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How a tweak to a popular rental voucher program is reshaping where people live in Boston

Three years ago, the city asked the feds to make Section 8 vouchers worth more in pricier neighborhoods, and the results have been striking.

Four-year-old Kassandra Hernandez marched across her room to find a toy inside the apartment she shares with her mother, Jayzena, in Brookline. Jayzena Hernandez was able to take advantage of a Section 8 housing voucher program started in 2019 that allows households to get more money to live in higher-opportunity neighborhoods.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Brookline apartment is white and well lit. Jayzena Hernandez positioned a plush sectional in the living room, below a framed certificate from her parenting classes. Translucent curtains hang in both bedrooms: purple for Hernandez, pink for her 4-year-old daughter, Kassandra. Atop the fridge, trash bags and Oreos.

This place is smaller — “cozier,” Hernandez says — than her old home in Mattapan. But the nine-story building near Boston University is unlike anywhere she has lived, with yellow chrysanthemums by the door and a security guard in the lobby.

Here, Hernandez doesn’t have to worry about stolen packages, strangers smoking and sleeping in the hallway, gunshots down the block.

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“When I came to tour the apartment, I fell in love instantly,” she said. “It wasn’t just because of how put together it was. I felt like the area was perfect to raise my child, to build a life.”

She’s there because of a shift in the way the Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline housing authorities value the Section 8 rental vouchers that help roughly 20,000 lower-income households pay for apartments. In 2019, the three cities asked the federal government to let them vary the subsidies by ZIP code, instead of one flat rate for the region — a meaningful tweak with the potential to transform who can afford to live where in Greater Boston.

Previously, the Boston Housing Authority had used the same rate for Section 8 voucher holders across metropolitan Boston, paying $1,563 toward a one-bedroom apartment everywhere from Back Bay to Brockton. Effectively, that priced voucher holders out of more expensive neighborhoods and funneled them into Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.

Jayzena Hernandez laughed as she watched her 4-year-old daughter, Kassandra, tumble backward onto the couch cushions at their apartment in Brookline. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The 2019 decision to vary the voucher amount by ZIP code gives Section 8 renters more money to work with — Hernandez’s voucher is worth about $1,100 more per month in Brookline than it would be in Mattapan — and, ultimately, greater choice in where they live. They can now compete with other tenants for quality housing near better schools, transportation, and jobs, options previously priced out of reach. This sort of movement within the region could shrink concentrated pockets of poverty and diversify wealthy neighborhoods, advocates hoped.

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Three years, and a pandemic, later, the results are promising.

Data from the Boston Housing Authority show a notable increase in Section 8 voucher holders moving into neighborhoods with less poverty and a higher share of adults with jobs — what researchers call “high-opportunity” areas. (The vouchers are issued by housing authorities in various municipalities, or by the state, and voucher holders can use them toward rent anywhere in Massachusetts.)

In Norwood, for instance, the number of households with Section 8 vouchers issued by the Boston Housing Authority climbed from 101 in 2019 to 186 in July 2022. One ZIP code in West Roxbury rose from 123 to 183. Hernandez’s side of Brookline, 02446, had just four Boston voucher holders in 2019. Now, there are 31.

Meanwhile, in pricier Cambridge and Brookline, more voucher holders were able to use the subsidy to stay close to home, rather than settle in a cheaper neighboring town. In the Cambridge ZIP code that includes Harvard University, 119 more units were leased to Section 8 voucher holders in October 2022 than in May 2019.

“These are small changes, but we still see them as a success because a number of these neighborhoods were completely inaccessible before,” said Nick Kelly, director of strategic initiatives and innovation at the Boston Housing Authority, which issues around 13,000 tenant-based vouchers.

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Some of the bump, he added, is offset by the fact that the number of Section 8 vouchers available has grown between 2019 and 2022, and the Housing Authority cannot draw a direct line between the modified vouchers and households’ moves.

“But it’s very unlikely that it was due to random chance,” Kelly said.

Section 8 benefits over 2 million low-income families nationwide, making it a relatively small piece in the jigsaw puzzle of housing policy. Yet in Boston, the new mix of housing vouchers could be transformative for our “stubbornly segregated residential landscape,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who, before being elected, was senior adviser for policy and planning at the Boston Housing Authority.

A minority-majority city, Boston in 2020 had 10 census tracts with a white population of 88 percent or higher. Of 130 towns east of Interstate 495, but not on Cape Cod, 68 have populations that are at least 80 percent white, according to 2020 Census data.

