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Housing Choice Voucher Waiting Lists Disadvantage Households Facing the Most Residential Instability

Failing the Least Advantaged: An Unintended Consequence of Local Implementation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program
Huiyun Kim
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The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program is the largest rental assistance program in the country, but because it is not an entitlement program, only one in five households that qualifies for housing assistance receives it. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers regularly discuss pathways to expand the voucher program to ensure more or all eligible households can access assistance, but until then, public housing authorities (PHAs) are left to administer their allocation of vouchers to a limited set of eligible households. This study explores whether voucher waiting list preferences and purging practices deepen economic inequality among eligible households by making it more likely that some will receive vouchers than others.

Using a mixed-methods approach, the researcher analyzes voucher administrative plans from 59 PHAs in Michigan and conducts in-depth interviews with 21 PHA staff, including directors and senior-level staff, from the Detroit region to understand the factors that shaped waiting list preferences systems and the causes and consequences of the PHA’s purging procedures. The researcher then uses two sets of population-based survey data from the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) panel and 2012–16 American Community Survey (ACS) microdata to assess residential stability among voucher-eligible households. In particular, the study explores whether households with lower incomes move more often than their higher-income counterparts and whether those moves cross major geographic boundaries.

The findings suggest waiting list preferences and purging procedures collectively disadvantage residentially unstable applicants and that among households income eligible for the voucher program, poorer households are more likely to experience residential instability. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the poorest households face the greatest disadvantage when competing for a voucher.

Key findings

PHA implementation practices

  • Of the 59 PHA administrative plans, 26 have a residency preference that prioritizes those living or working in the local municipality. Some PHAs place all local residents ahead of those applying from outside of their local jurisdiction, whereas others prioritize local residents over nonresidents among those otherwise similarly preferred.
  • Analysis of qualitative interviews suggests that factors driving the establishment and maintenance of residency preferences include a PHA’s local identity, explicit and implicit direction from neighboring local governments, and acceptance of the legitimacy of a residency preference given limited resources.
  • All 59 PSAs implement a purging procedure that includes using mail as a mode of contacting applicants, providing a time-limited window to respond, removing applicant names if they do not respond, and making limited exceptions to reinstate households on the waiting list.
  • These purging procedures respond to limited funding for program administration and minimize the PHAs’ administrative burden and put the onus on applicants to respond and proactively update their information.
  • PHA directors suggest that the purging process removes a substantial number of applicants from the waiting list and identify a residential move as one of the critical reasons for nonresponse to the PHA’s attempts to contact them.

Residential instability

  • Of the 8,092 individuals in the SIPP sample, 45 percent moved at least once between 2013 and 2015, and nearly 14 percent experienced two or more moves.
  • Among potential voucher applicants, households with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) were more likely to move than households with incomes above 150 percent of the FPL. The likelihood of moving increased as household income decreased. Compared with households with incomes above 150 percent of the FPL, households below 50 percent of the FPL were 35 percent more likely to move, households between 50 and 100 percent of the FPL were 25 percent more likely to move, and households between 100 and 150 percent of the FPL were 19 percent more likely to move.
  • Results from ACS analyses align with SIPP findings and further demonstrate that the poorest households were also the most likely to move longer distances. Among households with incomes below 50 percent of the FPL, 35 percent moved in a given year, and 13 percent moved across a major regional boundary—both significantly higher percentages than households with incomes above 50 percent of the FPL. Longer-distance moves can result in losing preference eligibility if the move crosses the boundaries of a PHA jurisdiction.
Policy implication
  • To address the unintended consequences of waiting list preferences and purging procedures on residentially unstable applicants, PHAs can consider maintaining a shorter waiting list with more frequent openings to reduce the attrition rate, using multiple modes of contact to track applicants on the waiting list, and reinstating purged applicants who reapply for a voucher. To aid PHAs in undertaking these measures, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development could consider fully funding administrative fees for PHAs to overcome their current fiscal constraints and increase administrative capacity.