Housing assistance and the shifting geography of poverty

As Kim Krisberg reported earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found that in no state can full-time workers earning minimum wage afford the average rent for two-bedroom apartments without spending more than 30% of their income on housing. The combination of rising rents and stagnating wages has left many families struggling to afford basic necessities, and unstable housing situations negatively affect health and children's school performance.

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program allows low-income tenants to rent apartments and pay 30% of their income for rent; a voucher makes up the difference between the tenant contribution and the market rent. Wonkblog's Dylan Matthews notes that the Government Accountability Office has found the program to be more cost-effective than other federal housing initiatives, but the demand for vouchers far outstrips supply. Only one-fourth of those eligible for Section 8 vouchers receive them.

A new Brookings Institution report by Bruce Katz and Margery Austin Turner recommends that Section 8 funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development be directed to regional consortiums rather than to the thousands of local agencies currently administering the program. "The fragmentation of housing voucher program administration is poorly aligned with the geography of metropolitan housing markets today, and creates duplication, overlap, and inefficiency," they explain. Real-estate markets tend to be regional, rather than following county or other local boundaries. And, the authors point out, poverty rates are rising in the suburbs:

As metro economies have decentralized, the geography of metropolitan poverty has also shifted. Whilecentral cities still harbor a disproportionate share of the low-income families living in metropolitanareas, suburban areas have experienced faster growth in poverty than cities. In 2011, the poorpopulation grew by 6.8 percent in the suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, while the poor population in cities grew by 4.7 percent. In total, 55 percent of the metropolitan poor lived in suburbsin 2011, 2.6 million more than in cities. Suburbs also experienced a growing number of extremepoverty neighborhoods last decade, although cities still contain over 80 percent of extreme poverty neighborhoods, and have an overall concentrated poverty rate four times higher than suburbs.

This suburbanization of poverty has implications for other safety net programs as well as for housing assistance. Emily Badger of The Atlantic Cities writes:

Until now, though, elected officials, service providers and federal programs have yet to catch up to this new picture. And regions will swiftly realize that poverty programs designed for dense urban neighborhoods transplant poorly onto suburbia. "We’ve seen that the suburban safety net – it’s much thinner, it’s much patchier, and it’s spread over greater distances," [Brookings Institution fellow Elizabeth] Kneebone says.

Many suburbs, for instance, don't have the kinds of public transit networks that can connect impoverished neighborhoods to job opportunities. And it's significantly harder to address poverty through transportation when low-income households in need of it live dispersed over larger areas. Suburbs also simply lack the built-in networks of service providers that have grown up over decades in inner-city communities.

All of this means that if the geography of poverty has dramatically changed over the last decade, we'll have to spend the next decade (and likely more) thinking about how to address it in its newest forms.

Improving the distribution of housing vouchers and other forms of public assistance is a worthwhile goal. It can be hard to focus resources on reform, though, when it's a constant struggle just to assure that federal funds keep flowing.

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