The concept: Use a housing voucher anywhere. The reality: Voucher use concentrated in certain neighborhoods

·14 min read

Housing choice vouchers are supposed to give low-income tenants real choices about where to live and a chance to move to a better neighborhood.

But few tenants with vouchers in metro Phoenix get that opportunity.

Most of the housing that voucher holders find is concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

More than 70% of voucher holders, or more than 8,000 households, live in just 25% of all the ZIP codes where vouchers are used, an Arizona Republic analysis found.

Here's one example of how the geography of housing remains so lopsided: More than 300 voucher holders live in each of the top 10 ZIP codes for voucher use. But the median number of vouchers used across all ZIP codes where voucher holders live is 37.

ZIP codes where voucher holders live tend to be poorer and have fewer opportunities than the rest of metro Phoenix.

They are also some of the neighborhoods with the highest rent increases and highest eviction rates.

“Section 8 housing choice vouchers are akin to school choice vouchers," said Owen Metz, senior vice president of the affordable housing developer Dominium Apartments, which accepts housing vouchers. "One gives parents options to send their children to a school of their choice. The other provides opportunity for families to help choose where they live. "

But, Metz said, there is a problem. Many landlords don't accept vouchers, even though most schools do.

In metro Phoenix, as of April, almost 12,000 households were living in rentals subsidized by the voucher program, according to HUD, which is roughly 2% of all renter occupied households in metro Phoenix.

ZIP code 85301 in central Glendale is the top ZIP code for voucher usage. It also has more eviction actions since 2015 than any other Valley ZIP code. Median rents there also have risen by 143% from 2014 to 2022, according to rent data tracked by Zillow.

Many of the ZIP codes where the most voucher holders live — such as 85040 just south of Sky Harbor or 85201 in central Mesa — have almost twice the percentage of people who live below the poverty line than metro Phoenix has.

In a few ZIP codes, the program seems to be meeting its intended goal of allowing people to live in places where there are a mix of incomes and affordable housing stock. More than 300 renters with vouchers call ZIP code 85251 in central Scottsdale home, an area where median incomes are higher and rents are much higher.

The Arizona Republic requested and analyzed housing choice voucher data by ZIP code from the seven housing authorities that serve the Phoenix area.

Six of the seven — Maricopa County, Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale — provided data. Chandler did not, writing in a letter to The Republic that the housing authority does not keep data on the number of vouchers used by ZIP code. Chandler represents under 4% of all vouchers reported leasing in the Phoenix area, according to city-level data from HUD.

“The name is housing choice voucher program, and in theory, you can take your voucher into the world and pick housing of your choosing,” said Alicia Mazzara, deputy director of housing equity and data analysis at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C. “But obviously, there are strings around that.”

Tougher than ever to find a home

Landlords unwilling to rent to voucher holders, limited housing authority budgets, a shortage of vouchers available and rents that are outpacing voucher subsidies are making it harder than ever for Phoenix-area voucher holders to find housing.

Those who do often struggle to find a home outside a handful of the same neighborhoods, many of which don’t have the same resources or amenities that wealthier neighborhoods do.

Only 11% of voucher holders live in low-poverty neighborhoods, or ZIP codes where the percentage of residents living below the poverty line is less than 10%.

They tend to live in neighborhoods with fewer parks and playgrounds; less access to grocery stores, quality schools and jobs; and higher industrial pollution levels. These are among some of the conditions that researchers have summarized into what is called a Child Opportunity Index, a single measure that combines 29 different indicators of whether a neighborhood is very high, high, moderate, low, or very low opportunity.

The Republic found just 2% of voucher households live in ZIP codes deemed very high opportunity areas. More than 65% of all voucher households live in very low or low opportunity ZIP codes.

A few of the areas in metro Phoenix with a high number of vouchers have a mix of higher-end and affordable homes, but rents have soared in those neighborhoods. Also, out-of-state corporate buyers are snatching up those areas' affordable apartments and no longer accepting housing vouchers, according to public records, voucher holders and housing advocates.

Drew Schaffer, director of the Phoenix-based William E. Morris Institute for Justice, isn't surprised that voucher holders in metro Phoenix disproportionately live in higher-poverty, lower-opportunity areas. A 2019 study of voucher usage in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. came to similar conclusions.

"You could do the same analysis in most American cities and you would find a version of the same story," he said.

On the rise: Metro Phoenix eviction filings climb to 13-year high. Here's why

Top 10 ZIP codes for housing choice vouchers

Many of the top areas where people are using housing vouchers in metro Phoenix also had the most evictions during the pandemic and are seeing higher-than-average rent hikes, The Republic analysis found.

