November 19, 2018; Texas Tribune
Federal promises to enable low-income renters to find quality affordable housing and escape neighborhoods of concentrated poverty continue to go largely unfulfilled. Almost 50 years ago, Congress recognized that public housing often concentrated and isolated low-income residents and added Section 8 vouchers to the affordable housing mix. The federal government saw vouchers as “a critical tool that helps to meet the…central mission of providing decent, safe, and affordable housing.” The idea behind this policy was to promote greater residential integration. To be sure, the federal government has largely failed to achieve this. And, if the Trump administration has its way, Texas may end up modeling yet another great step backward.
The Texas Tribune recently examined the unfulfilled promise of the voucher program, focusing on implementation in Texas. In concept, vouchers would eliminate “the expense of building and maintaining public housing developments—which fell out of political favor as they grew to symbolize the dangers of concentrated poverty and government neglect.”
In Dallas, for example, the local housing authority in 1955 built 3,500 public housing units in a high-crime neighborhood across the street from a lead smelter. Originally, the project had white and [Latinx] residents, but by the 1970s almost everyone living there was black. Public housing meant for white residents was scattered across the city in more desirable areas.
Section 8, according to Mike Daniel, a lawyer for the Inclusive Communities Project who was interviewed by the Atlantic, was “going to allow people to get out of the ghetto.” However, Daniel says, “there’s tremendous political pressure on housing authorities and HUD to not let it become an instrument of desegregation.”
Inadequate funding for housing vouchers creates long waiting lists for those who are otherwise eligible, and that’s only the first part of the problem. While the program guarantees a landlord full payment for apartments whose rents meet the program’s assessment of the average actual cost of housing rental in each area, biases against people in poverty and families of color remain significant barriers. To combat these biases, many jurisdictions have barred landlords from discriminating against voucher holders, and several Texas cities were considering enacting discrimination bans. That is, until the Texas legislature stepped in and forbid municipalities from enacting such ordinances:
In 2015, Texas passed a law that ensured landlords cannot be punished for discriminating against families with vouchers. The law essentially legalized a long-standing practice among landlords that blocked voucher holders, who are overwhelmingly black and [Latinx], from moving to better neighborhoods.
Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican real estate developer from Dallas who co-authored the bill…said that [such ordinances] could “trample the liberties of the business community or their citizens. To me, tyranny from your neighbor or your local government or from a dictator in a foreign country is still tyranny.”
In other words, in Texas, the desire to separate rich from poor and black from white was stronger than the hope of helping improve lives.
The benefits of moving out neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are demonstrable:
The benefits for families that managed to move proved to be substantial. Researchers found women were less likely to suffer from extreme obesity, diabetes and depression. A subsequent study found that their children—particularly those who could move before age 13—were more likely to attend college. Researchers also analyzed tax records and projected that those children would earn about $302,000 more over their lifetimes than children who remained in public housing—and would pay enough additional income taxes to offset the cost of the program.
According to David Mintz, head lobbyist for the Texas Apartment Association, these positive outcomes have not changed the minds of most property owners, who think it is wrong to be forced “to take housing vouchers and participate in a federal program whether they chose to or not, even though the program was designed to be voluntary.” As a result, most voucher holders in Texas find difficulty in finding apartments to rent, and when they do, most remain in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods.
Even when nonprofits step forward to take on some of the administrative burden cited by some landlords as a barrier to voucher acceptance, resistance remains. Ann Lott, who runs a Dallas-based program, described her efforts to the Texas Tribune: “Typically, the response I get [from landlords] is silence. Terrible, deafening silence. They don’t respond to letters, they don’t respond to emails. They just don’t respond…it’s just discrimination. Discrimination against a population that’s predominantly African American. If the program was predominantly a different complexion, I don’t know that we would have these kinds of issues with the Section 8 program.”
Federal policymakers are poised to act and make Texas less of an outlier. Not only can landlords discriminate against low-income renters, the level of federal support might be slashed. US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson “has said he wants to reduce reliance on the federal housing program and has proposed tripling voucher-holders’ minimum monthly rent payments. He has rolled back the Obama-era rules requiring local governments to prioritize desegregation in their housing policies and has delayed a federal program that would increase voucher payments to help tenants move to high-opportunity neighborhoods.”
What’s needed here are more resources, not less, and a willingness to realize the potential of the Section 8 initiative, not limit it. We cannot follow Texas’s lead. As the Atlantic concluded before the 2016 election changed the political landscape, “If Section 8 can be fixed, it’ll be money well spent. The government spends billions of dollars each year creating a program that, for some families, is akin to winning the lottery. But what’s the point of winning the lottery if there’s nowhere safe to spend it?”—Martin Levine