Fighting neighborhood segregation one voucher at a time

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A view of the Boston skyline.
A view of the Boston skyline. (Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/file 2018)

Neighborhood matters. That’s clearer now than it’s ever been.

Over the last few years, economists at Harvard and other leading universities have published a series of landmark studies showing that low-income children who move from struggling to thriving communities fare substantially better as adults than the kids who stay behind.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be difficult to find affordable housing in those better-off places.

Now the Boston Housing Authority is taking an admirable step toward solving that problem — and changing children’s lives. The authority is best known for operating a series of public housing projects in Roxbury, South Boston, and other city neighborhoods. But it also manages about 13,000 federally subsidized housing vouchers — popularly known as Section 8s — that low-income families use to rent private-market apartments in Boston and beyond.

At the moment, the authority — like many Section 8 administrators around the country — offers a single flat-rate voucher for an entire metropolitan region: In Boston and several surrounding communities, it’s $1,914 for a two-bedroom apartment. That may be enough for a modest place in parts of Dorchester, but it won’t get you very far in the Back Bay or Lexington.

A couple of years ago, the federal government launched an initiative to tackle this problem. It’s called the Small Area Fair Market Rents system, and it tailors the value of vouchers to much smaller geographies — to neighborhoods.

The feds required a couple dozen metropolitan areas to get on board. But the Boston Housing Authority is the first in the country to voluntarily opt-in. And the new system is expected to go into effect on July 1, after a public comment period.

“The objective here,” says Bill McGonagle, the head of the housing authority, “is to empower families.”

In Charlestown, voucher holders will be able to spend $3,200 on a two-bedroom apartment — substantially more than the prevailing flat rate of $1,914. In the Back Bay, the figure will rise to $2,760. And in the suburb of Bedford: $2,740.

McGonagle is wary of telling families where they should move. There may be good reason, he says, to stay in a low-income neighborhood: a trusted day-care center, for instance, or a grandparent who helps with childcare. The aim is to provide people with new options — not to force those options on anyone.

It’s an understandable impulse. But there’s real value in educating voucher holders about the virtues of higher-opportunity neighborhoods. One of the biggest obstacles to a life-changing move is a lack of familiarity with the leafy communities outside the urban core.

The housing authority is working on a program that will offer voucher holders information on these better-off places. Getting it right is crucial if the new system is to live up to its promise.

But moving to a Small Area Fair Market Rents system is not just about creating opportunity. It’s also an anti-displacement program.

With rents rising all over the city, it’s getting harder and harder for low-income tenants to stay in their homes. Higher-value vouchers should allow more of them to stay put. And that alone would be a victory.

In a city and region that seems to be putting an ever-tighter squeeze on its most vulnerable residents, we’ll take as many of these kinds of victories as we can get.