The 85301 ZIP code ranked No. 1 for evictions during the first year of the pandemic.
The 85301 ZIP code ranked No. 1 for evictions during the first year of the pandemic.

Central Glendale 85301

The neighborhood that includes downtown Glendale is home to 621 renters using vouchers.

The ZIP code, with affordable apartment complexes near Glendale Community College and Grand Canyon University, ranked No. 1 for evictions during the first year of the pandemic.

Rents in 85301 have been rapidly climbing, while incomes haven’t kept up.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,328, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $647

  • Increase: 105%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 62%

  • Median annual household income: $38,454

  • Median income in Phoenix: $67,068

  • Total population: 69,181

  • Demographics: 62% Latino, 22% white, 10% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Very low

This 85041 ZIP code runs from the Salt River along to South Mountain in south Phoenix.
This 85041 ZIP code runs from the Salt River along to South Mountain in south Phoenix.

South Phoenix/Laveen ZIP code 85041

This affordable housing area has the second most housing vouchers in use in the Valley with 568.

Housing discrimination and redlining by lenders have hurt this area for decades after the practices were made illegal, according to ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

This south Phoenix ZIP code runs from the Salt River along to South Mountain. The light rail will run through part of this neighborhood.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $2,148, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $1,096

  • Increase: 105%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 30%

  • Median annual household income: $58,438

  • Total population: 64,657

  • Demographics: 66% Latino, 13% white, 15% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Low

The 85281 ZIP code includes the Arizona State University Tempe campus.
The 85281 ZIP code includes the Arizona State University Tempe campus.

North/central Tempe 85281

This Tempe ZIP code, the most urban part of the city, is home to residents using 474 housing vouchers.

It ranked No. 2 for the most eviction filings during the first year of the pandemic.

Light rail bisects the neighborhood, where Arizona State University is located. Affordable older apartments, student housing and luxury apartments are spread across the 85281 area.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $2,024, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $1,201

  • Increase: 70%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 79%

  • Median annual household income: $42,454

  • Total population: 69,179

  • Demographics: 23% Latino, 50% white, 7% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Low

Midtown Phoenix 85015

In this neighborhood that runs along Interstate 17, 463 housing vouchers are in use.

In the area, which is home to Christown Spectrum Mall, one of Phoenix’s oldest shopping centers, eviction filings during the first year of the pandemic reached 642, making it the No. 10 area for the most filings by landlords.

This neighborhood has historic homes and also affordable houses and townhomes located near the mall.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,445, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $716

  • Increase: 102%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 66%

  • Median annual household income: $42,038

  • Total population: 44,019

  • Demographics: 47% Latino, 29% white, 12% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Very low

Central Mesa 85201

Mesa’s historic downtown district can be found in this area, where households are using 429 housing vouchers. The neighborhood is also home to several older apartment complexes and mobile home parks.

Landlords filed 701 evictions here during the first year of the pandemic, which ranks it No. 6 for the most evictions during the pandemic.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,611, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $792

  • Increase: 100%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 64%

  • Median annual household income: $46,348

  • Total population: 55,159

  • Demographics: 47% Latino, 29% white, 12% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Low

A slowdown? Metro Phoenix rents climbing but not as fast; see how much they increased over past year

Southeast Phoenix 85008

This central Valley neighborhood near Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport is home to 418 housing voucher holders.

Housing discrimination and redlining also harmed this area for decades.

The area, with both old and new apartments, saw 669 evictions during the first year of the pandemic and ranked No. 9 for the most filings by landlords. Light rail runs through 85008, as do a couple of freeways.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,712, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $831

  • Increase: 106%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 72%

  • Median annual household income: $46,724

  • Total population: 62,995

  • Demographics: 54% Latino, 28% white, 12% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Very low

South Scottsdale 85251

This is the only Scottsdale neighborhood to make the top 10 list for the most housing vouchers. The area features older homes and apartments as well as many new luxury apartments and pricier homes that have been renovated. The ZIP code has 330 voucher holders.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,994, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $1,091

  • Increase: 83%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 72%

  • Median annual household income: $71,662

  • Total population: 41,592

  • Demographics: 18% Latino, 73% white, 9% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: High

South Phoenix 85040

This neighborhood is just south of Sky Harbor and home to many industrial parks and  affordable rentals. But pricier homes are going up on the southern end of the area. It has 328 voucher households.

