In state-city squabble over low-income housing vouchers, city’s approach makes more sense

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Adrian Walker

The Bunker Hill Development in Charlestown on Sept. 2, 2015.
The Bunker Hill Development in Charlestown on Sept. 2, 2015.

Decades of federal housing policy have herded low-income people into cities — pockets of cities, really — while giving them few opportunities for mobility.

Now — you will be surprised as I am by this — the Trump administration wants to change that. But here in Massachusetts, the Trump folks are meeting unwarranted resistance from the Baker administration. Ironically enough, Washington is aligned with the City of Boston on this one.

The dispute is over Section 8, the longstanding federal program that gives low-income families subsidies to apply to their monthly rent. It offers an alternative to living in public housing.

The issue is over how to determine what those vouchers should be worth. The Boston Housing Authority is moving toward a formula that ties the amount of the vouchers to the area renters are moving to — which would mean you’d get a bigger voucher to move to Newton, say, than to Mattapan. (The BHA’s vouchers are good outside of Boston.)

Advocates say that change would allow voucher-holders to move to communities that are now beyond their reach.

The state, meanwhile, want to maintain the existing system in which the voucher formula doesn’t take into account the housing costs in different communities. Critics say that has the effect of insuring that the vouchers can mainly be used in low-income neighborhoods, where rents are lower.

“The one-size-fits-all approach that the state is continuing is really a kind of Stone Age approach to this,” said Boston Housing Authority administrator Bill McGonagle. “It’s kind of like bringing a blunt instrument to surgery when a scalpel is what’s needed. In effect, they’re saying [subsidies] should be the same in Lexington as they are in Lynn. It doesn’t pass any common-sense test.”

Both city and state agencies distribute Section 8 vouchers, though all the funding for them comes from Washington. The city holds about 13,000 vouchers, while the state has 11,000, which are applied in geographical areas that overlap. As with any federal funding policy, the nuances get complicated.

But the effects of it aren’t complicated at all. Bigger vouchers for more expensive housing markets give low-income families choices about where to live, a longstanding goal of the Section 8 program.

“It will affirmatively foster fair housing,” McGonagle said of so-called Small Area Fair Market Rents. “It will open up neighborhoods and areas to our voucher holders who have been excluded from those neighborhoods. It will help break up the concentrations of poverty that are all too common in our neighborhoods.”

McGonagle’s assertions line up with a lot of recent research that suggests where people live has a powerful effect on economic mobility and opportunity. McGonagle cites Harvard economist Raj Chetty, whose work on the parallels between neighborhoods and economic mobility has been nothing short of groundbreaking.

I was eager to ask state housing officials why they are wedded to a voucher policy that others are moving away from. I was especially curious because there are no state dollars being used here — it wouldn’t cost the state anything to get this policy right.

Through a spokeswoman, the Department of Housing and Community Development issued this statement: “The Administration believes that implementation of SAFMR warrants further study to fully understand the implications for all of Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Housing Choice Voucher Program tenants . . . as well as tenants of other programs administered by DHCD.”

In state government, calls for “further study” are the time-honored default for people who can’t actually explain why they oppose something.

The city and the state are free to adopt different standards, but that doesn’t make much sense. For thousands of families depending on subsidies to live, government should be squarely on the side of more opportunity, not less.

“It’s that rare moment where the federal government has listened to us and is providing an awesome resource,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards. “And the only thing getting in the way of that is the state.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at Or follow hom on Twitter @adrian_walker.