More photos of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts

By changing the way voucher amounts are calculated, recipients in some metro areas may have more housing options. (Getty Images)

On April 1, the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule will go into effect, aimed at appropriately altering the way fair market rent is calculated for Housing Choice Voucher program recipients and reducing the chances of confining recipients exclusively to low-rent areas.

The Housing Choice Voucher program is the largest part of what’s often referred to as Section 8 housing, which provides assisted housing opportunities for low-income households by paying private landlords.

The SAFMR rule was first introduced in 2011 in Dallas by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, as an anti-segregation practice, with plans for expansion to a total of 24 markets announced in 2016 following results of the pilot program in Texas. HUD has been tasked with issuing guidance for the metro areas subject to the change and ensuring it is carried out.

[Read: How Much Should You Spend on Big-City Rent?]

“The goal of the Small Area FMR changes is to enable participants to move into areas they might not otherwise have had access to because the payment standards were too low,” explains Amy Glassman, an attorney focused on real estate and housing and a partner at Ballard Spahr in the District of Columbia.

The previous practice, which still stands for those areas not subject to the SAFMR rule, calculates housing vouchers based on rent in the entire metro area, factoring in both high-income and low-income areas. The argument stands that particularly in major metro areas, factoring in such a wide-ranging area drives down the voucher amount, forcing recipients to live in the areas with the lowest rent, which tends to keep them in high-poverty neighborhoods.

SAFMRs are set at the ZIP code level instead, making a voucher in a high-rent ZIP code worth more – and therefore potentially a feasible option for a voucher recipient.

Of course, by restructuring the calculation by ZIP code, vouchers for low-rent areas can ultimately see the voucher amount decrease. This has been an argument against putting the SAFMR rule into effect. In August 2017, HUD issued a delay on the rule for two years, to 2020, citing the pilot program where the decrease in voucher amounts limited the available housing to recipients by as much as 10 percent in low-income areas of Long Beach, California, for example.

In December 2017, a federal judge issued an injunction, requiring HUD to implement SAFMR, citing a lack of specific reasons and authority for delaying the process and mandating the rule be effective Jan. 1, 2018. HUD has since issued guidance for implementing SAFMR, with a deadline of April 1.

Public housing authorities and housing advocates are also concerned with the use of ZIP codes to delineate between one area and another. Courtney Hunter, an associate at Ballard Spahr, notes that “ZIP codes aren’t designed to reflect housing markets, they’re designed to deliver the mail.”

Gregory Brown, senior vice president for government affairs for the National Apartment Association, uses the example of two houses across the street from each other that happen to be in separate ZIP codes. Under normal circumstances, the houses influence each other's value and are in the same real estate market, but they would be viewed as separate under the new rule. "[T]here needs to be a larger conversation about what the right geographical boundary makes the most sense," Brown says via email. "We don't think ZIP codes are the best option, but the current system also has its challenges. Others in our industry have suggested perhaps counties are a better boundary."

New York University’s Furman Center, which researches housing and urban policy, released a report in January that estimates a small reduction in the number of affordable units in just four metro areas implementing SAFMR: Gary, Indiana; Hartford, Connecticut; Monmouth, New Jersey; and Sarasota, Florida. The fact that the rule allows for public housing agencies to set payment standards above the SAFMR calculation – as much as 110 percent – helps to offset the potential for decrease in rent for low-income ZIP codes, the report argues.

Here are four things you need to know about the SAFMR rule.

Eligibility for vouchers doesn’t change. While voucher amounts will change based on ZIP code rather than the overall metro area, voucher recipient eligibility and how people apply for a voucher will not change.

Voucher recipients typically pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent, with the rest of their rent covered by the voucher, which is determined by the fair market rent of that area. With the fair market rent calculated by ZIP code rather than metro area, if the voucher recipient is looking to live in a ZIP code where fair rent is higher, the voucher will cover the additional rent. In low-rent areas, however, that voucher amount can go down as well.

[See: 7 Secrets You Can't Hide From Your Landlord.]

More landlords won’t necessarily accept vouchers. As is the goal of the rule, voucher recipients will have more freedom to live in parts of a metro area that may have been previously out of their price range. But that doesn’t necessarily mean landlords will take on all voucher recipients who apply for a lease.

Laws for landlords accepting tenants receiving rental assistance can vary greatly by city, whether that’s requiring all Section 8 voucher recipient applications to be considered or issuing little to no guidance on the matter. The District of Columbia, for example, has a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on income source – which includes housing vouchers.

The goal of the rule is certainly to bring more housing voucher recipients to apartment communities that previously saw few, if any, living there, but Brown notes there's limited research on the program's results. Instead, public housing agencies and landlords have to wait for full implementation, "and everyone is wondering if that will indeed be the case," Brown says.

In order to be allowed to house a Section 8 voucher recipient, the property must also apply for eligibility, pass yearly inspections, be able to collect the expected security deposit (which is not covered in the voucher) and run the same background check required of all other tenants. While housing authorities may have been able to make the process easier or more enticing for landlords in some places, property participation depends on the metro area, neighborhood and individual landlord.



Other community needs aren’t factored in. While a voucher allows greater choice in where you live, the potential for greater mobility can also mean there are fewer affordable commuting, daycare and community gathering spaces that may cost more or be nonexistent in higher-rent parts of the metro area.

“If you move out to the suburbs, that means you need a car to access services rather than being able to take a bus or train,” Hunter says.

While offering a greater number of housing options throughout the area is certainly part of the conversation, Hunter adds, “It’s not the whole solution.”

[Read: The Future of Affordable Housing in the Trump Era.]