A $1.35 billion light rail expansion will run along Central Avenue on the western border of this neighborhood long hurt by housing discrimination and redlining.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,870, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $900

  • Increase: 107%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 55%

  • Median annual household income: $43,127

  • Total population: 62,995

  • Demographics: 60% Latino, 13% white, 20% are Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Very low

Landlords in the 85021 ZIP code filed 680 evictions on renters in the area during the first year of the pandemic.
Landlords in the 85021 ZIP code filed 680 evictions on renters in the area during the first year of the pandemic.

Northwest-central Phoenix 85021

Light rail runs through this neighborhood, home to both affordable and more expensive ranch-style properties, where 320 households are using vouchers.

Landlords filed 680 evictions on renters in the area during the first year of COVID-19, which ranked it at No. 8 for the most in the Valley.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,426, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $790

  • Increase: 81%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 62%

  • Median annual household income: $46,358

  • Total population: 44,114

  • Demographics: 35% Latino, 42% white, 11% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Low

The 85282 ZIP code is home to the Tempe History Museum.
The 85282 ZIP code is home to the Tempe History Museum.

Central Tempe 85282

This area close to Tempe has older homes and apartments that typically have been renovated. It is also home to 304 households with vouchers. It also has new, pricier condominiums.

Three freeways crisscross this neighborhood, making it easily accessible to those with cars.

  • Median rent in June 2022: $1,797, according to Zillow

  • Median rent in June 2015: $988

  • Increase: 81%

  • Median rent for metro Phoenix: $1,938

  • Percent of renter-occupied units: 56%

  • Median annual household income: $61,700

  • Total population: 56,435

  • Demographics: 23% Latino, 56% white, 10% Black

  • Child Opportunity Index level: Moderate

Priced out and more

Neighborhoods that are deemed higher-opportunity often have higher rents that can price out people with vouchers, The Republic's analysis found, but that’s only part of the picture.

Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy and litigation at Community Legal Services, said the main reason why the landscape of voucher usage is so lopsided is simple: Voucher holders are shut out of the market by landlords in some neighborhoods.

“When we have landlords that don’t take Section 8 vouchers, what happens is the only landlords that do are in areas with low opportunity,” Bridge said. “That means worse schools, further distances for tenants to travel to work, less opportunities for groceries and things that they need around them, everything else that the rest of us get to enjoy.”

Studies of the voucher program in several cities have found that landlord voucher denial rates are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, where voucher payments are likely to be below market rents.

Having source of income protections, laws that would prohibit landlords from denying tenants based on whether they pay rent with a voucher or not, would help level the playing field, advocates say.

An increasing number of cities across the country, including Tucson, have begun to pass those protections. Biases and assumptions about voucher holders and their families also play a part in landlord — and sometimes community — resistance, housing advocates say. Not-in-my-backyard-ism, or NIMBYism, has become a key barrier to building more affordable housing units and density in some areas.

The ZIP codes where the fewest voucher holders live have a larger share of single-family and owner-occupied homes than renter-occupied homes, according to The Republic’s analysis.

“Measures like poverty and opportunity, they’re important, but they don’t tell us everything,” Mazarra said.  Some renters may choose to stay in the neighborhood they grew up in or feel most comfortable in, and others may want to be closer to family in certain places, she said.

The history of inequitable development and housing discrimination also looms large in Phoenix, where the impact of redlining can still be felt today.

Schaffer of the William E. Morris Institute said, "In Phoenix, the development of racially concentrated areas of poverty is evident in the community, resources available to people, the access to schools, food, health care, all of the basic needs of living."

Inequities in who and where vouchers are used could be violations of federal law if certain protected classes of people are disparately impacted. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability or national origin, is not just a "box-checking exercise," said Schaffer, but something that all states, cities, and counties need to be proactively examining.

Mazzara said, “It kind of feels like we’ve created separate but unequal neighborhoods and now we’re asking the voucher program to fix it."

She encourages local governments to prioritize investments in every neighborhood so that people can access the same opportunities, no matter where they live.

Housing authority-level policy changes could also have an immediate impact. Tailoring fair market rents, which determine how much of rent a voucher can pay for, to be higher or lower for different areas of the Valley could be one way to help voucher-holders afford housing in a wider range of neighborhoods, advocates say.

Ultimately, Bridge is concerned that the realities of the housing choice voucher program will continue to hinder any progress made to address systemic inequities in housing.

“It worries me that we are going backwards, that all the leaps and bounds that we’ve made with Section 8, allowing families to live in Scottsdale or whenever they wanted to live,” Bridge said, “that we are now just going to have the only landlords in low-income areas take Section 8.”

Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation. 

Reach the reporter at catherine.reagor@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8040. Follow her on Twitter @catherinereagor. 

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Housing voucher use in metro Phoenix concentrated mostly in lower-income areas