Editorial: Stubborn barriers persist for Section 8 tenants

A new report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston offers new insights into how racial discrimination and other barriers continue to make life more difficult for families with rental assistance vouchers who are trying to find housing in Greater Boston.

The analysis included in the report— which can be read in full at bostonfed.org— is based on in-person surveys with 128 voucher-holders in the Boston Housing Authority database who had gone through a search process with “Housing Choice” vouchers— often called “Section 8”— in the last three years. Under the voucher system, renters pay roughly 30 percent of their income for rent and the voucher pays for the balance.
What the researchers found was troubling.

“The patterns you see, the segregation, are not a reflection of what most people want,” said Gretchen Weismann, who wrote the study with colleagues Erin Graves and Alexandra Curley. “If we want voucher holders to access a range of places, we need better education about what’s available and better enforcement of fair housing laws.”

Here are some key findings of the report:

• Nearly half (48 percent) of BHA voucher recipients live in either Dorchester, Roxbury, or Mattapan, even though the authority’s potential regional reach includes some 120 suburban towns and other Massachusetts cities.

• Seven in 10 voucher holders “reported some form of discrimination during their last search” for an apartment or house. “White voucher holders had the greatest success with calls to property owners, viewing units, and completing applications. Black households had significantly lower viewing-to-call ratios: 66 percent of blacks’ calls to property owners resulted in a unit viewing, compared with 81 percent on average for other racial groups,” the report states.

• “Compared with other families, black families used more search strategies and sought out more apartments, but they had less success and experienced more discrimination during the search process, especially in higher-opportunity areas.” High-opportunity areas are defined by the report’s authors as “those that are in lower-poverty census tracts with high-performing schools, proximity to economic opportunities, and access to a range of environmental factors that are protective for child and family health and well-being.”

• Section 8 tenants living in “higher-opportunity areas were much more likely than those in lower-opportunity areas to be ‘very satisfied’ with safety, both in the daytime (86 percent vs. 51 percent) and at night (80 percent vs. 39 percent), school quality (84 percent vs. 46 percent), costs of living in the neighborhood (52 percent vs. 25 percent), neighborhood cleanliness (80 percent vs. 46 percent), and their neighbors (63 percent vs. 39 percent).”

• This is not just a Greater Boston problem. The authors note that “in 2017, fewer than 14 percent of families with children receiving vouchers in the United States lived in low-poverty neighborhoods, and white households were nearly twice as likely as black households to live in such neighborhoods.”

What’s to be done? The authors point to the need for more training for housing agency staff to help tenants seek out neighborhoods they might have avoided due to “past experiences with and/or perceptions of discrimination.” They argue that the report underlines the need to establish “housing mobility programs” that can reduce “administrative burdens that landlords indicate are an important consideration” when they weigh the idea of renting to Section 8 holders.

-Bill Forry