucher holders exacts a heavy toll on cities. The biases of landlords are shaping inequality across the country.

That’s one takeaway from a new mapping project on families and vouchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. This research shows how landlords’ decisions contribute to deep patterns of inequality and segregation. The interactive mapping tool—which shows the distribution of households that use Housing Choice Vouchers across America’s 50 largest metro areas, with a focus on families with children—reveals clear patterns of discrimination.

For example, the researchers (Alicia Mazzara and Brian Knudsen) compile a variety of data to track housing units that are affordable to families using vouchers. Voucher-affordable units can be found all over most major metro areas. Yet families with vouchers cluster in majority-minority neighborhoods with fewer jobs, worse schools, and poor access to public transit.

This shouldn’t be the case, judging by the distribution of homes on the map. On average, 18 percent of all voucher-affordable housing units are located in high-opportunity neighborhoods (rated so by an index of jobs, schools, and other factors). Low-opportunity neighborhoods account for 21 percent of voucher-affordable homes, a similar share. But only 5 percent of families with vouchers actually live in high-opportunity areas—whereas 40 percent live in low-opportunity areas.  

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)

Maps make this troubling trend clear. Consider Dallas, Texas, a metro that has served as a battlefield in recent court decisions about fair housing. Each dot on the map above represents 30 families (with children) who receive Section 8 assistance. They are found in far greater numbers in areas with higher rates of poverty.

The same trend is true with regard to race in the metro Dallas area. Families who get federal rental assistance are more likely to live in what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes as majority-concentrated neighborhoods.

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)

Still another view shows that families with vouchers live in low areas of opportunity. (This opportunity index is based on five of HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing indices, pertaining to school quality, poverty, labor market factors, access to jobs, and access to public transit.) Once again, families with Section 8 vouchers are hard to find in high-opportunity parts of metro Dallas, namely the affluent suburbs to the north and west.

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)

In a sense, all these maps are pointing to the same phenomenon: Race, wealth, and amenities are inextricably linked to place, no matter where you look in America.

But a fourth map holds a surprise: Voucher-assisted families could live almost anywhere in the Dallas metro area. Landlords simply won’t let them. The researchers use HUD and census data to track rental units that should be affordable to families using vouchers under the payment standards set by state or local housing authorities. Based on affordability alone, Housing Choice Vouchers ought to give families in Dallas the choice to live practically wherever they like. There are thick cluster of red circles, each one of which indicates 100 voucher-affordable rental units, in higher-opportunity areas downtown and in those northern suburbs.  

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)

That same phenomenon is also true beyond Dallas. Across all 50 large metro areas in the U.S., the share of families using vouchers in low-opportunity neighborhoods exceeds the share of voucher-affordable units located in those neighborhoods—meaning that Section 8 households are disproportionately packed into poorer areas. Their decisions are guided by rejections from landlords.

Sometimes this opportunity gap is small, as in Seattle or Boston. In Jacksonville, Florida, on the other hand, it’s vast. A little more than 30 percent of voucher-affordable homes are in that city’s low-opportunity neighborhoods, and a whopping 75 percent of voucher-assisted families are living in those neighborhoods. Which is to say: Landlords in more affluent parts of Jacksonville are shutting their doors on an awful lot of vulnerable families.

Bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Tim Kaine and Senator Orrin Hatch would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters based on the source of their income. Oklahoma, Utah, North Dakota, and eight other states, plus the District of Columbia, already have such laws in place; about 50 cities and counties prohibit discrimination against voucher households. (Texas passed a law preempting cities from passing Section 8 anti-discrimination bans.) San Jose and Baltimore may be the next cities to pass source-of-income ordinances.

While laws like these are subject to irregular standards of enforcement, they make a difference. In jurisdictions with these protections in place, far fewer landlords reject tenants with vouchers out of hand (35 percent, as opposed to 77 percent in places without the non-discrimination laws). Tenant protections alone can’t do the trick, though. Virtually all of the voucher-assisted families in the Washington, D.C., metro area live in concentrated poverty in the District’s Ward 7 and 8—despite the fact that opportunities abound beyond, and much of the metro area enjoys progressive tenant laws.

Where voucher-assisted households live in the D.C. area measured with the poverty rate. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)
Where voucher-assisted households can afford to live in the D.C. area measured with the poverty rate. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Poverty & Race Research Action Council)

Addressing systemic segregation and poverty concentration may not be within the reach of the 116th Congress. Federal law can’t counter the misconceptions that many landlords have about the Section 8 program: that they have to accept any and every voucher-holding applicant (false), that they can’t charge them security deposits (false), that they can never raise the rent (false). Certainly, federal law can’t change landlords’ minds about whether or not Section 8 tenants make good tenants. (According to research, they do).

And federal tenant protections are only a part of the solution to the underlying dynamic. The sheer number of housing agencies, and dysfunction among some of them, makes it hard to implement the improvements to make the Section 8 program more attractive to landlords. Housing mobility is crucial for any family looking to ensure their children’s chances for success, and Congress should approve the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration program to that end. In the long term, areas of concentrated poverty represent systemic policy failures that badly need to be addressed.

But a federal source-of-income law can give renters the assurance that they can use Housing Choice Vouchers the same way they would use any money to pay the rent, and landlords can’t hold it against them. Right now, the status quo is denying them any choice.

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