Why D.C.'s Housing Vouchers are Working Better Than Those in Other Cities

Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Rebecca Gale
Pacific Standard

Adrianne Todman remembers sitting across the table from landlords and hearing what they really thought of the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority. "We asked, 'What drives you nuts?'" Todman says, and the landlords had been willing to answer.

Todman, who served as executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority from 2009 to 2017, knew that getting more landlords onboard to accept voucher tenants in their units would benefit both the tenants and the housing authority; the DCHA wanted to work with all landlords, those who managed many multi-story buildings and those who owned only a handful of units. But the key was securing cooperation. And to do that, they had to know where they had been missing the mark.

The landlords were willing to talk. As part of Todman's role at the top of the agency, she implemented a number of changes that would increase the likelihood of getting a voucher tenant approved and moved into a private unit. The DCHA found the three things most important to landlords were creating a smooth process to deem families eligible, having inspections done quickly, and being able to do re-certifications without delay.

Changes were made: The DCHA brought more staff onboard, divvied up inspectors by location to make inspections easier, and created a custom payment standard that allowed landlords to go online and see how much they could charge. The DHCA also established a new landlord advisory committee, a group of landlords who meet monthly with the agency and provide feedback. The number of voucher families finding new units to rent increased, and a recent report published by the Urban Institute shows that D.C. landlords are more willing to rent to voucher tenants than many other cities—even when compared to other cities with similar housing laws.

Housing vouchers were born out of the Nixon administration, a private-sector alternative to public housing, but only in recent years has the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) devoted attention to to landlords and what municipalities can do to increase a landlord's willingness to accept voucher tenants. Washington, D.C., like dozens of other states and municipalities, has a source of income (SOI) discrimination law, meaning that landlords are not allowed to discriminate against voucher holders when selecting tenants. But those laws alone aren't enough to motivate landlords, and the recent Urban Institute report showed that D.C. landlords had a greater willingness to rent to voucher holders than their counterparts in Philadelphia, where a similar SOI law exists. Philadelphia was one of the cities where HUD conducted a landlord listening session, and yet voucher holders there still face a high denial rate.

"D.C. has this very special thing because it's such a wealthy housing market in a wealthy metropolitan area," says Eva Rosen, a sociologist and an assistant professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. Rosen says that most cities offer landlords between 90 and 110 percent of what the fair market rents are. In D.C., landlords are offered up to 175 percent. "I don't know of any other city that goes that high."

D.C. also benefits from the Moving to Work (MTW) classification under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which allows select housing authorities to experiment with innovative designs and ways to spend money. Nearly 40 housing authorities are currently enrolled, with a goal of getting to 100 agencies by 2022. Todman acknowledges that, without the MTW designation, her team likely wouldn't have been able to make the internal changes necessary for the DCHA to operate.

Unlike many other housing programs, such as public housing, the voucher program is dependent on the participation of private-sector owners. Federal law does not require landlords to participate (though some bipartisan federal legislation is pending to do just that). But SOI laws alone cannot change the landlord-tenant dynamics. Even with SOI laws in place, a landlord can often avoid complying because of poor enforcement. The economic incentives can work against voucher holders too, as a market tenant can sometimes pay more. (Under a voucher program, the housing agency typically pays 70 percent of the rent and the tenant pays the remainder.) Or, a landlord may be unwilling to go through the additional steps required to bring on a voucher tenant, such as having an inspection and then drawing on rent from two sources.

And research has found that voucher holders are incentivized to be good tenants. "The rent payments are reliable. Housing authorities pay on time every month. Tenants have a good incentive, their voucher is on the line if they violate good lease rules," says Alison Bell, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Martha Galvez, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and author of the recent report on voucher denial rates, says that D.C. is notable because it has a neighborhood-based rent system, also called Small Area Fair Market Rents, which designates rent reimbursements by zip code, rather than by metropolitan area. "It's being able to set the rents so they reflect what is going on in the market," Galvez explains. This incentivizes landlords to rent to voucher holders in any neighborhood, rather than just in poor neighborhoods where the rent reimbursement might be more profitable. (Initially, the Trump administration had halted the use of SAFMR during his first year in office, but a judge overruled the decision in December of 2017, so the program continued.)

D.C. also has programs that help train voucher holders to be good tenants. "It's a big deal how well the housing authority operates," Galvez says. "DCHA is a high-functioning one. Landlords are really looking to work with housing authorities that are easier to work with. The extent that DCHA is able to make it easier for landlords matters."

Rosen believes the focus on meeting landlords' needs and concerns is likely to increase across the country, especially with places like D.C. showing success as compared to other similarly situated cities. But there is less data available about which neighborhoods voucher holders move to, despite the documented gains that a voucher holder could make by moving to a higher-opportunity neighborhood. And across the country, particularly in areas with a low Fair Market Rent subsidy (such as a wealthy metro area with highly concentrated poor neighborhoods), the voucher holders have far fewer options.

"Voucher holders are moving to neighborhoods where the landlord is interested in renting to the voucher holders, which is where the financial incentive outweighs the bureaucratic hassle," Rosen says. "The reality of the economics is that it usually happens in poor neighborhoods."

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