Housing Choice Voucher Waiting Lists Disadvantage Households Facing the Most Residential Instability

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The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program is the largest rental assistance program in the country, but because it is not an entitlement program, only one in five households that qualifies for housing assistance receives it. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers regularly discuss pathways to expand the voucher program to ensure more or all eligible households can access assistance, but until then, public housing authorities (PHAs) are left to administer their allocation of vouchers to a limited set of eligible households. This study explores whether voucher waiting list preferences and purging practices deepen economic inequality among eligible households by making it more likely that some will receive vouchers than others.

Using a mixed-methods approach, the researcher analyzes voucher administrative plans from 59 PHAs in Michigan and conducts in-depth interviews with 21 PHA staff, including directors and senior-level staff, from the Detroit region to understand the factors that shaped waiting list preferences systems and the causes and consequences of the PHA’s purging procedures. The researcher then uses two sets of population-based survey data from the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) panel and 2012–16 American Community Survey (ACS) microdata to assess residential stability among voucher-eligible households. In particular, the study explores whether households with lower incomes move more often than their higher-income counterparts and whether those moves cross major geographic boundaries.

The findings suggest waiting list preferences and purging procedures collectively disadvantage residentially unstable applicants and that among households income eligible for the voucher program, poorer households are more likely to experience residential instability. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the poorest households face the greatest disadvantage when competing for a voucher.

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