Researchers dig into Sonoma County housing voucher, safety net data to identify trends

Researchers will comb through social safety net data for the 13,000 people who applied for Sonoma County’s housing voucher lottery in 2019.|

What role does subsidized housing have in bringing stability to someone’s life?

Researchers with the California Policy Lab, a nonpartisan research institute that analyzes data to help government agencies better serve the public, are partnering with Sonoma County to answer that question.

To do so, California Policy Lab analysts will parse through information from 13,000 people who applied for Sonoma County’s housing voucher lottery in 2019.They will compare information from the 500 households that were randomly selected to receive a voucher with those that did not to determine if they then were provided services by other local government agencies, California Policy Lab Research Director Johanna Lacoe said.

All personal information of the voucher applicants has been removed from the data California Policy Lab analyst will use.

Known as Section 8, the federal housing voucher program directs billions of dollars to local housing authorities every year, which then award vouchers that help low-income families subsidize the cost of housing.

Unlike affordable housing projects that guarantee units to low-income renters, those awarded the housing assistance must find both an available unit and a landlord who will accept the Section 8 voucher.

The social service data available through the county ranges from information about who uses programs such as CalFresh and CalWORKS, which provide people with money to pay for food and other living expenses, as well as use of county-run homeless shelters and mental health services, Lacoe said. Information collected from arrests and local hospitalizations also will be included in the analysis, she added.

There’s been several studies on housing voucher programs, though most only examine the impact housing assistance has on income, Lacoe said. They also typically take place in large metropolitan areas, whereas Sonoma County is made up of more suburban and rural communities, she said.

The local landscape is “a lot of what the country looks like,” Lacoe said, adding, “it’s important for the field to understand those differences.”

The creation of the county’s integrated database in 2017, which was built to better coordinate care across the county’s various social service systems, was one of the key developments that led to the research project.

Nationally, it’s rare to find counties with social service data compiled in this way, Lacoe said.

Another important change was the county’s transition in 2019 to a lottery-based system for awarding federally funded housing subsidies, which gave all applicants an equal shot at being picked for a housing voucher, Lacoe said.

That system replaced a local-preference policy that favored applicants who lived and worked on county-governed land. Since 1999, it had accumulated 26,000 applicants.

In 2018, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined the local-preference policy restricted access to housing for racial and ethnic minorities. For example, Black residents made up 31% of the applicants on the county’s waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, though only 4% of those vouchers went to that community.

The Sonoma County Community Development Commission, an agency that oversees housing and homeless programs, saw both changes as an opportunity to gain additional insight, Sonoma County spokesman Matt Brown said.

“Aspirationally the (Sonoma County Community Development Commission) was looking to see how new outreach efforts impacted the diversity of its revamped waitlist process,” Brown said.

Lacoe expects to have an initial six-month report to the county on the preliminary findings this summer, though a full analysis won’t be available for another year, she said.

While the de-identified data provided by the county will be the primary source of information for the California Policy Lab analysis, Lacoe added that she hopes to supplement that with income information for the 13,000 people who were in the 2019 applicant pool.

Having that information would help researchers make additional findings about the impact housing vouchers have on quality of life, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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