NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Weaknesses of the Federal Housing Voucher Program

July 24, 2003

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program subsidizes rent payments for 1.7 million low-income families and individuals in privately owned housing. Vouchers cost less than building government-owned projects and are popular with recipients and housing advocates. However, the Bush administration has proposed turning the program into state block grants -- as was done in the 1996 welfare reforms.

Unlike public housing, vouchers allow recipients a choice of where to live and disperse low income families rather than concentrating them.

  • At least some voucher recipients live in eight of 10 neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, according to the latest research.
  • Virtually every census tract in the nation's 50 largest metro areas has some housing at rent levels accessible to voucher recipients.
  • As a result, more than half of voucher recipients (58.6 percent) live in neighborhoods that are less than 20 percent poor, and only 22.2 percent live in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 30 percent poor.

But some families who receive vouchers are unable to find a house or apartment where they can use them -- about 69 percent currently, down from 81 percent in the late 1980s.

One barrier to vouchers is that many suburbs have historically used zoning and land use regulations to limit low income apartments. Thus, rental housing is somewhat concentrated in central cities, older suburbs and less affluent neighborhoods. Also, transferring a voucher from one locality can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

"Moving to Work", a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program, has given waivers to selected housing authorities, some of which are testing variations in voucher rules, including fixed subsidy levels, minimum tenant contributions and time limits.

Source: Margery Austin Turner, "Strengths and Weaknesses of the Housing Voucher Program," Testimony before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity of the Financial Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, June 17, 2003, Urban Institute.

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