New Research Highlights Challenge of Using Housing Vouchers in Tight Rental Markets

Date Published: 
April 10th, 2019

Vacancy rates, more so than median rents, are an important predictor of a voucher holder’s ability to lease up in high-quality neighborhoods, concludes researcher Gregg Colburn in a new journal article for Housing Studies. In “The effect of market conditions on the housing outcomes of subsidized households,” Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate in the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, examines whether, and how, local housing market conditions affect the likelihood that a voucher holder can secure higher quality housing in neighborhoods of their choice. The article begins with a quote from Eric Johnson, Executive Director of the Oakland Housing Authority, who told a reporter in 2016 that market conditions in Oakland were creating an unsustainable voucher program.

Using housing survey data, Colburn looks at whether local vacancy rates and median rents affect self-reported housing and neighborhood quality for both voucher holders and non-voucher holders in 46 metropolitan areas. He finds that in tight housing markets, voucher holders are less successful than non-voucher holders in moving to high-quality neighborhoods. Colburn writes, “This suggests that in tight markets like Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. that it may be easier for a non-voucher recipient to improve her neighborhood outcomes than a voucher recipient despite the obvious gap in purchasing power between these two households.” However, in markets with vacancy rates of more than 10%, there is a shift in neighborhood quality outcomes that favors voucher holders.

Colburn also points to policy solutions that have already been undertaken by many PHAs and their communities, including affordable housing preservation efforts, longer search times, and source of income discrimination laws.

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