Science + Technology

Housing voucher recipients moving to America's suburbs, new report shows

But recipients tend to settle in low-income suburban areas with fewer jobs

Americans who use housing-choice vouchers provided by the federal government are increasingly choosing to live in the suburbs, and as that trend continues, metropolitan areas across the country need to work to make sure that housing opportunities for these individuals connect with employment opportunities, according to a new report co-authored by UCLA researchers and published by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
The report, "The Suburbanization of Housing Choice Voucher Recipients," analyzes data from 2000 to 2008 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the American Community Survey to demonstrate how this trend is proceeding and to describe some of its implications. 
Formerly known as Section 8, the HUD-funded housing-choice voucher program assists very low-income families, the disabled and the elderly by providing payments to landlords to make up the difference between rents and what the renters can afford. Voucher recipients are free to choose affordable housing units, including those in the private sector, anywhere in the state in which they reside. In certain circumstances, vouchers can be used to purchase a home. The program currently assists an estimated 2.1 million low-income households.
"Jobs moved to the suburbs, and people followed," said report co-author Michael Stoll, chair of the public policy department at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution. "Some of those people are poor. Some rely on vouchers to secure affordable housing. We found that while vouchers are giving people the chance to move where the opportunities are, voucher recipients are not moving into high-opportunity neighborhoods as often as they might.
"While HUD has made the voucher program more flexible, there is more to do. The idea was to help get people out of urban poverty pockets, but we don't want to simply plunk them down into new poverty pockets in the suburbs."
The report notes that lower-income suburbs saw faster population growth but slower employment growth over the last decade. Voucher recipients, according to the report, did not drive the rapid growth of suburban poverty over the decade, but they were part of it.
"We need diversity of opportunity in suburban areas as the population becomes more racially and economically diverse," said co-author Kenya Covington, a visiting faculty member at UCLA and an associate professor of urban studies and planning at California State University, Northridge. "The old lines that distinguished cities and suburbs are blurring, which presents us with a new geography that will require changes in planning and policy."
Among the report's findings: 
  • Nearly half of all voucher recipients lived in suburban areas in 2008. However, voucher recipients remained less suburbanized than the total population, the poor population and affordable housing units generally. 
  • African American voucher recipients suburbanized fastest over the 2000–08 period, though white voucher recipients were still more suburbanized than their black or Latino counterparts by 2008. Black voucher recipients' suburbanization rate increased by nearly 5 percent over this period, while Latinos' increased by about 1 percent. The suburbanization rate for white voucher recipients declined slightly. 
  • Within metropolitan areas, the percentage of voucher recipients moving into higher-income and jobs-rich suburbs increased between 2000 and 2008, but poor and affordable housing units shifted even more rapidly toward similar kinds of suburbs over that period. By 2008, about half of suburban voucher recipients still lived in low-income suburbs.  
  • Between 2000 and 2008, metropolitan areas in the West and those experiencing large increases in suburban poverty showed the biggest shifts in voucher recipients to the suburbs. Western metro areas like Stockton, Boise and Phoenix experienced increases of 10 percentage points or more in the suburbanization rate of voucher recipients.
The report recommends providing greater incentives for multi-family housing, re-evaluating local zoning regulations, improving the enforcement of fair housing laws and facilitating the use of housing vouchers in higher-income suburban neighborhoods.
"Just as federal officials need to fine-tune the voucher program, local leaders need to understand how this trend is playing out in their regions so they can make better land-use and economic planning decisions," said co-author Lance Freeman, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "Where are people going to live? Where are the jobs going to grow? How do we connect the two? Those are fundamental issues to community viability."
The report is part of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Opportunity Series, which documents the changing geography of poverty and opportunity in metropolitan America, analyzes its drivers and implications, and offers policy recommendations to enhance the well-being of lower-income families and communities in both cities and suburbs. For more research in this series, visit
To read the full report, visit
The Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program provides decision-makers with cutting-edge research and policy ideas for improving the health and prosperity of metropolitan areas, including their component cities, suburbs and rural areas. Follow the program on Twitter at
The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, founded in 1994, incorporates best practices in scholarship, research and teaching in the fields of social welfare, urban planning and public policy. The unique intersection of these disciplines within one school allows for academic cross-collaboration and a graduate education that values perspectives at the macro- and micro- organizational levels. Graduates of the master's and doctoral programs are well prepared to take leadership roles and effect change as practitioners, researchers and policymakers in the public, private and non-governmental sectors. Faculty are actively engaged in research that addresses pressing national and regional issues, including immigration, drug policy, prison reform, health care financing, transportation, the environment, national security, economic development and an aging U.S. and world population.
For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom and follow us on Twitter.
Media Contact