Christine Whitehead has published an article entitled “Aspects of the Housing Choice Voucher Program and the Impact of Small Area Fair Market Rents Ceilings: a British Perspective”, in the November 2019 issue of Cityscape.
The paper reviews three of the four symposium papers on the Small Area Fair Market Rents (SAFMRs) Demonstration Evaluation—those by Dastrup, Ellen, and Finkel; Geyer, Dastrup, and Finkel; and McClure and Schwartz.
These are all based on the very detailed data made available by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to enable initial evaluation of this initiative. Together, these articles provide impressive, detailed approaches to different aspects of the program:
- the experience of family households in the areas where SAFMRs have been introduced as compared with metropolitan-wide fair market rents (FMRs);
- the importance of race in determining who may or may not be expected to benefit from the initiative;
- and the evidence on whether the introduction of SAFMR has affected how long people stay in the voucher programme.
Taken together the findings reflect three main issues:
- how even extensive datasets, while producing interesting results, can only cover some aspects of a full evaluation;
- all the initial findings are mainly about what would normally be called outputs—that is, what has happened as a result of the initiative, rather than outcomes—which, to the extent that the objectives of the policy are clear, must be about the impact on the welfare of those affected, both in terms of housing and opportunity; and
- whether, especially given the extent of locational segregation (between income groups as well as race and other household attributes), such an approach can be expected to generate significant changes in household decisions and outcomes.
Importantly, there is also no discussion of value for money from the point of view of government, which is often (usually) a major objective of such evaluations. Rather, success appears to be based on ensuring the money made available is used and used for the intended purposes.
The review is structured in a way that initially provides an understanding of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) programme, reflects on the UK’s approach to housing allowance in the private rented sector, compares approaches to housing allowances throughout Europe, and then attempts to summarise the lessons learnt from the SAFMR initiative.
In the conclusionary remarks, the author concludes that the most obvious lesson from the review is that:
“… need for income-related housing specific allowances is prevalent across countries with very different institutional and ideological frameworks. This is for the fundamental reason that housing costs are often a large proportion of income for poorer households and that welfare systems find it difficult to address large scale spatial variations in cost without an additional element of support. Yet in the main we do not address this problem by expecting people to move long distances to find affordable accommodation. So, one important question is how much choice the individual household is given to use the allowance in the way that they might wish as compared with the government trying to influence moves either to lower-cost areas or to areas of opportunity.”