To Rent—Or Not to Rent?

Winter 2018

Philip Garboden
Philip Garboden (Photo: Will Kirk / Homewood Photography)

For all its good intentions, the federal government’s housing choice voucher program is not helping America’s poor as intended, says Philip Garboden. One reason is that it relies on decisions made by landlords.

Garboden, a PhD student in Sociology who also is enrolled in a joint program with Applied Mathematics and Statistics, is combining sociology methods with statistical techniques to gauge how these private decisions affect subsidized housing policies. He was recently awarded a $7,500 grant by the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy to fund his research.

The federal voucher program, launched in 1974 with the goal of helping low-income families to afford decent, safe housing, allows eligible families to select rental units up to a certain price. They pay 30 percent of their income toward housing, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) covers the rest.

“For a huge variety of reasons, the program has fallen short of expectations,” Garboden says. Challenges include the supply of housing and how the program is administered, he says.

In much of the country, landlords can decide to accept or refuse vouchers. Yet, for all the influence these key players have on affordable housing outcomes, very little research has been done on them. Garboden is focusing on the behavior of private rental owners.

He has obtained more than 1 million records of addresses for voucher families in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Dallas between 1995 and 2016 through a research partnership grant with HUD. He is now using statistical modeling techniques to find the spatial patterns of voucher holders—that is, to map where in the cities voucher holders live and how concentrated these clusters are. “We could investigate if there are predictive features of different parts of the city that predict higher or lower portions of voucher holders,” he says.

He plans to combine this quantitative data with information collected during in-person interviews with 120 landlords, most of whom (about 60 percent) rent to voucher holders. The goal: unveil how the personal and professional identities of landlords shape their decisions. By combining the two datasets, Garboden hopes to answer not only how voucher subsidized units are distributed but why.

HUD plans to publish a report based on Garboden’s analysis, which will be disseminated widely. “There’s a lot of talk among policymakers on how to improve affordable housing,” he says. “This should help inform that conversation.”