Some public housing authorities will need extra time. HUD’s final guidance on implementing the SAFMR rule also notes that public housing authorities can apply for a suspension or temporary exemption if they offer alternate rent policies or payment standards, or if implementation can’t be done before April 1.

Glassman and Hunter say they expect at least some public housing authorities to request a suspension or delay for both reasons, particularly because the injunction in December put housing authorities on a timeline few have the resources to keep up with. “It takes a really long time to issue regulations. It takes a really long time to modify regulations,” Glassman says.


8 Apartment Amenities You Didn't Know You Needed

Renting is in, and so are amenities.

Backlit apartment building against dramatic sky

(Getty Images)

More people than ever are renting rather than owning, with more than 35 percent of Americans living in rented housing as of 2014, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. To compete with the growing number of rental opportunities in the U.S., many apartment communities are upping the ante with luxurious amenities that make living easier, more convenient and more fun. While resort-style pools, movie theaters and recreational spaces are becoming the standard, many places are going above and beyond to appeal to residents looking to rent in the area. Here are eight apartment amenities you never knew you needed – until now.

Making fitness fun

Making fitness fun

A woman hangs upside down while rock climbing.

(Getty Images)

Full fitness facilities, complete with treadmills, weightlifting machines and free weights, are quickly becoming standard for many apartment communities. Even buildings without space to accommodate a small gym often offer discounted memberships to nearby gyms. But at The Lorenzo in Los Angeles, residents get to take advantage of more recreational fitness options, with a rock wall and indoor soccer field on the premises. As off-campus student housing for the University of Southern California, The Lorenzo's student residents don’t have to worry about reserving on-campus facilities for a pickup game or quick climb in their free time.

Water features for everyone

Water features for everyone

Man having fun on water slide.

(Getty Images)

Pools are quickly becoming a staple for even midsize apartment communities. And while some aim for terrific views and lap lanes, others are reaching beyond their own walls. The Villages of Parklands in the District of Columbia, owned by property management and development company WC Smith, includes a splash park that's open to community residents and the surrounding neighborhood. “It’s something that’s not just a high-end amenity for people with lots of disposable income,” says Anne Marie Bairstow, vice president of marketing at communications at WC Smith.

Tuneup space for two wheels

Tuneup space for two wheels

Woman biking to work.

(Getty Images)

Particularly in major cities where parking can be expensive, residents take to bicycles for their commute to and from work as well as pedal around the city for recreation and exercise. AVA Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, owned by AvalonBay Communities Inc., helps its biking residents stay on two wheels with bike storage and a repair station, which includes a lift to make it easy to work on your bike and any tools you might need to make improvements and repairs. Residents take full advantage of the facility, says Juan Rodriguez, sales and service supervisor at AVA Little Tokyo. “The storage itself is pretty much always full,” he says.

Pets as a priority

Pets as a priority

Emmy the bulldog in the gym at 2M.

(WC Smith)

Pet-friendly apartments are in high demand for renters who want to ensure comfort for the furriest members of their family, but at 2M apartments in the District of Columbia, also owned by WC Smith, pet residents get their own representation. Emmy, an English bulldog owned by the property manager, is the official “pet ambassador.” She regularly draws residents into the management office for a quick pet and playtime while also highlighting the building’s pet-positive attitude and private courtyard for dog walking. “Dogs just make friends, and so everybody that has a dog knows the other dog owners, and it really helps to build the community,” Bairstow says.

Living in a luxury hotel setting

Living in a luxury hotel setting

Room service for businesswoman working on laptop in hotel room

(Getty Images)

If you’re going to live in luxury, why not live like you’re in a high-end hotel? Residents at The Atlantic Midtown in Atlanta can opt to purchase concierge-arranged services, from housekeeping to dog walking to room service. While anyone can hire similar services themselves, the added hotel-like concierge service removes items from your to-do list and relieves the stress of finding the right vendor.

Swinging for the greens year-round

Swinging for the greens year-round

A senior man plays golf with friends on a golf course.

(Getty Images)

Luxury communities throughout the country have been tapping into their residents’ love of golf. While some add small putting courses and even a sand trap or two, others go a little further. At AMLI River North in Chicago, owned by AMLI Residential, golfers don’t have to put away the clubs once winter hits. The community has a golf simulator for golfers to practice their swing whether it’s snowing outside or it’s tough to get a tee time at nearby courses.

Facilities for your fruit of the vine

Facilities for your fruit of the vine

Red Wine Pour

(Getty Images)

Forget wine bottles lining your countertop or even a wine cooler in your kitchen. Lincoln Property Company's Highgrove apartments in Stamford, Connecticut, appeals to wine aficionados with a private space for each residence in a climate-controlled wine cellar. The community confirms most residents take advantage of the wine cellar, which offers space for roughly 30 to 40 bottles per household. Thanks to this free amenity included with renting in the community, wine lovers avoid having to go elsewhere to store their favorite wines that are best served with a little extra care.

An eye for art

An eye for art

A smiling couple admires art in a gallery.

(Getty Images)

As amenities like fresh coffee and business centers with free Wi-Fi draw residents into common areas, property managers and owners know they have to make the spaces as appealing and entertaining as possible – which is one reason curated art collections are popping up in luxury communities around the country. Communities like Jasper in San Francisco feature art throughout their lobbies, mail rooms and other common spaces. The art displayed in Jasper "tells a story of a contemporary San Francisco 21st century style with a nod to its film noir history," according to a statement from Jasper's art curator, Maria Di Grande. The collection includes commissioned collages as well as street photography.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, Department of Housing and Urban Development, renting


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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