New App Will Help Renters Quickly Find Affordable Units

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida — For low-income families, the search for affordable rental housing can be daunting — especially in a sprawling community such as Duval County.

With the support of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, experts at the University of Florida will develop an application to assist low-income families find more housing options in more neighborhoods, potentially improving their quality of life and outcomes for their children.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund trustees awarded $156,000 to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida to develop the application and test it in three Florida markets: Jacksonville, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale. The grant was among 18 awards, valued at $1.9 million, made by the trustees in their fourth-quarter meeting.

The application will target individuals and families who receive Housing Choice Vouchers from their local housing authority. The Housing Choice Vouchers program serves families, seniors and people with disabilities with average incomes of $13,000. Participants may choose to rent any unit in any part of the community as long as the unit passes a safety inspection and the landlord is willing to accept vouchers. Tenants generally must pay 30% of their total household income in rent and the local housing authority pays any remaining rental costs. For example, if a tenant earned $13,000 annually and rented a $600-a-month apartment, the tenant would be required to pay $325 a month in rent and the housing authority would pay the remaining $275.

But the process of finding rental units that accept vouchers and can pass inspections can be difficult — and the prospective tenant must complete that process in 60 days or forfeit the voucher. Consequently, “voucher holders tend to cluster in low opportunity neighborhoods,” according to the Shimberg Center. “In Jacksonville, most of them live in a band extending from the Urban Core to the northwest, with a smaller cluster southwest of I-295. These neighborhoods experience higher levels of poverty and segregation, lower school performance, higher crime, and older housing.”

The application will work much like other real estate applications, such as Zillow or Realtor.com, Shimberg says, providing information on rental opportunities as well as community information about schools, transportation and community services. This will enable those searching for rental units to take a broader view of the market and identify options in high opportunity neighborhoods, which combine an affordable housing stock with socioeconomic diversity, convenience to jobs, services and transit, and healthy environmental conditions.

“A recent study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty shows the importance of choice to these movers,” Shimberg reports. “Children whose families moved to high opportunity neighborhoods using vouchers had higher college attendance and earnings, lived in better neighborhoods as adults, and were less likely to become single parents.”

Data suggests there are plenty of potential rental units available.

In Jacksonville, high opportunity neighborhoods contain more than 20,000 rental units that meet voucher rent limits, but fewer than 1,200 voucher holders, according to Shimberg. In San Antonio, more than 24,000 rent-eligible units are located in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, with about 1,300 voucher holders.

Once built, the application will be tested first in Jacksonville and San Antonio, and, after revisions, tested in Fort Lauderdale.