New Challenges to Increase Housing Opportunities

Affordable housing advocates in communities with high rents have known for a long time that Section 8 vouchers often don’t help tenants seeking to move to areas with better opportunities. This is because housing authorities must calculate the voucher benefit  based on HUD’s “metropolitan statistical area” method that sometimes aggregates communities with higher concentrations of poverty with more affluent neighborhoods. This averaging method results in reduced fair market rent rates for tenant vouchers that are not high enough for tenants to move to communities with higher rents. They are priced out of these communities because the vouchers aren’t substantial enough to allow them to move.

The Obama administration attempted to fix this by adopting a new rule for identified areas of the country that allowed public housing agencies to use “small area fair market rents” to determine voucher amounts—namely to fix the voucher amounts based on zip codes. This would make a big difference where I live. Using small area fair market rents to determine voucher amounts could recognize that rents in Amherst are much higher than in Cummington.

Ah, but a change in administrations makes a difference. In October, the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Secretary Carson without notice or comment suspended the Obama administration rule. The federal district court for the District of Columbia recently entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting the suspension of the Obama rule, Open Communities Alliance v. Carson, Civil Action 17-2192 (D.D.C., December 23, 2017). This would, on its face, appear to be a big win for fostering greater housing opportunity for tenants with housing choice vouchers.

Unfortunately, the victory for affordable housing in Open Communities Alliance is likely to be short-lived. The judge noted that HUD told the court that “HUD will soon rescind the [Obama] rule through notice and comment.” While Russia and tax reform get all the headlines, what the Trump administration is doing through administrative rulemaking is just as important.

So, we should all be vigilant when HUD follows through on its commitment (threat?) to abandon the small area fair market rent rule. If HUD posts the suspension or rescission of the rule, housing advocates should provide the agency with feedback on how the rule might help voucher holders seeking to relocate to higher opportunity communities.