It's an opportunity lost: Half the families that initially receive a much-coveted Section 8 federal housing voucher in Anoka, Carver and suburban Hennepin and Ramsey counties can't find a home on which to use them.

For those who do find a place, nearly one-quarter settle in areas of concentrated poverty.

Now 45 young families in the throes of this housing search are getting one-on-one counseling and help to make sure they find rental homes in neighborhoods with good schools, lower poverty rates and better odds of success.

The Metropolitan Council, which operates the largest housing and redevelopment authority in the state and has 6,300 housing voucher holders, launched its Community Choice program in December.

It's aimed at families with children under the age of 10 that receive federal housing vouchers and want to move into "areas of opportunity" — places with good schools and lower poverty levels. The families spend 30 to 40 percent of their income on rent and use vouchers to cover the balance.

The first family in the program signed a lease last week, with plans to move into an Anoka County neighborhood. Three other families also are close to rental agreements in "areas of opportunity."

"These parents are committed to trying to have a better life for their children," said Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge. "They want them to have a safe home, healthy meals, access to parks and trails and access to good education."

The idea is to make sure families with vouchers won't be forced into a frantic search for housing that ends with them taking whatever they can find.

"It really brings choice back into the housing choice voucher program," said Jennifer Keogh, assistant HRA manager for the Met Council.

Improving outcomes

The Met Council's program is part of a national movement affirming what research and data analysis show: A better neighborhood often means better long-term outcomes for children.

President Obama has proposed $15 million for mobility counseling to help low-income families move to safer neighborhoods with better schools and access to jobs.

"A growing body of research shows children who grow up in areas that have high-performing schools and low concentrations of poverty have a better chance of being successful in their lives," said Elizabeth Ryan, vice president of the nonprofit Family Housing Fund, which works with local HRAs and landlords.

"Families should really have an opportunity to choose among a variety of different of areas to live," Ryan said.

A 2015 Harvard University study that examined 16 years of data from more than 5 million children concluded that "every extra year a child spends in a better environment … improves her outcomes. We find equal and opposite exposure effects for children whose families moved to worse areas."

The program is receiving high praise from Met Council members, who have made equity a priority.

"Where you are pointing is where we need to be," Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, who chairs the Community Development Committee, told staffers. "It is changing families' lives."

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, a nonprofit representing 2,100 landlords and property owners, also commended the program.

"We are encouraged by Met Council's efforts in bringing new thinking and a regional approach to affordable housing," said Mary Rippe, president of Minnesota Multi Housing. "Our members have made dozens of affordable housing programs accessible for Minnesotans in every community. As a region, it is critical that all levels of government include property owners as positive problem solvers in addressing affordable housing."

Developing an action plan

Met Council staffers spent months crunching data on neighborhoods — looking at school performance, poverty rates, access to parks and even grocery stores. Then they recruited families.

The program helps families improve their financial outlook, and it tries to persuade more landlords to accept federal housing vouchers.

Families must commit to two years. They set career and housing goals and agree to take courses on topics such as financial literacy, conflict resolution and even housekeeping.

"They spend a lot of time talking about what opportunity means and coming up with a good action plan for the family. They need to be committed," Keogh said. "We want to empower families by setting goals and holding our families accountable."

Families create a rental résumé, including credit and job history. "It's like a job résumé. We tell them to treat this as if it's a professional application," said Terry Hardin, one of two Met Council senior outreach coordinators.

And the program urges family members to make community and neighborhood connections, such as volunteering at their child's school, so they're more likely to stay put.

Getting landlords on board

The Community Choice program also teaches landlords about the Section 8 program, in an effort to expand the pool of those who will accept vouchers.

Getting landlords on board in a tight rental market has posed one of the biggest hurdles. The vacancy rate for rentals in the Twin Cities is hovering around 3 percent.

"The challenges we are seeing is the landlords just don't have enough information," said Hardin. So she often goes with clients to look at apartments and explain the Section 8 program.

For landlords, Section 8 tenants mean a guaranteed payment each month. Housing officials commit to visiting Community Choice families four times a year to ensure the program is running smoothly; that's more oversight than typical families on Section 8 get.

Sonya Lopez and her daughter, Kinsley, are searching for an apartment with Hardin's help.

Lopez, 33, recently completed training to become a personal care attendant and landed a job paying $13 an hour. Her goal is to find a safe, clean apartment in Roseville or New Brighton near her sister.

Lopez has bounced around for several years and struggled after fracturing her foot. "Things got bad and I know I needed to make things better," she said.

Now healed, Lopez said that one-on-one counseling has helped her move toward her goals of a new job and safe home for her daughter.

"I want her life to be stable," Lopez said. "I want to give her a happy life, a simple life."

"Housing does matter. Place matters," Hardin said. "You are helping families do better. You are helping children do better."