The neighborhood you live in and the school you attend have repercussions into every area of your life. We call neighborhoods with access to amenities such as jobs, transportation, good schools, grocery stores and retail shops “Neighborhoods of Opportunity.” These neighborhoods tend to be more ethnically and economically diverse and have lower rates of poverty and crime. We believe everyone has a right to live in Neighborhoods of Opportunity, because where you live makes such a huge difference in your life. Studies show that children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods and attend school with predominantly low-income classmates make less money over their lifetime and suffer an increase risk of health problems such as diabetes or heart disease.[i]
For very low income families, a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) is a means of moving out of their current low-opportunity neighborhood into a neighborhood of opportunity. Qualified families must make 50% or less of the area median income. In Richmond this means that a family of four must make $26,450 or less annually.[ii] An HCV ensures that a family doesn’t have to spend more than 30% of their income on housing. This enables them to spend money on other needs, such as food and health care. Without the HCV, they might not have enough money to eat or go to the doctor when they are sick. They might even end up homeless if their living costs become unmanageable.
A Housing Choice Voucher does not solve all of a family’s problems, though. It is not a magic wand or a cure-all pill. There are still many hurdles to cross on the path to an opportunity neighborhood. First, these families are often denied housing by landlords who can legally choose not to rent to HCV holders. An ad like the one below is all too common on sites like Craigslist where thousands of housing transactions begin every day.
Even when families with an HCV are not flatly denied housing, moving to a new neighborhood is a difficult and stressful process. This is true even for families with lots of resources at their disposal. For all families there are many factors to consider when moving, affordability is just one. Other factors we all consider are: how close you’ll be to your job; will you need to get a new job; which school will your children attend; what sort of transportation is available to you; will you get along with your neighbors and your landlord? For families with an HCV, the answers to these common questions might be very complicated and require more time, energy and resources to solve than they have available. So many families remain in their current neighborhoods where they continue to be in danger due to high crime rates, increased exposure to environmental toxins, lack of access to fresh and healthy food, a dearth of good jobs and sound educational opportunities.
The Move To Opportunity program is administered by Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) with funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. This program is designed to connect qualified HCV holders with the resources they need to make the move to an opportunity neighborhood. HOME staff will work closely with the families to identify the unique barriers they might face when deciding to move and then will connect them with the tools they need to make the move. A landlord liaison will work with landlords and property managers who are interested in partnering with HOME and the local housing authority to provide housing for HCV holders in opportunity neighborhoods. Each unit will go through a quality inspection to ensure that families are moving into housing that will keep them safe as well as give them access to opportunities. A landlord liaison will also ensure that the relationship between the landlord, HOME, the local housing authority, and the tenant goes smoothly.
Our hope is that this program will enable families to make a move that will forever change their lives and the lives of the next generation. Children who attend schools in opportunity neighborhoods have a higher earning potential over their lifetime.[iii] Girls whose families have participated in similar programs across the country experience improvements in mental and physical health.[iv] Additionally, this program is a step towards ensuring equal access to housing for a group that is at risk for housing discrimination but as yet receives little protection.
[ii] For more information on area median income and HCV eligibility visit http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/public_indian_housing/programs/hcv/about/fact_sheet
Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.