Civil rights groups are fighting the suspension of a HUD rule they say helps low-income families move to better neighborhoods.

Suree Barnes needed to get out of Garland, Texas. There were bugs in her home, rowdy neighbors living across the street, and she was worried about the quality of her older daughter’s school.

Barnes, 37, had initially wanted to move to Garland from Richardson, Texas, because it was one of the few places in the Dallas area she could afford using her roughly $1,100-a-month federal housing choice voucher, and one she thought would provide a better neighborhood for her three kids. When Barnes realized she wanted out of Garland, she was able to move again to Royse City, a suburb in Rockwall County that fair housing advocates would call “higher opportunity”: It has better schools and a lower crime rate. Barnes was able to move not because of a radical change in her financial status, but because of a new way of calculating the payments for housing vouchers in the Dallas metropolitan area.

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), subsidizes the housing costs of more than 2 million low-income households in America. Its current subsidies are based on the Fair Market Rent (FMR) standard, which public housing authorities calculate for each metropolitan area, and is generally around the 40th percentile of rents in the region.

But certain parts of the country, including Dallas, have been testing out a different formula. The Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule calculates the payment standard—the maximum amount of money a voucher provides—using postal Zip codes. The idea is that such payment standards would more accurately reflect the cost of renting in a specific neighborhood. Housing agencies in the Dallas metropolitan area were court-ordered to use the rule in 2011 as part of a fair housing settlement brought by the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a nonprofit that works to expand housing options for low-income families. At the Dallas Housing Authority in the City of Dallas, the number of voucher holders who moved Zip codes into high-opportunity neighborhoods tripled after the rule went into effect. Because 40 percent of the median in such a Zip code is higher than the 40 percent median region-wide, more housing in these Zip codes was now within reach of voucher-holders.

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