Report: Discrimination, flawed search process hurting housing assistance recipients Report: Discrimination, flawed search process hurting housing assistance recipients

Authors say lack of true choice means people missing out on opportunities to improve lives Authors say lack of true choice means people missing out on opportunities to improve lives

August 8, 2019

Discrimination, a lack of information, and flawed housing-search processes are major reasons why many Boston-area families who receive federal rental assistance vouchers live in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods, according to a report released Thursday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. 

The report, based on survey research with housing-voucher recipients, also found that most respondents prefer racially and economically mixed communities – though most don’t live in them.

That undermines the assumption that all voucher recipients live in neighborhoods of people with similar racial, ethnic and income profiles by choice, said Gretchen Weismann, a housing consultant and one of three report co-authors.  

“The patterns you see, the segregation, are not a reflection of what most people want,” she said. “If we want voucher holders to access a range of places, we need better education about what’s available and better enforcement of fair housing laws.”

Housing assistance recipients miss out on opportunities to improve their living situations

The report was based on data collected during in-person surveys with 128 Boston Housing Authority recipients who had children under 18 and moved to their unit within the previous three years. It categorized neighborhoods as “higher opportunity” and “lower opportunity,” based on the – Kirwan Institute Child Opportunity Index. The index is a standardized measure that includes a variety of educational, health and environmental, and social and economic resources known to benefit childhood development. 

The report found that voucher holders in higher-opportunity areas overwhelmingly report more neighborhood satisfaction. For instance, 87 percent say their neighborhood is a good place for their children, compared to 55 percent in lower-opportunity areas.

"The patterns you see, the segregation, are not a reflection of what most people want."

But prior research by Weisman and report co-author Alexandra Curley indicates only 12 percent of BHA voucher recipients live in higher-opportunity areas. In fact, nearly half (48 percent) live in just three of Boston’s most economically and racially segregated neighborhoods – Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury – even though the BHA’s area includes 120 local cities and towns.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program clearly isn’t living up to the “choice” part of its name, said Curley, principal of AMC Research and Consulting. The survey aimed to find out what those in higher-opportunity neighborhoods did to get there, and what obstacles others are facing.

“Information gaps” perpetuate de facto segregation in lower-opportunity areas

The survey found no significant differences between those in higher- and lower-opportunity areas when ranking the importance of 13 neighborhood features. Both ranked being close to social services and friends among their lowest priorities. Both also preferred a mixed-race community over more homogeneous neighborhoods. But their housing-search strategies differed.

Those in higher-opportunity neighborhoods generally had more expansive housing searches. For instance, they were more likely to have used the internet during their search and less likely to have found their unit through family and friends. Meanwhile, those in lower-opportunity areas were far more likely to have searched exclusively in those areas, including 39 percent of black families.

Curley said it points to an “information gap” that’s perpetuating segregation. She said when people in the segregated neighborhoods receive a voucher, housing agencies tend to provide listings primarily from lower-opportunity areas. In addition, she said many voucher recipients only talk to the people they know about their searches. “That can limit their search to the same kinds of places,” Curley said.   

Discrimination is evident to voucher holders, and blacks in particular

The report indicated more than 7 in 10 voucher holders reported experiencing some form of discrimination during their last search. And blacks who searched in higher-opportunity areas were more likely to report problems with landlords not accepting vouchers than other racial groups (80 percent to 57 percent). Blacks also had to search harder – 66 percent of their calls to property owners resulted in a unit viewing, compared to 81 percent for other racial groups. 

Report co-author Erin Graves, a senior policy analyst in the Boston Fed’s Regional & Community Outreach department, said the fact black households are putting greater effort into their searches, but the market isn’t rewarding it, is one of the report’s most compelling findings.

“That effort should mean a lot more than it does,” she said.

Better information, outreach recommended to help voucher holders 

The report’s authors offered various recommendations around education and enforcement to increase access to higher-opportunity areas: 

  • Housing agencies should bolster options in higher-opportunity areas by increasing outreach to local landlords.
  • Affordable-housing regulators can decrease discrimination by conducting more housing audits and following the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. 
  • Housing agency staff should encourage voucher holders to expand searches outside familiar geographies or interpersonal networks and should solicit and share testimonies from voucher recipients in higher-opportunity areas.
  • Local government and policymakers can develop and support housing mobility programs in their region.

Get more details about the report and its recommendations


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