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In homelessness fight, study finds Section 8 pays off

Section 8 , the oft-maligned housing subsidy program, is more effective at lifting families out of homelessness than temporary assistance programs that carry roughly the same or higher costs, according to a study.

The study, conducted for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, showed the permanent vouchers were more likely than crisis intervention programs to provide stable housing and allow children to stay in the same schools. The four-decade-old program also led to reduced substance abuse, domestic violence, and hunger compared with families who remained in shelters, researchers said.

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“Housing subsidies not only cure homelessness but also have radiating impacts on other aspects of family well-being, with comparable costs,” said Marybeth Shinn, a Vanderbilt University professor and one of the lead researchers for the study, which was released this week. “I was surprised by the wide-ranging impact.”

Section 8, with a $19.3 billion annual price tag, has been criticized as a long-term, no-strings-attached handout for low-income residents. The HUD study shows that people who participate in the program, in which recipients pay 30 percent of their income in rent, are less likely to work.

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The program lost 67,000 vouchers during federal sequestration cuts in 2013. While funding has increased since then, it has not recovered enough to replace all the lost vouchers.

The HUD study, the first of its kind, involved 2,282 homeless families in 12 cities, including Boston, who were randomly assigned to one of four types of intervention: permanent housing subsidies such as vouchers; 18-month rental assistance known as rapid-rehousing, combined with services to help find housing; two-year transitional housing in agency-run facilities, with support services; and shelters and other forms of assistance they accessed on their own.

It covered a 20-month period, and it is unclear whether the costs of various housing options would continue to be comparable over a longer time span. The study will ultimately run three years, with final results to be released in 2017.

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Permanent subsidies may be the best way to solve homelessness, but they are not easy to come by. More than 2 million households nationwide use “housing choice” vouchers that give tenants the freedom to live where they choose, including 79,000 in Massachusetts, according to the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, and demand far exceeds supply. In the Boston area, 6,000 Section 8 vouchers are in circulation, with 30,000 families on a waiting list. Average wait time: 10 years.

Homeless families are often moved to the top of the list, but this causes some people to move into shelters in order to qualify, housing advocates say.

There are no work or education requirements tied to vouchers, and no time limits. And when a family’s income goes up, the subsidy goes down, which can discourage people from finding a job. Indeed, the HUD study found that permanent subsidies led to reduced employment, compared with the other interventions.

Some agencies are working to address this. At HAPHousing in Springfield, one of the first sites nationwide where Section 8 was tested, people whose subsidy is decreasing as their income goes up can enroll in a five-year program that deposits an amount equal to the lost subsidy into an escrow account for the voucher holder.

“We have seen checks as large as $20,000 accumulate over a five-year period,” said HAPHousing’s chief executive, Peter Gagliardi. “Folks who participate in something like this are much more likely to move up and out than somebody who’s content to continue with the status quo.”

Another chief complaint about Section 8 is its expense. Voucher costs average $1,162 a month per family, according to the HUD report, and can continue for years. The short-term rapid re-housing option was the least expensive option, averaging $878 a month per family, while transitional housing cost $2,706, and emergency shelter was $4,819 .

Still, vouchers have a number of advantages over other housing assistance, advocates say. Many are mobile, meaning a recipient isn’t forced to live in a public housing complex or other high-poverty community. Vouchers also address the fundamental problem of housing, and this stability gives families a better ability to keep their children in school and look for work.

‘Housing subsidies not only cure homelessness but also have radiating impacts on other aspects of family well-being, with comparable costs.’

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“Now you have a situation where things can take root,” said Thomas Bledsoe, executive director of the Housing Partnership Network, a Boston-based collaborative of housing and community development nonprofits across the country. “If you’re trying to educate a kid that’s bouncing all around, its impossible.”

Temporary assistance, on the other hand, forces people to find a way to double or triple their income levels within a year or two before they are cut off. Especially in an area such as Boston with high housing costs, this isn’t a reasonable expectation, said Chris Norris, executive director of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, which administers federal and state housing vouchers.

“Here, take the money, and at end of a year, you have to be able to pay market rent,” Norris said. “Most of us didn’t become self-sufficient in a year.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.
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