By Erin Boggs, Sam Brill & Lisa Dabrowski
Open Communities Alliance (OCA), a Connecticut-based civil rights non-profit that advocates for balanced affordable housing placement, launched in 2014. Because a central part of our advocacy message is that, along with investments in under-resourced areas, it is critical that low-income families of color have access to thriving communities, we have frequently been asked whether low-income families of color actually want to make such moves, often with the strong presumption that they do not. We knew there is demand for such access from focus groups and conversations with our clients, as well as the long waiting lists at subsidized housing developments in resource-rich communities. What we have not had to date is broader survey evidence attesting to the interest on the part of lower-income families of color in moving to predominantly white, higher opportunity areas.
Over the past several months, OCA has worked with a set of community partners to gather direct survey responses that confirm our observation that while many lower-income families of color are committed to staying in communities that are currently disinvested, many are also very interested in moves to areas that are more likely to offer greater safety and access to high performing schools. This article focuses on the results of one such survey.
City of Hartford Housing Choice Voucher Survey
Open Communities Alliance analyzed survey responses from 302 individuals receiving Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV or Section 8) through the City of Hartford’s HCV program.* The survey asked voucher holders to consider issues they face in using their vouchers, what their first-choice neighborhood would be in the metropolitan area, and what factors or barriers prevented them from moving to this neighborhood if they were not able to do so.
Profile of Voucher Holders Responding to the Survey
Demographics – Nearly all those surveyed were people of color—only 6% of respondents were White, non-Hispanic. The remaining 94% were listed as Black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, mixed race or other.
Family Size – The majority of voucher holders were families with children (62%), and the average number of children in the family was just above two.
Sources of Income – Voucher holders reported a mix of sources of income, which can overlap, including welfare and food stamps (48%), wages/salary (42%), and Social Security (39%). Combined, this points to the fact that the overwhelming majority (73%) of voucher holders either have a disability, are working (but at a wage sufficiently low to qualify for housing assistance), and/or are seniors. Indeed, 46% of voucher holders earning a salary or wage still also received federal benefits (either welfare or Social Security).
High Proportion of Single Mothers – Within the City of Hartford’s HCV program overall, 99% of families with children are female-headed households.
Moving to Opportunity
Many voucher holders in the survey expressed an interest in moving to higher-opportunity areas but very few were able to make such moves. Forty-five percent of those Housing Choice Voucher holders surveyed shared that they would consider “high” or “very high opportunity” areas, such as Glastonbury, Farmington, and Simsbury, as assessed in our state-wide opportunity-mapping analysis as a first choice for a new home. Furthermore, among the subset of voucher holders seeking higher-opportunity moves, 70% were families with children. It is likely that given access to “mobility counseling,” which provides fuller information about a range of neighborhoods and their positive attributes, even more voucher families would express interest in high opportunity moves. Only 21% of those who listed a higher opportunity area as their first-choice neighborhood were actually able to move there—in total, just 8% of all of those surveyed.
Barriers to Moving
Lack of affordable units more than lack of transportation prevented these opportunity moves. Voucher holders reported that a combination of high rents and lack of available rentals were the most common barrier to opportunity moves—cited by 66% of respondents. Fortunately, the Hartford metropolitan area was one of the regions selected for the mandatory Small Area Fair Market Rent program, so going forward we are hopeful that more rentals will be available for voucher families in opportunity areas. Lack of transportation was cited by 32% of respondents, less than half the rate of housing cost and availability.
Personal safety, unit conditions, school quality, and transportation were the four factors most commonly cited by voucher holders when asked what they were looking for in a new neighborhood or unit. Significantly, families with children had a different perspective. Among all respondents, access to high-quality schools and access to transportation ranked almost equally, cited by about a third of respondents. For families with children, access to high-quality schools was cited as a priority by 20% more respondents than access to transportation.
Results of Other Surveys
In addition to assessing the housing location wishes of a sample of voucher holders working through the City of Hartford Program, OCA partnered with community partners to survey families in two other settings. Hartford Knights is a school-based mentoring program working in the North End of Hartford, which includes some of the lowest income census tracts in the nation.
Hartford Knights and OCA partnered to survey local families about interest in participating in a program that would provide vouchers to families with environmentally-triggered health issues allowing them to move to higher opportunity areas likely to improve health outcomes. Sixty-four percent of the 265 families responding to the survey, 40% of whom had vouchers or were on the voucher waiting list, indicated an interest in participating in such a mobility program. Of those surveyed who had vouchers (19% of the total), 78% were interested in mobility moves.
OCA also had the opportunity to partner with a community organizing group called Christian Activities Council to survey residents of a scattered site Project-Based Rental Assistance project in the severely disinvested Clay Arsenal neighborhood in Hartford. Fifty-eight percent of the 68 families surveyed wanted to use their newly issued tenant-based voucher to leave Hartford, with 17% indicating an interest in leaving the state and 42% indicating an interest in moving to higher opportunity areas in the Hartford suburbs. Twenty-five percent expressed an interest in staying in Hartford.
While these surveys are of varying scales, they support for the proposition that there are a range of preferences among low-income families of color, making it essential that we actually ask families what they want and invest to ensure that all moves lead to opportunity.
These survey data present a compelling case for public policy to play a larger role in facilitating more opportunity moves for Housing Choice Voucher holders.
First and most important, the desire to move to higher opportunity areas on the part of low-income families of color with vouchers is real and significant, though such moves are too often out of reach. More than 45% of those surveyed sought such moves, though only about 8% of all of those surveyed actually made opportunity moves using their vouchers.
Second, the voucher holders responding to this survey bust myths often associated with the Housing Choice Voucher program. Despite perceptions to the contrary, 73% of those voucher holders responding to this survey are either working, disabled, and/or elderly. Also, contrary to the myth of large families, responding voucher families with children have, on average, just above two children per family.
Third, nearly all (99%) of families with children in the City of Hartford tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher program are female-headed households, highlighting the importance of connecting the dots between the beneficial outcomes of moving to higher-opportunity areas not only for children but also for women. There is a growing body of research indicating that moves to lower poverty, opportunity-rich communities result in lower rates of depression and other mental health issues, and higher rates of employment for women (Sharkey 2013, Engdahl 2009; Mendenhall et al 2006).
Fourth, while transportation is important, it is not the central barrier that naysayers often cite as preventing opportunity moves. It was neither the leading factor cited in preventing those who wish to move, nor was it the leading factor cited in choosing new neighborhoods or units in general. Based in these responses, it appears that families with children are much more interested in attaining access to high quality schools than living near public transportation.
Finally, what does thwart opportunity moves is the lack of affordable rental units, a problem that can improve with certain public policy changes. Implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule, for example, will increase the value of vouchers in higher opportunity areas. Equally important is increasing the supply of affordable rental housing, for instance by reforming restrictive zoning codes and improving the point allocation system for Low Income Housing Tax Credits and other housing production programs.
Erin Boggs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Executive Director of the Open Communities Alliance; Sam Brill is a student at Yale Law School who worked at Open Communities Alliance through the Law School’s Housing Clinic; and Lisa Dabrowski (email@example.com) is a Policy Analyst at the Open Communities Alliance.