A multi-year, federally funded study on how to help low-income families with children move to neighborhoods with more opportunity is underway in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
“I would say that’s a big deal,” said Colleen Cain, a research and program analyst with the Allegheny County Department of Social Services’ Office of Analysis, Technology and Planning, referring both on the national scale of the research and on the scope of the questions it aims to answer. Allegheny County DHS is coordinating study efforts at the local level.
The research will involve nearly 2,000 local families who use housing choice vouchers, commonly referred to as “section 8” vouchers.
Vouchers help low-income tenants afford housing – residents pay part of their income in rent and a government grant helps pay the rest.
However, many landlords do not accept vouchers, and those who do are often concentrated in very poor communities with underperforming schools and less access to good jobs, transport and amenities. The problem has become increasingly acute in Pittsburgh in recent years: A booming real estate market has driven up rents and reduced the number of landlords accepting vouchers. Additionally, a city effort to require landlords to accept vouchers failed last yearafter a long legal battle.
The Community Choice Demonstration study, funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, aims to overcome some of these barriers through intensive assistance to participating families and homeowners. Families must have at least one child to participate in the voluntary study.
The multi-year study is in the planning phase and has recently begun recruiting families to participate.
Among the assistance that the project will offer to families: help in choosing a neighborhood, applying for accommodation, finding apartments and paying a deposit.
“The principle here allows for real geographic choice, which currently, due to a number of hurdles, voucher holders are unable to exercise,” said Nick Cotter, analyst at the Department of Social Services. of Allegheny County. “And so we think people should be able to live where they want to live. And hopefully, through this program, we’re seeing that in the long-term data, for people who are receiving these services.
Owners with units in “high opportunity areas” who choose to participate may be eligible for financial incentives such as rental bonuses and assistance with paperwork.
Among the areas considered “high opportunity” — a number of Allegheny County suburbs and some low-poverty neighborhoods in Pittsburgh such as Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Highland Park, Morningside, Stanton Heights, Bloomfield, Friendship and Brookline.
As part of the study, county and city housing authorities will update their payment standards, which means landlords will be paid more for homes in high-potential neighborhoods and suburbs.
“We hope it will be more reflective of the private rental market and better suited to landlords,” said Amanda Hower, senior project manager of operations for the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority.
The study is also taking place in other cities of the countryincluding Los Angeles, New Orleans, Nashville, Minneapolis, Cleveland and elsewhere.