Why Don’t Families With Housing Vouchers Move to Better School Districts?

If you have a housing voucher that you’re allowed to use anywhere, why wouldn’t you situate yourself near a good school for your kids? That’s the question that a new study dives into after learning that “voucher holders do not, on average, use their vouchers to reach better schools.”

Housing choice voucher programs, which have been around for more than 40 years, cost the taxpayers $19 billion a year. They provide assistance to approximately 2.2 million households, which include over 2.5 million children. The program has been in existence for 40-plus years. Studies suggest that kids in housing voucher programs who go to better schools end up better off in the long run.

Obviously, not every voucher holder cares about the school district where they live.

They may instead use their subsidy to move out of overcrowded living situations (Wood, Turnham, & Mills, 2008), write down rent burdens, find larger, higher quality homes (Mills et al., 2006; Rosenblatt & DeLuca, 2012), relocate to neighborhoods with lower crime (Lens, Ellen, & O’Regan, 2011), or satisfy other household demands. Certainly voucher holders without school-age children have little motivation to consider school quality in location decisions. And the long waiting lists for vouchers may, in practice, mean that many voucher holders receive their vouchers after their children have already started school. These voucher holders with children who are already enrolled in school at the time of voucher receipt have to weigh the potential benefits of a new neighborhood against the potential negative effect of school mobility (Chetty, Hendren, & Katz, 2015; DeLuca & Rosenblatt, 2010). Thus, only a subset of households are likely to be motivated by a voucher to move toward better schools: those with young children starting school soon.

So for those families with school-age children, what’s the explanation why their parents don’t move to better schools, especially considering that the vouchers are usually substantial enough to enable them to live in nicer neighborhoods?

Evidently, timing is everything.

We find that families with vouchers are more likely to move toward a better school in the year before their oldest child meets the eligibility cutoff for kindergarten, suggesting salience matters. Further, the magnitude of the effect is larger in metropolitan areas with a relatively high share of affordable rental units located near high-performing schools and in neighborhoods in close proximity to higher-performing schools. To be sure, the effects we find are not large, but they suggest that voucher holders do, indeed, move toward better schools when schools are salient and accessible.

In other words, if the kids are ready for school, then the parents pay more attention to the quality of schools near available rental properties.

Even so, voucher holders with school-ready kids may still neglect the search because better schools are farther away and the area is unfamiliar. For many parents, uprooting kids from their communities may be unpalatable, even for those with kids in lower-performing schools. Another potential barrier is the competition in those housing markets — nicer neighborhoods are in higher demand, and finding an affordable rental is difficult at the price permitted by HUD.

And while the voucher program may intend to help families with children move to higher-performing school systems, targeting those families is tough because the waiting list for vouchers, particularly in metro areas, are so long that kids are no longer at eligibility age by time the family receives a voucher.

The study noted that voucher holders who are not facing the time pressure of locating a place, a crunch that occurs usually for first-time voucher recipients, eventually end up in lower poverty neighborhoods with better schools during subsequent moves.

The research looked at 1.4 million housing choice voucher holders in 15 states, and compared it against data from 5,841 different districts to compare the quality of schools.

Read the housing choice voucher report here.