Panel Paper: Waitlists and Preferences: Understanding How Public Housing Authorities Administer the Housing Choice Voucher Program

Friday, November 3, 2017
Wright (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Brian McCabe, Georgetown University
The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program is administered by more than 2,400 local public housing authorities (PHAs) around the country. Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issues regulations to guide the process, PHAs have substantial leeway in setting local priorities, crafting waitlists and selecting voucher recipients. In this paper, I investigate two key decisions made by local housing authorities in their implementation of the program – when to open (and close) their waitlists and whether to give preferences to certain sub-groups of applicants. The paper brings together both quantitative and qualitative data to understand these decisions. First, I utilize an extensive web-based survey of housing authorities to investigate these decisions. I find that fewer than half of public housing authorities keep their waitlists open on an ongoing basis and nearly two-thirds of housing authorities maintain preferences for particular types of applicants. Twenty-five percent of housing authorities report a preference for people with disabilities and twenty-four percent report a preference for victims of domestic violence. Other groups commonly receiving preference include households displaced by public action, individuals living in the jurisdiction of the housing authority and families experiencing homelessness. Notably, large housing authorities – those that administer the most vouchers – are less likely to keep an open waitlist and more likely to utilize preferences in selecting among applicants. Next, through a series of interviews with officials at local housing authorities, I investigate how and why these housing authorities make their waitlist and preference decisions. This qualitative fieldwork reveals the constraints faced by housing authorities in deciding when to open their waitlist and whether to prioritize applicants. For example, I find that the administrative burdens associated with verifying preferences – for example, determining whether a family qualifies for a homeless preference or checking the employment status of a family selected with a work preference – creates a substantial obstacle for housing authorities. This rich account offers insight into the rules and procedures governing the administration of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. Since only a fraction of income-eligible households receive assistance through the program, I argue that these tenant selection procedures are consequential for determining who benefits from the voucher program. A more thorough understanding of this process will help both HUD and local housing authorities reshape the voucher program to efficiently target households with the greatest unmet need. Critically, this paper compliments a growing body of research on landlords and tenants in the voucher program – research that has largely overlooked the intermediary role of local governments in implementing the voucher program.