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With A Policy Tweak, Boston Wants To Give Poor Renters More Housing Choices

The Boston Housing Authority is planning 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 households in Beacon Hill and Brookline (respectively, places that are home to one and 10 voucher-holders) receive the same subsidy as households in Dorchester and Lynn (3,425 and 373).

Under 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 max rent would vary based on the prices of rent in a given ZIP code. So while a subsidy in Dorchester would remain at a similar level, it 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% of their income; the rest comes from the U.S. 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly flipped the number of voucher-holders in Lynn and Dorchester. We regret the error.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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