How a modification of a popular rental voucher program is reshaping where people live in Boston

“When I came to visit the apartment, I fell in love instantly,” she said. “It wasn’t just because of the way it was put together. I felt like the area was perfect for raising my child, for building a life.

She’s there because of a change in the way housing authorities in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline value Section 8. rental vouchers that help around 20,000 low-income households pay for apartments. In 2019, the three cities asked the federal government to let them vary subsidies by zip code, instead of a flat rate for area – a significant adjustment with the potential to transform who can afford to live where in the Greater Boston.

Previously, the Boston Housing Authority had used the same rate for Section 8 voucher holders in the Boston metro area, paying $1,563 for a one-bedroom apartment everywhere from Back Bay to Brockton. In fact, it took voucher holders out of the more expensive neighborhoods and directed them to Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

Jayzena Hernandez laughed as she watched her 4-year-old daughter, Kassandra, fall backwards onto the couch cushions in their Brookline apartment. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The 2019 decision to change the voucher amount by ZIP code gives Section 8 tenants more money to work with — Hernandez’s voucher is worth about $1,100 more per month at Brookline than it would be at Mattapan – and ultimately more choice of where they live. They can now compete with other tenants for quality housing close to better schools, transport and jobs, options previously out of reach. This kind of movement within the region could reduce concentrated pockets of poverty and diversify wealthy neighborhoods, advocates hoped.

Three years, and a pandemic, later, the results are promising.

Data from the Boston Housing Authority shows a notable increase in the number of Section 8 bond holders moving to less poor neighborhoods and a higher proportion of adults with jobs – what the researchers call “high-density” areas. opportunity”. (Vouchers are issued by housing authorities in various municipalities or by the state, and voucher holders can use them to rent anywhere in Massachusetts.)

In Norwood, for example, the number of households with Section 8 vouchers issued by the Boston Housing Authority increased from 101 in 2019 to 186 in July 2022. A ZIP code in West Roxbury increased from 123 to 183. On the side from Hernandez to Brookline, 02446, had just four Boston voucher holders in 2019. Now there are 31.

Meanwhile, in the more expensive towns of Cambridge and Brookline, more voucher holders were able to use the subsidy to stay close to home, rather than move to a cheaper nearby town. In the Cambridge postcode which includes Harvard University, 119 more units were rented to Section 8 voucher holders in October 2022 than in May 2019.

“These are small changes, but we still consider them a success because a number of these neighborhoods were completely inaccessible before,” said Nick Kelly, director of strategic initiatives and innovation at the Boston Housing Authority, which issues approximately 13,000 rental vouchers. .

Part of the rise, he added, is offset by the fact that the number of Section 8 vouchers available has increased between 2019 and 2022, and the Housing Authority cannot directly link the modified vouchers and household moves.

“But it’s very unlikely that this was due to chance,” Kelly said.

Section 8 benefits more than 2 million low-income families nationwide, making it a relatively small piece of the housing policy puzzle. Yet in Boston, the new combination of housing vouchers could transform our “stubbornly segregated residential landscape,” said Councilman Kenzie Bok, who before being elected served as a senior adviser for policy and planning at Boston. Housing Authority.

A minority-majority city, in 2020 Boston had 10 census tracts with a white population of 88% or more. Of 130 towns east of Interstate 495 but not on Cape Cod, 68 have populations that are at least 80% white, according to 2020 census data.

“Without a doubt,” Bok added, “this is the biggest step I’ve taken in contributing to housing integration over the past decade.”

“This is without a doubt the biggest step I’ve taken to contribute to inclusive housing in the past decade,” said Councilman Kenzie Bok, pictured here on October 8, 2019.Staff of Pat Greenhouse/Globe

While the vouchers, which are funded by the federal government, generally pay more than under the old system, the program does not strain housing authority budgets. Indeed, prior to 2019, a significant number of vouchers issued in Massachusetts went unused because recipients could not find affordable housing. The money was budgeted, but never spent. Now the housing authorities are using closer to the full allowance.

