Atlantic Cities

The Suburbanization of Housing Vouchers

As poverty has increased in the suburbs of U.S. metropolitan areas, so has the amount of households in the suburbs that rely on federal housing assistance. Housing choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8, have been increasingly used to rent housing in the suburbs in recent decades. In a follow-up to its ongoing research on suburban poverty, a new report from the Brookings Institution shows that 49.4 percent of housing vouchers were used in suburban areas by the end of 2008, a number that’s almost certainly risen since then.

As the report shows, a variety of factors are behind this growth, including job availability, affordable housing accessibility, the relative income of the area, and of course the housing market crash and the resulting recession.

The share of suburban vouchers increased 2.1 percent between 2000 and 2008, which continues an upward trend that’s been underway since at least 1990, according to Lance Freeman, who co-authored the study with Kenya Covington and Michael A. Stoll. “We are seeing some more people moving to the suburbs because the vouchers are becoming more portable,” says Freeman, who’s also director of the urban planning program at Columbia University.

In the ‘90s, the rules of housing vouchers were loosened to allow recipients to use them beyond the jurisdiction in which they were issued. This led to more city-dwelling recipients migrating to find housing in the suburbs, a trend that’s steadily grown over time. But as the report notes, the rise in suburban households using vouchers hasn’t been uniform across regions, or across racial groups. Black voucher recipients had the strongest growth in suburban areas, increasing by nearly 5 percent between 2000 and 2008. Latinos rose by about 1 percent, while whites fell by about 1 percent.

The largest regional increases in the number of households receiving vouchers were in the western U.S., which saw a jump of more than 4 percent. More than half of residents receiving vouchers in the West live in suburbs. The increases were slightly lower in the Northeast and South, which saw about 2 percent increases. The Midwest, as a whole, saw its suburban share decline by 1 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Courtesy Brookings Institution

 

The suburban areas seeing the largest shifts in vouchers are greater Atlanta, the Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida metro area, greater Birmingham, greater Phoenix and greater Boise. Each saw their suburban share of vouchers increase by more than 11 percent (Akron reported the largest increase, 19.3 percent, but Freeman says that’s likely an outlier).

What’s driving these shifts is hard to pin down, but one likely factor is the glut of housing that was built in Sun Belt areas like Florida and Arizona. Freeman also points to the decreasing price of housing as populations in older suburbs move farther out into the exurbs.

The report also looks at two other elements of suburban voucher use: growth in high-income suburban areas and growth in suburban areas with high job accessibility. Between 2000 and 2008, each type of area saw increases in voucher use by more than 2 percent, but the increase was slightly higher in suburbs with high job accessibility. These areas also saw larger increases in their total population, their poor population and their availability of fair market value rental housing. Freeman says jobs are likely one of the major influences driving the movement of people who rely on housing vouchers.

“An optimistic reading would be that some of it is being driven by job accessibility,” says Freeman. “To the extent that they can, people are going to move to where there’s more job availability.”

Cheaper housing may still be a strong draw, but as the economy continues to settle into a state less vibrant than before, being closer to more job opportunities may become the determining factor when people decide where to apply their housing vouchers. The data in this report seems to suggest that change is already starting.

“As populations shift, you’ll probably see that more local housing authorities are starting to apply to HUD for more vouchers. We’ve seen this over the past 20 years,” says Freeman. “What could happen in theory when housing authorities are handing out vouchers, they could counsel people about where they can move to follow job opportunities.”

Or even more radically, they could offer higher assistance for households moving to certain areas in an effort to encourage people to take on higher housing costs in order to be closer to job opportunities. Freeman concedes that a shift like this is unlikely.

And while this report offers an interesting explanation for these changes, Freeman says that it could also be partly the case that certain areas saw increases in suburban voucher use because the people who already lived there suddenly were forced to rely on assistance. The research hasn’t been done to show how much of a factor this is, but as this report explains, the drivers behind rising suburban poverty are diverse – and oftentimes interconnected.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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