Housing Choice Voucher Program Expansion Plan: Good for Diversity?

The Obama administration is reportedly planning to expand the US HUD (Housing and Urban Development) housing choice voucher program in an effort to “force suburbs to be less white and less wealthy.” The plan involves reallocating funds for Section 8 in order to help urban poor afford higher rents in pricey areas, such as Westchester County, while assigning them government real estate agents called “mobility counselors” to secure housing in the exurbs, the report said.

What Are the Housing Choice Program Vouchers?

First, what are the HUD housing program vouchers all about? The Housing Choice Voucher Program, one of Section 8 housing programs, provides rental assistance payments on behalf of low-income individuals and families, including the elderly and persons with disabilities.

According to HUD: “Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are able to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects.” – See more facts on the HUD official website.

With a Section 8 housing choice voucher, an eligible tenant (individual or family) – determined by the local Public Housing Agency – cannot be turned down by a landlord. The tenant also has to abide by the conditions set in the agreement, such as keeping the rental unit in good condition and, most important, paying the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program. The landlord, the tenant, and the PHA all have their respective obligations and responsibilities.

Moreover, a housing voucher may be used not only for renting a family home, but can be used for purchasing a home. Up to 20% of voucher funds can be used for subsidies — called “project-based” vouchers — that are tied to a particular property rather than a particular family and thus can help pay for the construction or rehabilitation of housing for low-income families. Also, vouchers are sometimes used to help with mortgage payments, enabling low-income families to purchase homes.

Landlords whose properties are tied with Section 8 are assured of getting fully paid for their rent each month. However, not all landlords are in favor of this housing program. Some of their reasons include:

  • Government regulation: This includes safety inspection and fixing/repair of their properties before the tenant moves in and slows down the process of getting in a tenant; – 
  • Cost of the Process: The whole bureaucratic process can be costly too, as the inspection criteria is rather stringent. Landlords have to fix every item on the list of the inspection team; 
  • Long Wait Time: Getting their first check from the PHA (Public Housing Agency) can take time – running the risk of tenants not able to maintain their properties well
  • Tenant Risks: Owners also run the risk of getting tenants that have criminal records (if the landlords/PHA have not done the background check well enough).

See more details on the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program here.

The Plan to Expand the Housing Choice Voucher Program

Now back to the Obama administration’s plan to expand the voucher program, that will include wealthier neighborhoods. Will this plan be ultimately for the good or the bad of the community, and diversity?

As reported by the above New York Post article, the program has failed twice – once during former president Clinton’s administration, and recently in Dallas. What is the problem with this program? 

During Clinton’s term those with vouchers that moved to affluent areas did not get better jobs and remained on welfare. More of them even went on food stamps, and, worse, crime rose in the safer neighborhoods, bringing down the quality of life in the affected areas.

The same article noted what has happened to Dallas: 

Now Dallas has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, and recently had to call in state troopers to help police control it. […] Three suburbs that have seen the most Section 8 transfers — Frisco, Plano and McKinney — have suffered unprecedented spikes in rapes, assaults and break-ins, including home invasions.

Another significant result of this housing choice voucher program is it has not truly alleviated poor voucher-holders from poverty, and it has even become an instrument of desegregation. As this news reported: 

The failings of Section 8 go far beyond flaws in how the program was designed to how the the states have implemented it. People can argue all they want about the merits of subsidized housing, but given that Section 8 exists, it would seem advantageous for states and municipalities to take advantage of federal funds to help families find better housing. But many states seem especially determined to keep voucher-holders in areas of concentrated poverty.

But even with these disastrous results – links to drugs and crime and other problems – Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who is rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate, plans to replicate the program nationwide. “We want to use our housing-choice vouchers to ensure that we don’t have a concentration of poverty and the aggregation of racial minorities in one part of town, the poor part of town,” Castro said of the plan, as reported in this article by Warner Todd Huston.

The intention of the program may be noble indeed, but the desired result is not being realized. The HUD scheme is part of Obama’s plan to diversify wealthy neighborhoods and help lower income individuals/families gain access to better situated homes; yet it seems to generate more discrimination and highlight segregation.

Rental ads and signs that say “No Section 8” put up by landlords show this disturbing tendency. Thus, in Minneapolis, a proposal to bar such discrimination by landlords is in the offing. A proposal by two city council members would make Minneapolis the first city in the metro area to say landlords cannot turn away tenants solely for paying rent with government housing vouchers, the Star Tribune reported.

What the Housing Voucher Program Expansion Means for Diversity

If you happen to be middle class, regardless of your skin color and your race, it is but natural to select a home suited to your status, which is usually in a safe, nice neighborhood. The wealthier you are, the more you can afford to buy a house, not only for the above-mentioned reasons, but most likely for investment purposes.

Some white, middle class people though may still hesitate buying into a mixed-income neighborhood, although it is not their intention to be racist or discriminating. They may perhaps only be wary of the rising incidence in crimes and concerned with the market value of properties in such areas.

If you happen to be Black, from the lower economic strata, and have a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, you’ll likely choose to move into a safe, better, and nicer neighborhood for you and your family.

Ideally, the HUD housing programs aims to benefit everyone. Last year, President Obama announced a new housing rule that aims to promote fair housing. The Fair Housing Act requires HUD and its program recipients to promote fair housing and equal opportunity to ensure that all people have the right to fair housing regardless of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or familial status. 

The new rule aims to provide program participants with clear guidelines and data, but it seems somewhere the HUD housing programs – in particular, the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program – is not working out as well as envisioned. Discrimination and segregation still remain.

According to this report, in many places, housing vouchers are only moderately useful in combating racial and economic segregation, in part because landlords are able (legally or illegally) to discriminate against voucher holders. The writer argues for taking away housing subsidies from people rich enough to not need them and expanding housing assistance to the poor and middle class people.

Could there be a better alternative to the recent HUD plan to expand the housing voucher program? Will it really be beneficial for poor Black individuals and families to move into more affluent residential communities? Will moving them to richer neighborhoods that have better access to jobs, transportation, services, and educational opportunities improve their lives? How can crimes be prevented in housing communities where the poor with housing vouchers have moved in?

The answers are not easy to find for some see political motivations behind, and some see the more pragmatic social implications. Social scientists say people tend to live where they are most comfortable, so it’s natural to live among people they are familiar with or that are similar to them.

Alternative Housing Solutions

Would it be much better to bring substantial development right to the places where the urban poor are? Perhaps, if poor people of any race or color, the disabled, and unemployed are given access to more diversity job opportunities, they would not have to move and adjust to wealthier neighborhoods where they may feel out of place.

With ample equal employment opportunities that give better pay, the poor today will eventually be able to save enough to rent or purchase a home of their choice without the need for housing vouchers.

This is not to discount the good intentions of the government, but as it is, housing vouchers seem to stigmatize poor voucher holders. What’s more, with the long waiting list, many eligible holders cannot immediately avail the program.

Perhaps, the HUD should rethink its plan more carefully. As the NY Post said in its article: “This is a big policy shift that will have broad implications, affecting everything from crime to property values. And it could even impact the presidential election, especially if Castro joins Hillary on the Democratic ticket.”