Are Housing Choice Voucher Recipients Satisfied with Their Neighborhoods?

Neighborhood Opportunity and Satisfaction Among Housing Choice Voucher Recipients: A Subjective Well-Being Perspective
Atticus Jaramillo, William M. Rohe and Michael D. Webb
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Research shows neighborhoods can affect residents’ opportunities for social mobility, and many housing policies and programs have been designed as a means to promote mobility. One such program is the federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, established in 1974, which gives low-income households a voucher to rent in the private market. Although HCV recipients can use the vouchers wherever they would like (provided the landlord accepts the voucher and the rent meets affordability requirements), many programs hope HCV recipients will use these to move to neighborhoods with higher opportunity. Living in higher-opportunity neighborhoods has potential benefits, such as access to jobs and high-quality schools and reduced exposure to crime and pollution.

Subjective well-being (SWB), or a person’s experience with high levels of positive emotions and low levels of unpleasant emotions, affects consequential life outcomes including health, productivity, and social relationships. Past studies have found that living in neighborhoods that contribute to subjective well-being benefits low-income households. In this study, researchers sought to determine whether access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods changed voucher recipients’ SWB by assessing one component of SWB—neighborhood satisfaction.

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed both individual- and neighborhood-level data from Charlotte, North Carolina. The former consists of a mail-in survey from a sample of 479 HCV heads of households combined with administrative data from the Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA), which administers the HCV program in Charlotte. From the survey data, the researchers developed three neighborhood perception and demographic variables: a social cohesion index, which asked respondents about their relationships with their neighbors; a binary perception of safety variable, which asked respondents if they felt safe in their neighborhood; and a neighborhood disorder index, which came from questions about prevalence of drugs, gangs, violence, and rape are in their neighborhoods. The authors used CHA administrative data to control for various household and individual demographic characteristics, such as gender, race, and number of children. The neighborhood-level data encompassed neighborhood opportunity indicators from the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) data and mapping tool (such as environmental health and transportation costs) and data on neighborhood characteristics from the Charlotte Quality of Life Explorer (such as a neighborhood’s violent crime rate), which they used as control variables.

The researchers analyzed data through two methods: a basic descriptive analysis, to assess mean opportunity score for each level of neighborhood satisfaction, the correlation between each AFFH indicator and HCV recipients’ neighborhood satisfaction, the correlations among the AFFH indicators, and the concentration of HCV recipients by level of neighborhood opportunity, and a multilevel regression to test whether the AFFH indicators were associated with HCV recipients’ neighborhood satisfaction. A limitation of the study is that the researchers oversampled work-able households, or households where there is at least one individual that is non-ederly, non-disabled, not pursuing education full-time, and over the age of 18. The sample underrepresents HCV households nationwide headed by an elderly person or a person with a disability.

Key findings
  • The authors found that the AFFH neighborhood opportunity indicators were weakly associated with residents’ neighborhood satisfaction. However, they found that perceptions of neighborhood safety significantly increase the probability that they were satisfied, whereas perceptions of neighborhood disorder and lack of cohesion had the opposite effect. Having children in the household also significantly lowered the chances that someone was satisfied with their neighborhood, but further research is needed to determine why.
  • HCV participants faced disparities in access to opportunity neighborhoods. Specifically, they were overrepresented in neighborhoods with high-poverty, poor-performing schools and low levels of labor-market engagement.
  • Out of the seven AFFH opportunity indicators, transportation costs, transit accessibility, and overall opportunity had a small effect on neighborhood satisfaction. Interestingly, the researchers found they had an inverse relationship with neighborhood satisfaction: as transit costs go down, transit accessibility increases and overall opportunity increases, yet HCV recipients’ neighborhood satisfaction went down.
Policy implication

The researchers concluded that although HCV recipients may live in opportunity neighborhoods, it does not necessarily mean they are satisfied living there. This suggests that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and public housing authorities could invest in robust mobility counseling services to increase the likelihood that HCV recipients live in neighborhoods they are satisfied with. High-satisfaction neighborhoods may be different from those designated as opportunity neighborhoods. Mobility counseling services can help recipients with their housing search and provide follow-up service after someone moves to a neighborhood.

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