How much choice is there in housing choice vouchers? Neighborhood risk and free market rental housing accessibility for active drug users in Hartford, Connecticut

Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2009 Apr 15:4:5. doi: 10.1186/1747-597X-4-5.


Background: Since the mid-1970s, the dominant model for U.S. federal housing policy has shifted from unit-based programs to tenant based vouchers and certificates, intended to allow recipients a choice in their housing and neighborhoods. Surprisingly little research has examined the question of where those with Section 8 housing vouchers are able to live, but some research suggests that voucher holders are more likely to reside in distressed neighborhoods than unsubsidized renter households. Further, federal housing policy has limited drug users' access to housing subsidies. In turn, neighborhood disorder has been associated with higher levels of injection drug risk behaviors, and higher drug-related mortality. This paper explores rental accessibility and neighborhood characteristics of advertised rental housing in Hartford CT.

Methods: Brief telephone interviews were conducted with landlords or management companies with units to rent in Hartford to explore housing accessibility measured as initial move in costs, credit and criminal background checks, and whether rental subsidies were accepted. These data were supplemented with in-depth interviews with landlords, shelter staff and active users of heroin, crack or cocaine. Apartments for rent were geocoded and mapped using ArcGIS. We used location quotients to identify areas where low-income rental housing is concentrated. Finally, we mapped apartments in relation to drug and violent arrest rates in each neighborhood.

Results: High security deposits, criminal background and credit checks limit housing accessibility even for drug users receiving vouchers. While most landlords or management companies accepted housing subsidies, several did not. Voucher units are concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty neighborhoods. Landlords reported little incentive to accept rental subsidies in neighborhoods with low crime rates, but appreciated the guarantee provided by Section 8 in high crime neighborhoods that were less likely to attract applicants with good jobs and credit.

Conclusion: Housing vouchers in themselves do not greatly improve recipients' choice of neighborhood and voucher units are concentrated in the most distressed neighborhoods. Policy changes are needed to increase landlords' incentives to accept housing subsidies. Interventions to improve neighborhood conditions are needed to improve the probability of success for those recovering from drug addictions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Connecticut
  • Costs and Cost Analysis / statistics & numerical data*
  • Drug Users / psychology*
  • Drug Users / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Financial Support*
  • Housing / economics*
  • Housing / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Residence Characteristics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk