Banker & Tradesman: State Makes Housing Voucher Change that’s Created ‘Incredible Results’ Elsewhere

A seemingly-obscure bureaucratic move announced by State Housing Secretary Ed Augustus Wednesday could be transformative for renters with housing vouchers, experts say.

The move – adopting a system known as “small-area fair market rents” – will let federal or state housing subsidies overseen by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities pay realistic market rates in Massachusetts’ more exclusive communities.

Previously, the state had calculated the maximum rent a voucher from a program like the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, or MRVP, would be able to pay at the metro-wide level, averaging out differences between the rent charged in different neighborhoods. The new system, also known by the acronym SAFMR, will calculate “fair market” rent by ZIP code. In remarks delivered at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Augustus called the change a “critical move” that will “open up” well-off suburban markets to renters that are currently forced to only look for housing in cheaper, often inner-city neighborhoods.

“Right now, for example, if you were in Winchester the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom is about $2,600. The fair market rent in Dorchester is also about $2,600, even though they’re completely different markets,” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing|Boston, a housing and social services agency that administers housing vouchers in the Boston area for the state. “It opens up, potentially, areas where there may be additional opportunities for people – whether that’s jobs, education or whether it’s viewed as a safer area.”

Extensive academic research backs up the idea that when a poor family gets a chance to choose if they want to live in a wealthier neighborhood, it can help them or their children break out of poverty, Norris said in an interview.

Boston Housing Authority Administrator Kenzie Bok, who successfully pushed that agency to adopt the SAFMR system in 2019, said the change was also a matter of “basic fairness and equity.”

“We want the whole region to be accessible to voucher-holders. It’s really important for inclusive communities, to desegregate our region” since many housing voucher-holders are people of color, Bok said in an interview.

Since changing the housing vouchers it oversees, Bok said, the BHA has seen “really incredible results,” especially once additional housing search resources the BHA built let voucher-holders realize they could use the MBTA commuter rail system to access jobs they had or wanted to land in places like downtown Boston, even while living in a suburb with a top-rated school system.

“Before we made this change we knew that half the potential ZIP codes were being ruled out,” she said. “We’ve really seen families able to redefine their housing search.”

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