Street in the suburbs of Chicago on a cold night / A. Duarte

August 12, 2015; The Atlantic, “CityLab” and National Journal

Since early July, following the SCOTUS decision in Texas v. Inclusive Communities Inc. and HUD’s announcement of new regulations regarding the duty of communities to affirmatively further fair housing, integration has been on the “to do” list of policy makers and advocates around the country. Celebrity urbanologist Richard Florida said recently, “While income inequality has worsened considerably over the past couple of decades, America and its cities face a far deeper problem of increasing racial and economic segregation, along with concentrated poverty.” NPQ’s Rick Cohen tackled this issue in “Supreme Court Rules on Segregated Housing, Attacking Institutional Racism” and “Beyond Sterling: Subtle, Invisible, Persistent Racism Embedded in U.S. Society.”

Two more recent stories in the news illustrate two different approaches to opening suburbs to low-income households with Housing Choice Vouchers. In an article entitled “Welcoming the Poor to the Suburbs,” Alana Semuels reports on efforts by Chicago-area institutions to encourage low-income households in Chicago to relocate to the suburbs. In contrast, CityLab features a story by Brentin Mock that describes the settlement of charges that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the L.A. Public Housing Authority, and several suburban mayors harassed low-income tenants who moved out of L.A. to surrounding communities.

A key to both stories is HUD’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP), which was created in the early 1970s to permit low-income households to find rental properties in the private rental market. A family with a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) seeks appropriately sized rental housing in the private rental market. The property owner, if approved after inspection for housing quality standards and rent reasonableness, receives both a tenant payment of 30 percent of household income and a subsidy payment from the local Housing Authority. The subsidy payment covers the difference between the tenant’s share and the agreed-upon market rent. HCV households are free to look anywhere within the jurisdiction of the agency that administered the voucher, usually a county. Sometimes, HCVs can be tied to developments, as is the case in the Chicago program. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 2.1 million households have HCVs in the U.S. Demand for HCVs far exceeds the appropriations, and housing authorities often hold lotteries to establish waiting lists.

Sometimes known as “Section 8” or “Metro,” the mobility feature of HCVP has been controversial, as Emily Badger recounts in an overview of the evolution of the Housing Choice Voucher program and the relationship between HCVP and racial politics, “How Section 8 became a ‘racial slur.’” The L.A. story is a horrifying read; faced with rising levels of HCV households moving into suburban communities outside of Los Angeles, authorities took steps to discourage these newly mobilized families:

In the early 2000s, Palmdale and Lancaster began spending “significant resources” to pay for investigators and sheriff’s deputies for the sole purpose of aggressively monitoring families in the Section 8 voucher program, reads the Justice Department’s complaint. As a result, hundreds of black families had investigators randomly show up at their doors, often with a posse of armed sheriffs, to search their homes and interrogate them about their housing status.

Horrifying, but unusual only in degree. On my “beat” in Ohio, three examples of communities in Greater Cleveland, Greater Cincinnati, and Middletown have sought and received personal information about HCV households moving into their local jurisdictions.

In the aftermath of the Department of Justice findings in Los Angeles, one can hope that other efforts to target HCV households should get more scrutiny from community organizations and federal enforcement agencies. Seemingly innocent requests for information about HCV households should be a red flag.

By contrast, Chicago Housing Authority and surrounding counties have created the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI). Ms. Semuels writes:

“These counties have created a mechanism for pooling their resources so that low-income people who would normally live in the urban core of Chicago can move to more rural and suburban areas. As housing advocates criticize the Housing Choice Voucher program, colloquially known as Section 8, for segregating poor residents in high-poverty neighborhoods, the Chicago collaboration could provide a model for how to make Section 8 work.”

Nonprofits are playing roles in both of these stories. In the Los Angeles story, The Community Action League (TCAL) describes its work this way: “We have addressed issues [such as] Section 8 recipient attacks, racial profiling by police, and the incessant attacks against our youth in the criminal justice and educational systems.” Defendants in L.A. are required to take ongoing fair housing training, normally provided by local nonprofit organizations. By providing a forum for HCV residents to raise their concerns, TCAL has drawn attention to the harassment campaign.

Nonprofits in Chicago play an even wider variety of roles. Housing Choice Partners (HCP) pioneered the mobility counseling program that has since moved “in house” at the Chicago Housing Authority. HCP has also done advocacy, consultancy, research and training around housing mobility issues. Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law provides legal services to HCV families who are seeking to move to non-traditional communities. There are other examples of housing mobility programs here.

As HUD rolls out the implementation of the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulations, nonprofits will be providing research on the “how” and “why” of promoting integration. One example is this month’s study of “landlord lists” published by the Poverty and Race Research Council (PRRAC). The study finds the “landlord lists” often used by Housing Authorities to guide HCV households in their home searches actually have the effect of perpetuating the concentration of poverty. The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute is another source of housing and race studies.—Spencer Wells