Study Identifies Barriers to Housing Choice and Mobility for Voucher Holders

A paper published in Housing Policy Debate by Erin Graves of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston titled “Rooms for Improvement: A Qualitative Metasynthesis of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program” reviews findings from twenty qualitative studies of the HCV program published between 2000 and 2014. Graves identifies key barriers found in the housing market and the voucher program itself that constrain housing choice and mobility among voucher recipients. She calls into question the assumption that voucher recipients have full freedom in choosing rental units and locations.

Two barriers in the housing market that constrain voucher holders’ housing choices and mobility are uneven availability of public transit and discrimination. Many voucher recipients lack a personal vehicle, constraining them to locations that provide public transit. Access to transit was a key consideration among voucher recipients in choosing a place to live and was often more important than living in a lower poverty community. Transit access to family, social networks, jobs, schools, and institutions was a primary concern.

Racial and income discrimination also constrain housing choice. The studies described voucher recipients experiencing perceived racial discrimination by landlords refusing to accept vouchers. Landlords can harbor negative perceptions of voucher recipients. Source of income (SOI) protections improve outcomes for voucher recipients, because they legally prevent landlords from rejecting apartment seekers because they have vouchers. A study in Seattle, however, found that voucher recipients still experienced discrimination despite the local SOI protection.

The HCV program itself was found to present barriers to housing choice. The program does not provide assistance with security deposits and moving costs, leaving these costs to fall on voucher recipients. Credit checks present yet another hurdle, since many voucher recipients have poor credit histories. Landlords in weak rental markets are more willing to accommodate voucher households with insufficient funds for deposits or poor credit than landlords in strong rental markets, thereby limiting the neighborhoods available to voucher holders. Recipients reported choosing a less-than-ideal housing unit because a landlord was willing to make concessions to accommodate their financial constraints. In some cases, tenants possibly accepted a below market-rate quality apartment at a market-rate price.

The HCV program requires landlords who accept a voucher to have their housing inspected and approved. Scheduling these inspections can take time, and the landlord loses income while the housing is off the market. Landlords incur additional costs if improvements are required. The HCV program does not cover these costs, making some landlords reluctant to accept vouchers.

Waiting for a voucher after applying for one is often lengthy, and when one will become available is unpredictable. Some of the studies described waiting periods as long as eight years. A voucher can become available at any time of the year, eliminating recipients’ ability to control the timing of their move to coordinate with family obligations or work schedules. Vouchers can become available at inopportune times like during winter or the school year when moving can be difficult. Another constraint to housing choice is the 60 to 120 day time limit that a new recipient is given to find housing. The pressure to find housing within the specified time, combined with financial constraints and poor timing, can pressure a voucher recipient to choose a lower quality house or location.

The paper provides policy recommendations to overcome barriers to housing choice and mobility, including providing credit counseling to applicants on voucher waiting lists to improve their credit scores, giving voucher holders greater control over the timing of their move by extending the window allotted for finding quality housing, and providing repair assistance or other incentives to landlords to make vouchers a more attractive option to them. Removing housing market barriers of uneven transit service and discrimination may be beyond the scope of the HCV program itself, but policies that expand transit access and combat discrimination would benefit voucher recipients.

Rooms for Improvement: A Qualitative Metasynthesis of the Housing Choice Voucher Program is available at