“Without a doubt,” Bok added, “this is the biggest step I’ve been involved in to contribute to housing integration in the last decade.”

“Without a doubt, this is the biggest step I’ve been involved in to contribute to housing integration in the last decade," said City Councilor Kenzie Bok, pictured here on Oct. 8, 2019.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

While the vouchers, which are federally funded, typically pay more than they did under the old system, the program does not strain housing authorities’ budgets. That’s because, before 2019, a significant number of vouchers issued in Massachusetts went unused, because recipients could not find an affordable place to live. The money was budgeted, but never spent. Now, housing authorities are using closer to the full allocation.

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For Hernandez, the higher voucher standard offers the promise of a life of stability.

The 30-year-old had hopped between homeless shelters for decades, and her mother died just months before Hernandez’s high school graduation. An intellectual disability prevents her from working, and she has been living on Supplemental Security Income payments since 2014. Most of the $955.09 monthly check goes toward phone, Internet, and electric bills ($400 or so), the payment for her couch and Nintendo Switch ($211), commuter rail trips to see her two older daughters in Worcester, and food and rent. She does not receive food stamps or assistance from her family.

Under Section 8, residents are expected to contribute roughly 30 percent of their income toward rent. In Mattapan, Hernandez paid $150 on top of the voucher. The two-bedroom apartment in Brookline costs her $238, plus a $7 processing fee, on the first of every month. (Her voucher covers the rest, around $2,500 a month by her estimate.) But the extra $88 in rental expense is worth it: Walking to Star Market and Kassandra’s new elementary school takes barely 10 minutes. Kassandra adores the playground around the corner. At six months’ pregnant, Hernandez hopes her new baby — Mateo — will, too.

She doesn’t know her neighbors, who are mostly college students and young professionals.

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“But that doesn’t matter,” Hernandez said. “I like it here. I’m a homebody.”

That sense of security at home is crucial to low-income families reaching the middle class, research shows. Every year a child spends in a high-opportunity neighborhood increases the likelihood that they attend college and boosts their lifetime earnings, according to Harvard-based research institute Opportunity Insights. Living in the midst of poverty hurts people’s emotional and behavioral health and reduces the chances for upward mobility. Lauren Song, a housing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, described landing in a high-opportunity area simply: “That is the golden ticket.”

And while Section 8 voucher holders have long been free to live where they want, making the voucher more valuable makes it easier for them to actually do so, said Bill Berman, the director of the Housing Discrimination Testing Program at Suffolk University. In 2020, his program released a study that found widespread discrimination against voucher holders in Greater Boston; landlords responded to their inquiries only 15 percent of the time, and it takes, on average, 50 inquiries to see five apartments.

“But if a voucher holder goes to a landlord with more money,” Berman said, “it’s harder to turn them away.”

State Senator Lydia Edwards lauded the approach and advocated for it as a city councilor, but with a few caveats: It’s no substitute for building more housing, which she said remains the best way to make rent more widely affordable in Massachusetts. And the low-income neighborhoods that house thousands of Black and brown people — many of whom don’t wish to move away — should not go ignored.

“Invest in businesses, infrastructure, and education,” she said. “It always comes down to schools.”

In the meantime, Edwards wishes the state would follow Boston’s lead in re-pricing the 22,000 vouchers it manages in Massachusetts. In 2019, the Department of Housing and Community Development said the program “warrants further study.” A spokesperson did not address questions about whether that stance has changed, and instead pointed to other assistance programs that have helped 89 families move to “high-opportunity” neighborhoods.

Jayzena Hernandez leans in to get a closer look at the My Little Pony game her daughter, Kassandra, was playing while home sick from school at their apartment in Brookline. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Housing authorities in Winchester, Amherst, Easton, and Leominster have rolled out ZIP code-specific vouchers since Boston led the charge. The City of Boston also launched a voucher program that is funded by the city budget, rather than by the federal government, with a few million allocated for fiscal year 2022.

Edwards added that that money is for those “holding on by their fingernails. Boston is bleeding working class people.”

But Hernandez doesn’t see herself being part of that group again. At least, she hopes not.

The Brookline apartment could be a tether to greater long-term prosperity for Kassandra. Hernandez envisions her family living there for years, finishing homework on the square dining room table or whipping up tres leches cake in the kitchen. She has already stashed a stroller and car seat for her coming newborn in the closet. Next step: A bassinet.

Brookline could be home, maybe forever.

“I want to stay,” Hernandez said. “Of course, I want to stay.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.