New Orleans families who receive housing vouchers often have trouble escaping isolated, high-poverty neighborhoods, where access to basic services is limited. But a new report argues that ending such isolated poverty could be as simple as tweaking the definition of “fair market rent.”
At present, the value of housing vouchers for poor families is based on fair market rent, defined as the 40th percentile of gross rents for newly occupied units in the New Orleans metropolitan area. Gross rents include rent and tenants’ utility costs.
The nonprofit Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, however, says that instead of measuring an entire city area, fair market rent can be calculated by ZIP codes, a move that would allow for higher voucher payment standards in areas with higher gross rents and lower payment standards in areas with lower gross rents. That, among other moves, could give tenants more mobility, the group says in the report.
Payment standards are used to calculate the payments that public housing authorities make to landlords on behalf of voucher tenants.
Use of ZIP codes already has been instituted in Dallas and other cities, and as a result, voucher families there chose and moved into neighborhoods with less violent crime, the Fair Housing Action Center report says. As a result, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is weighing the use of ZIP code-level rents, called small-area fair market rents, for areas where voucher recipients have less mobility.
Housing vouchers, an alternative to public housing complexes, became the principal method for housing poor residents in New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina. The idea was to give such residents access to middle-class neighborhoods by offering them portable vouchers that cover most of their rent.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans has issued nearly 18,000 vouchers, with voucher families constituting a quarter of all rental households in the city. Meanwhile, the number of families living in traditional public housing has fallen.
However, voucher recipient concentration in high-poverty areas after the storm has been well-documented, most recently in a Data Center report in July that also called for ZIP code or neighborhood-level fair market rents.
That report found that voucher-recipient families in New Orleans are far less likely to live in low-poverty neighborhoods than their peers elsewhere in the United States and that the city’s black voucher recipients are less likely to live in low-poverty areas than their white counterparts. What’s more, many voucher families are concentrated in New Orleans East, where reliable public transportation and job centers are scarce.
The new report says the 12 city neighborhoods with the most gun violence are home to more than half of all children in the voucher program, based on data from the New Orleans Police Department and The New Orleans Advocate’s Neighborhood Gun Violence Index.
In addition to setting ZIP code-level rents, “mobility counseling,” or housing counseling and housing search assistance for voucher recipients, and voucher landlord recruitment and incentives could help remedy the problem, the Fair Housing Action Center report says.
Both steps also were discussed in the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance’s 10-year affordable housing plan, dubbed HousingNOLA.
HANO could partly fund mobility counseling by increasing the administrative fees it gets for running the voucher program, as those fees are below the national average, the Fair Housing Action Center’s report said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.