Section 8 Could Be Great, But…

DC Politics Housing Ideas and Issues

 New Orleans      Nationally, rents are estimated to increase by 7% across the board in the United States.  Some cities are on fire, like Austin and Miami, but even Memphis and Jacksonville are running past affordability.  If you’re just barely making it or not making it at all, the relief offered by the various stimulus programs made a difference, but that program was slow to get up and running, and continues to be plagued with problems in administration and compliance with both tenants and landlords finger pointing at each other and the government.

Since the demise of US public housing, the go-to housing program for lower income families has been Section 8 or now more formally, the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP).  The design of this program is straightforward, even if outdated and short legged.  The tenant pays 30% of market rate rent in their community and the government pays the rest.  About 2.3 million American households benefit from the vouchers.  Almost half are Black, 70% are in fact racial minorities, and about one-third make less than $10,000 a year.  As far as it goes, that all sounds good.  Then, here comes the “buts.”

The program is not an entitlement, but it should be.  Studies indicate that four times as many families are eligible under the guidelines to get Section 8 vouchers than receive them.  We’re talking more than ten million families, according to the University of Pennsylvania.  In almost any city the waiting list is longer than the list of lucky winners.  In some cities, the waiting list has been closed period, so any and all are blocked.  Making this an entitlement would be a gamechanger for lower income families and revolutionize their communities, and, frankly, their family futures.  Congress had a chance to almost do this with Biden’s Build Back Better bill.  The opening bid was an added $75 billion.  At the close it was $24 billion and 300,000 new vouchers in the bill that passed.  Better than nothing, but a long, long way from what is needed.

Besides the government not stepping up with the money, the other problem is landlords standing in the way, and, back to the government, the inability or unwillingness of HUD to craft regulations to make them do right and all levels of government banning discrimination by landlords.   Tenants who have vouchers only have two months to sign a lease, but that means finding landlords that will accept them and their families.  Some cities, like Newark, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, bar discrimination, but most don’t, as do fifteen states, but not the other thirty-five.  Some landlords bridle at the inspections to assure the units are up to code and habitable.  Market rate averages also tend to concentrate voucher recipients in already existing lower income areas, because the landlords like the higher rent, but in more desirable areas, the rent is lowballing the landlords and pushing families back where they were.  Making the rent averages by zip code, rather than market wide would fix a lot of that problem, but HUD and the gang haven’t gone there.

The money may be hard to fix, but the other barriers could be paved over quickly, if local, state, and federal governments took even a cursory look at this program and the huge benefits it could yield for them and their citizens, if they got on the stick.