09 Jul Put the “Choice” Back in Housing Choice Voucher
By Christopher Norris, Executive Director
Contrary to the point of the federal Housing Choice Voucher program popularly known as Section 8, and as demonstrated in a Boston Globe editorial on July 7, families participating in the program often do not have a real choice of where they can live.
As the largest regional administrator of the Housing Choice Voucher program in Massachusetts, we at Metro Housing|Boston know that implementing the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) program would increase the opportunity for families we work with to access affordable homes and, perhaps, job opportunities in more communities.
The current federal payment standards are exactly the same in 31 of the 33 communities we serve. This means the maximum amount that the voucher will cover is the same regardless of whether the apartment is in Boston, Brookline, Chelsea, Melrose, Newton, or Winchester. This defies logic and keeps families in low cost, high poverty areas. SAFMRs would allow true choice.
As a regional organization, we have witnessed families priced out when previously affordable neighborhoods and communities become too expensive. Moving to stay ahead of the next rent increase destabilizes households and results in near-constant turnover of doctors, schools, friends, and other social supports. Providing rent flexibility is an important first step in allowing families to seek mobility and improved outcomes for their children. But providing families with support services as they prepare to move to a new community is also paramount.
Support services can help families reduce evictions, maintain their own housing stability, and retain family continuity — while benefitting their children’s education, access to their medical care, and their social and support networks.
A study of Baltimore’s innovative voucher program shows that families that receive counseling on repairing credit scores, tours of suburban communities, and help with developing savings plans, will experience an easier adjustment to a new neighborhood, and therefore be more apt to live there for a longer period while maximizing the benefits of their new community.
Although using SAFMRs is a positive step, it is not sufficient to address the region’s housing crisis. For example, increased development of deeply affordable housing in all cities and towns is a critical part of the solution. Requiring municipalities to provide an option for multi-family housing development is important as well because we know that more than half of the multifamily units permitted over the last five years were in just five cities and towns, and more than half of the cities and towns in Massachusetts did not permit any multifamily housing in the past decade. Together with SAFMRs, increased local production will indeed provide families even greater housing choice.