For Hernandez, the higher standard of goodness offers the promise of a lifetime of stability.

The 30-something had jumped between homeless shelters for decades, and his mother died just months before Hernandez graduated from high school. A developmental disability prevents her from working, and she has been living on Supplemental Security Income payments since 2014. Most of the $955.09 monthly check is for phone, internet, and electricity bills (about $400 ), payment for his sofa and Nintendo Switch ($211), commuter rail trips to see his two oldest daughters in Worcester, as well as food and rent. She does not receive food stamps or help from her family.

Under Section 8, residents must contribute approximately 30% of their income towards rent. In Mattapan, Hernandez paid $150 on top of the voucher. The two-bedroom apartment in Brookline costs her $238, plus a $7 processing fee, on the first of each month. (His voucher covers the rest, about $2,500 a month by his estimate.) But the extra $88 rental fee is worth it: walking to Star Market and the new Kassandra Elementary School takes just 10 minutes. . Kassandra loves the playground around the corner. At six months pregnant, Hernandez hopes her new baby – Mateo – will be too.

She doesn’t know her neighbors, who are mostly students and young professionals.

“But that doesn’t matter,” Hernandez said. “I like being here. I’m a homebody.

That sense of home security is crucial for low-income families reaching the middle class, research shows. Each year a child spends in a high-opportunity neighborhood increases their likelihood of attending college and increasing their lifetime earnings, according to Harvard-based research institute Opportunity Insights. Living in the midst of poverty harms people’s emotional and behavioral health and reduces the chances of upward mobility. Lauren Song, a housing attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, described landing in a high-opportunity area simply: “It’s the golden ticket.”

And while Section 8 voucher holders have long been free to live where they want, making the voucher more valuable makes it easier for them to do so, said Bill Berman, director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at the ‘University of Suffolk. In 2020, his program published a study that found widespread discrimination against voucher holders in Greater Boston; landlords only responded to their requests 15% of the time, and it takes an average of 50 requests to see five apartments.

“But if a voucher holder goes to a landlord with more money,” Berman said, “it’s harder to turn him down.”

State Senator Lydia Edwards welcomed the approach and defended it as a city councilwoman, but with some caveats: It’s not a substitute for building more housing, which she says is still the best way to make rent more widely affordable in Massachusetts. And low-income neighborhoods that are home to thousands of black and brown people — many of whom don’t want to move — shouldn’t be ignored.

“Invest in business, infrastructure and education,” she said. “It always comes back to the schools.”

In the meantime, Edwards wants the state to follow Boston’s lead by reassessing the 22,000 vouchers it manages in Massachusetts. In 2019, the Department of Housing and Community Development said the program “deserved further study”. A spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether that stance had changed, and instead pointed to other aid programs that helped 89 families move to “high opportunity” neighborhoods.

Jayzena Hernandez leans in for a closer look at the My Little Pony game her daughter, Kassandra, was playing while she was sick from school at their apartment in Brookline.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Housing authorities in Winchester, Amherst, Easton and Leominster have rolled out postcode-specific vouchers since Boston led the charge. The City of Boston has also launched a voucher program funded by the city budget, rather than the federal government, with a few million allocated for fiscal year 2022.

Edwards added that this money is for those who “hold on by their fingernails. Boston is bleeding working class people.

But Hernandez no longer sees himself as part of that group. At least, she hopes not.

The Brookline apartment could be a link to greater long-term prosperity for Kassandra. Hernandez imagines his family will live there for years, finish their homework on the square dining room table or bake a tres leches cake in the kitchen. She has already stored a stroller and a car seat for her future newborn in the closet. Next step: a cradle.

Brookline could be home, maybe forever.

“I want to stay,” Hernandez said. “Of course I want to stay.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.

Ryan H. Bowman