NAR Policy Forum

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“Not everybody gets the same lottery ticket when he or she grows up,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a professor of sociology and social policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. ”The status quo right now in the distribution of spatial opportunities is unacceptable, particularly for African American boys.”

Bringing Fairness to Housing: A Hands-on Approach

Solving housing inequities requires understanding the needs and motivations of both tenants and landlords, social policy expert says.

February 7, 2020

Housing affordability matters. Housing quality matters. Housing stability matters.

Drawing on 20 years of field research, Stefanie DeLuca spelled out the litany of ways that affordability, quality, and stability shape life outcomes—from family functioning and health to educational attainment and lifetime earnings—at a housing forum hosted by the National Association of REALTORS® Thursday.

It’s not just about the home itself; it’s also about the neighborhood. Think of the old real estate truism—location, location, location—as a guidepost for social change. Moving to a neighborhood that offers more opportunity can have a profound effect, said DeLuca, a professor of sociology and social policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Not everybody gets the same lottery ticket when he or she grows up,” DeLuca said. ”The status quo right now in the distribution of spatial opportunities is unacceptable, particularly for African American boys.”

Today’s policy environment favors housing vouchers as a means to facilitate neighborhood choice for low-income households. But making the voucher system work requires taking the needs of landlords into account. “Most researchers don’t talk to landlords,” DeLuca said. ”We need to understand who owns housing. It’s vitally important for public policy.” DeLuca and her research team have interviewed 158 landlords in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, and recently, Washington, D.C. “Landlords are motivated by more than profit. Many are mission-driven. Many are trying to deliver good products and struggling to do so.”

From a successful trial program in Seattle and from speaking with landlords across the country, she offered six ideas for encouraging more landlords to accept vouchers:

  1. Pay them more. “Pay them at least what the unit is worth,” she said, “and how about a bonus for taking a chance on a tenant you might not otherwise take?”
  2. Answer the phone when landlords have questions about the program.
  3. Have someone on the other end of the phone who’s familiar with the client.
  4. Prepare clients to help them understand credit and their lease.
  5. Standardize, expedite, or skip inspections for landlords who’ve never had a failing inspection.
  6. Provide damage payment insurance. “In nearly two years in Seattle, not one property owner has filed for damage insurance,” DeLuca said. “Providing it, though, is a sign of respect.”

Voucher programs cost less to administer than solutions such as temporary shelters and result in better outcomes for tenants, DeLuca said. And although there are many barriers to bringing about change, there are also reasons for optimism, including bipartisan congressional support. Congress has allocated about $50 million to help housing agencies help families move to neighborhoods of high opportunity, she said.

Moving isn’t right for every low-income family, she said, citing some tenants in the Seattle trial who preferred to stay near their support network. But ensuring parents have a choice, regardless of their economic circumstances, is essential, she said. “Children shouldn’t be hindered or unfairly helped because of the families they happen to be born into.”