Section 8-holders to get more choices in more places per BHA plan

This article was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on May 15.

The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) is planning to institute a new way to address displacement throughout the region — a move officials say could help break up the concentration of the more than 10,000 households that use a type of Section 8 subsidy known as a “housing choice” voucher.

“Poor folks ought to have choices about where they live and raise their families, just as folks with money do,” said BHA chief Bill McGonagle. “So, this will enable that pretty common-sense principle.”

The BHA administers about $250 million in housing choice vouchers. Under the program, housing authorities are allowed only to pay landlords a standard amount, regardless of the neighborhood. Thus, one household in Beacon Hill and ten in Brookline are voucher-holders while 3,425 households in Dorchester and 373 in Lynn receive the same subsidy.

With respect to the current system, the maximum rent allowed for a two-bedroom unit is $1,914. Under the BHA’s plan to implement so-called Small Area Fair Market Rents, the maximum rent would vary based on the rent numbers in a given ZIP code. So, while a subsidy in Dorchester would remain at a similar level, the figure would increase dramatically in downtown Boston, to the point where families could afford a two-bedroom apartment for $3,290 a month.

Voucher-holders pay 30 percent of their income for rent costs; the rest comes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Boston’s housing chief, Sheila Dillon, said the status quo is contributing to the concentration of poverty in the region, and that has to change. “It was not allowing families to live where they want to live,” Dillon said. “There were only a handful of neighborhoods where the market rates were the same as the voucher rents.”

And over time, Dillon said, as housing choice vouchers represent more and more of the market, “they start dictating more and more of the market rate rent structure.” That serves to inflate the cost of rent, officials say, something they hope to help change under the new policy.

The proposal will require HUD approval, and local officials say the new policy should be in place in July.

WBUR 90.9FM first published this story on May 15. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership in which the two news organizations share content and resources.