The New York Times reports on the success of an experimental housing policy the federal government rolled out in Dallas. In short, the new program offers vouchers to people who qualify for housing subsidies. That’s not new. Here’s the new bit: if the person receiving the voucher wants to move to a more expensive neighborhood, the government will give that person more money.
The thought is that by helping families move into better neighborhoods, they will have a better chance of breaking the cycles of poverty that persist in poorer parts of town. Better schools, safer neighborhoods, short commutes: in the long run it all translates into lower costs for everyone, those receiving the subsidies and the government. So far, this strategy has been proven successful, even if the program is not perfect:
MaryAnn Russ, chief executive of the Dallas Housing Authority, the agency that administers the experiment, said the changes had provided a “tremendous benefit” to thousands of families in the Dallas area. In 2011, Dallas voucher recipients lived in 129 ZIP codes. Four years later, recipients live in 163 ZIP codes.
Also important was that the overall cost of the program did not increase.
But Ms. Russ said there were some unexpected problems. Officials predicted that cutting subsidies would force landlords in lower-income areas to cut rents. Instead, many of those landlords required subsidized tenants to pay more out of their own pockets. And moving has proved difficult for many tenants. Some are elderly, disabled or so poor that they have no savings for a security deposit.
“Many, many families here have benefited in important ways, and that’s a big deal,” Ms. Russ said. “But some people have fallen under the bus. That’s a reality too.”
The report comes at an interesting moment in the ongoing conversation about low-income housing in Dallas. As we have pointed out, Dallas leads the nation when it comes to income inequality by neighborhood. It also is a national leader in efforts to reform housing policy. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the Dallas-based housing advocacy organization called the Inclusive Communities Project, which alleged in a suit that Texas allocated a disproportionate share of low-income housing tax credits to landlords in minority neighborhoods. And that same group is involved in a similar ongoing dispute over the way the city of Dallas distributes tax credits for mixed-income housing in new developments, particularly in downtown.
What’s interesting about the program highlighted in the NYT piece is that it is designed to break some of these negative trends, offering low-income residents access to more successful neighborhoods and circumventing the kinds of policies that cluster low-income housing into minority neighborhoods. The program also underscores a broader economic reality.
Check out this map (also above) that runs with the the story. It illustrates where people who receive the housing subsidies live and where they decided to move. What it shows is that when folks are given the option to move where they would like, they head for the burbs.
The NYT report’s example of Lamesa White, who moved her family from South Dallas to Frisco, offers the perfect rationale. For White and her family, the suburbs offer a better quality of life, shorter commute time, and better schools. If you are a low-income family, and you can suddenly afford the barrier of entry to a neighborhood that offers your children more opportunity, of course you head north.
Or you could put it this way: Dallas offers its low-income residents such little opportunity for success, the Dallas Housing Authority is effectively paying people to leave Dallas.