Change in Section 8 rule makes best neighborhoods more accessible

An Obama-era program that begins Jan. 1 could help people across metro Atlanta who are dependent on subsidized housing move into safer neighborhoods and send their children to better schools.

The Atlanta metro area is one of 23 across the country in which the so-called “small area fair market rents” rule must be adopted. That change in calculations for housing vouchers is expected to solve the problem of Section 8 vouchers that don’t cover enough of the rent to make housing in the nicest neighborhoods affordable — such as homes in Sandy Springs, Marietta or John’s Creek.

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But affordable housing advocates say the new rule isn’t a panacea. They worry there is no additional funding attached to it, nor is there a requirement that landlords accept Section 8 housing vouchers that pay market-rate rent.

The Trump administration had delayed implementing the rule, saying they needed time to study its effects. A group of civil rights organizations sued the administration and on Dec. 23 a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must move forward with the program. It requires HUD to determine market-rate subsidies by averaging rents from individual zip codes rather than entire metro-wide areas.

Often, a metro-wide average is pulled down by communities with cheaper rents, and that can result in subsidies that are insufficient to pay rent in the affluent areas.

Dan Immergluck, a Professor in Georgia State’s Urban Studies Institute who researches housing markets and urban poverty, has followed the rule since it was put out for public comment last year. He said it would be more effective if there were local or state laws prohibiting discrimination against sources of rent payments.

“Landlords in Georgia can still turn down anybody and say they don’t take vouchers,” Immergluck said. “So a natural complement would be a law saying you can’t discriminate based on the type of income people pay with, whether it’s a voucher or anything else.”

“I think this rule is important. I certainly think it’s a big step in the right direction. But I think it can be even more impactful if local or state governments have source-of-income protections.”

The Atlanta Housing Authority has been working toward implementing the rule since 2016.

Catherine Buell, president and chief executive of the AHA, said her agency last year started calculating market-rate rent in 23 areas of the city — up from just seven areas prior to March 2016.

“It will have a good and bad impact,” Buell said of the rule. “The good is that it will make it possible for more residents to live in areas where property values are higher and the schools are better. The challenge is, for a lot of smaller public housing authorities, it’s going to be really difficult for them to pay the market rate if HUD doesn’t provide additional funding.”

“That’s a question still lingering: Where is the money going to come from?”

Ben Williams, president of the Cobb County branch of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, applauded the rule despite its’ flaws. Williams said affordable housing is a major issue in Cobb, and he thinks the rule will at a minimum authenticate the work advocates are pursuing.

“I’m delighted,” Williams said. “It’s particularly timely here in Cobb, as we see a rapid decline in the amount of affordable housing for the working poor and for poor people. Although funding does not flow with the court ruling, it sets before all of us … a point of reference by which elected leaders can adjust their moral campuses.”