By Zach Postone and Jonathan Tarleton
The Housing Choice Voucher program is the largest form of rental assistance for low-income families in the U.S. Despite its reputation as urban-focused, vouchers serve families in almost every county in Pennsylvania—rural and urban. But as with all forms of housing assistance, the need greatly exceeds supply.
Where do the unserved families live? How well is the need for vouchers met in each county?
Today, low-income households across rural and urban Pennsylvania struggle with the cost of housing. The state sits at the crux of national and local trends, including rising rents in cities and rural price booms spurred by the shale drilling industry.
More money spent on simple shelter means less for food, education, or savings for a rainy day. It also means greater vulnerability to bad breaks, when an illness or a factory closing could end in a family’s homelessness.
Housing Choice Vouchers are an important tool for relieving this burden. Vouchers allow households earning less than 50% of the Area Median Income (approximately $29,600 for a family of three in Pennsylvania) to pay 30% of their monthly income for a reasonably priced apartment on the private market. The federal government, by way of local housing authorities, pays the rest. In Pennsylvania, the program makes housing affordable for over 176,500 people in 78,000 households.
The program is often considered a primarily urban one. More vouchers are concentrated in cities due to their larger populations. But vouchers are used in almost every county of Pennsylvania. Many rural counties receive as many or more vouchers in proportion to the total number of families living there. Potter and Fulton counties, both predominantly rural, rival Philadelphia in how many vouchers they receive relative to their total households.
The voucher program’s service of both rural and urban areas contradict popular narratives explaining a supposedly deep divide between rural and urban America—a divide used to explain Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Part of that divide is said to stem from government programs that fail to address the needs of voters outside metropolitan areas. Yet across the state, all counties have extremely high proportions of households that are eligible for vouchers but remain unserved. Counties that went to Trump stand to lose the same deeply needed support that urban areas would under the administration's housing agenda.
Pennsylvania's unexpected turn toward Donald Trump helped marshal in a new era of uncertainty for federal housing policy. While Housing Choice Vouchers have long enjoyed bipartisan support, both Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson have railed against federal aid for low-income communities and proposed dramatic cuts to housing programs. The most recent federal budget failed to sustain funding for the current number of vouchers. Authorities across the country have closed their voucher waiting lists and even revoked vouchers in anticipation of decreased funding.
Even if the current voucher stock is maintained, that still leaves over 700,000 households across the state—approximately 1.5 million people—that are eligible and not receiving either a voucher or federal rental assistance through public housing or project-based Section 8 housing. Federal funding only serves 21% of Pennsylvania families that need a voucher. Wait lists for receiving a voucher can stretch for up to 10 years. And that's if you can even get a spot on a list; many remain closed to new additions for years at a time.
Click any county to explore the balance of served and unserved eligible households. (Best viewed on a standard computer screen.)
Where do the unserved families live? How well is the need for vouchers met in each county? How many vouchers could be put to use where you live and work to provide stable housing for your neighbors?