San Antonio Housing Authority is looking for an out from rule that enables more low-income people to access opportunity neighborhoods

Would 12,600 San Antonio families who pay a portion of their rent with a Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher be better off if they had more money to pay rent for nicer apartments in safer and more desirable neighborhoods; neighborhoods near high performing schools and more and better paying jobs? The answer seems like a “no-brainer.” But for the administrators of the San Antonio Housing Authority the answer is, “No.”

A federal rule that enables low-income families with housing vouchers to access apartments in higher opportunity areas has gone into effect in January for almost two dozen metro areas, including San Antonio.

This regulation, called the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule, was finalized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration and changes the formula determining the portion of rent a housing voucher will cover based on zip code, rather than metropolitan area.

Citing administrative burden, the San Antonio Housing Authority is requesting a waiver for the rule. The agency writes in its Moving to Work Plan that the rule would entail having 90 separate payment standards for each of the zip codes in the agency’s service area, which is “burdensome to implement and would be unnecessarily confusing for participants.”

The housing authority says that because it is part of the Moving to Work program, it is “authorized” to forgo currently mandated requirements set forth by the the federal housing agency. Moving to Work is a HUD program that allows local housing agencies the flexibility to pursue innovative, locally-designed policies that promote self-sufficiency among residents. Moving to Work is designed to help residents have greater access to opportunity and choice and allow flexibility to localities that helps facilitate that.

Moving to Work is not a loophole through which local housing authorities can avoid compliance with federal policy that promotes housing choice among low-income households.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 4.31.34 PMInstead of setting the payment standards according to zip codes, the San Antonio Housing Authority proposes an initial one-year phase during which it will divide its payment standards into two tiers. The first tier is the gray area shown in this map, which are areas that do not score high in the criteria that indicate high-opportunity areas. These areas in gray have a higher concentration of low-income households and voucher holders. The area in green is mixed with a low concentration of voucher holders and has greater access to opportunity. The green area will have payments set at 100 percent of the metropolitan area’s fair market rent, while the gray area will be set at 90 percent. Due to cost, the housing authority says, a cap of 50 current voucher holding households will be given the option to move to Tier 2 with an increased payment of 100 percent of the metropolitan area’s fair market rent. Many other cities set the standard at 110-120 percent.

To begin with, two tiers are not sufficient and not in compliance with the rule. Second, the cap of 50 households in the higher-opportunity tier severely limits the impact that this program could have.

Following this initial phase, SAHA will “finalize” their local submarket payment standards based on the results of Phase I. The agency’s goal is to achieve “proportional concentrations of voucher holders” across the service area by 2018. However, there is no indication in the plan of how this will be accomplished or whether additional tiers will be added at higher payment standards.

An evaluation of the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule, which was piloted a few years ago in several cities, found that the higher payment standards for apartments in higher opportunity areas led to more families moving to neighborhoods that suit their families’ needs. The evaluation also found that while administrative costs in implementing the program rose, they were only slight, and overall the rule appears to be a cost-effective way to help families have greater choice in where they can live.

This is vital as studies have shown that when young children can spend much of their childhoods in areas with higher quality schools and with lower crime rates, their educational and earning outcomes can improve dramatically. The San Antonio Housing Authority should be ensuring that as many San Antonio families with housing vouchers as possible can choose that path for their children.

Considering the results of this evaluation of the pilot program, it appears that administrative burden nor cost prohibitiveness is an excuse for the San Antonio Housing Authority seeking an exemption from this important federal rule. Further, the housing authority has determined that Moving to Work is reason enough to seek a waiver, but what SAHA is doing falls significantly short of the regulation and intention of the SAFMR rule, and does not further the expressed goals of the Moving to Work program.

The San Antonio Housing Authority is seeking public comment on its Moving to Work agency plan, which HUD must review and approve. You can read it here until March 18. The Housing Authority is holding a public hearing to receive oral and written comments on March 15 at 2 p.m. at the Park at Sutton Oaks, 1010 Locke St. in San Antonio. Find more on the agency’s website.

We have previously written about how the Trump administration intended to delay implementation of the rule. A nonprofit and two voucher-holding residents sued HUD and Secretary Ben Carson, and in December, a federal judge blocked the delay, making the rule effective in January 2018 as scheduled.