STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In this country we could see some changes in a government housing program known as Section 8. Critics have complained that this subsidized rent program gives recipients enough money to live in poor, minority neighborhoods, but not enough money to live anywhere else. Now the Department of Housing and Urban Development is rethinking the way it calculates rent payments.
The city of Dallas has been testing these changes and Jeff Cohen from member station WNPR has this report.
JEFF COHEN: Zanovia Watkins has been on Section 8 for four years and her voucher hasn't much changed, no matter where she's wanted to live in the Dallas Metroplex. So now she lives in Duncanville, where her car windows get broken, her house gets broken into, and she feels stuck.
Ms. ZANOVIA WATKINS: So when I went to the briefing and they was like, oh, well, you can move here, you can move there, you can move here, I was like, wow. So I said, well, I'm going to Plano.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COHEN: Plano is a comfortable suburb 30 miles north, and Watkins doesn't know much about it. But she knows this - in Duncanville, her voucher is worth $1,500. If she takes her four kids to Plano, where rents are higher, the voucher is worth more than $2,000. So Watkins says she's moving to a new place, and hopefully to new opportunities.
Ms. WATKINS: You know, I don't want to be on housing my whole life. I'm trying to move on and meet great people and advance in life. Speaking with the landlord out there, he was like this is a great area for you and your kids. He said Plano has a lot to offer, you know, so I'm trusting that. I'm trusting that.
COHEN: It's been more than 30 years since Section 8 was introduced as a housing subsidy for the poor. Recipients pay 30 percent of their income toward their rent and utilities, and the government typically pays the rest. The hope was to give public housing clients a place to live other than low income public housing projects. And Section 8 has done that. But because of the way HUD has historically calculated the subsidies it pays - using broad metropolitan areas with widely varying rents - it's also done this...
Mr. RAFAEL BOSTIC (HUD): Almost all the high income neighborhoods are off limits to the people getting rental assistance.
COHEN: That's Rafael Bostic, HUD's assistant secretary for Policy Development and Research. He says cutting voucher holders off from high-income neighborhoods cuts them off from better jobs and educational opportunities too. So Bostic says HUD is doing a study in a handful of areas across the country. It will use smaller areas to calculate rents, zip codes. And the goal is to encourage voucher holders to move to neighborhoods they haven't been able to afford.
Mr. BOSTIC: We want to know: do they actually do that, or do they make choices that are comparable to the sorts of choices they've been making now?
COHEN: Because, Bostic says, changing those choices could mean giving voucher holders like Zanovia Watkins a big leg up.
Not everyone likes the idea. Some say that in a tight economy, higher subsides could mean fewer subsidies. Timothy Kaiser runs the national Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. He fears the program's cost. He also asks this...
Mr. TIMOTHY KAISER (Public Housing Authorities Directors Association): Is it fair for subsidized renters to receive this kind of assistance when the average American cannot afford to move to more affluent communities?
COHEN: Kaiser isn't the only one talking about what's fair. About 15 percent of Dallas voucher holders live in low-rent zip codes in which the new program will mean rent subsidies will go down.
That's what could happen to Dexter Barrett. He's in a cubicle at the Dallas Housing Authority as a counselor tells him the news. If he stays in the same zip code, his voucher will be worth less.
Mr. DEXTER BARRETT: It really don't make any sense because you're saying we have to move out of South Dallas and move way somewhere else.
COHEN: Barrett says he'd rather pay more to stay put in a neighborhood he knows than move to one he doesn't. But at least he'll have a choice.
Mike Daniel is a lawyer with a housing advocacy group in Dallas called the Inclusive Communities Project. He says Dallas has a long history of housing its poor and minority residents apart from everybody else.
Mr. MIKE DANIEL (Inclusive Communities Project): What Congress intended was to use the Section 8 program to help break up the concentrated poverty in racially concentrated ghettos. This was supposed to give people a chance to decide to leave and the means whereby to leave if they wanted to or to stay if they wanted to.
COHEN: HUD says four other communities might join Dallas in the test project this year.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.