Section 8 Is Only One Part of Addressing the Housing Crisis
Posted by Peter Dreier on July 30, 2008
Editor’s Note: The following is a response to a comment posted by Rooflines blogger Nandinee Kutty that points to “serious weaknesses” in Section 8 housing, as well as its “failure to serve as a reliable safety net for families in need, and its cumbersome and wasteful procedures.”
America’s housing crisis is the result of three overlapping problems.
- Many families lack adequate incomes, primarily as a result of the proliferation of low-wage jobs.
- There isn’t an adequate supply of housing overall and, in particular, housing that is affordable to families at the bottom half of the income ladder.
- Racial discrimination by landlords, lenders, Realtors, and exclusionary snob zoning by affluent suburbs, exacerbates the first two obstacles.
Therefore, in order to address the nation’s housing crisis, we need — at a minimum — to increase incomes, expand government subsidies for the construction of low-income and working class housing as part of mixed income developments (not as government-subsidized ghettos), and adopt and enforce laws that forcefully reduce racial discrimination in the private real estate sector and snob zoning by local suburban governments.
The Section 8 voucher program is an important part of this overall strategy, but only one part. It helps address the problem of inadequate incomes. Because there are only two million Section 8 vouchers funded by Congress, access to these vouchers is a lottery, not an entitlement. Studies have shown that those families fortunate enough to get vouchers wind up living in better housing, in better neighborhoods, and typically paying much less for that housing than they were before. Yes, the program is imperfect, because of the factors identified above. Some landlords discriminate against Section 8 voucher-holders either because of their race, or children in the family, or because they don’t want to fix up their apartments to meet the quality standards required by their program, or because they can get higher rent than what HUD is willing to pay (through “fair market rents”). In addition, there aren’t enough apartments in middle-income areas, especially better-off suburbs, so Section 8 voucher holders tend to be somewhat clustered in certain areas, although much less so than residents of public housing. Landlords are more willing to accept Section 8 vouchers when housing markets are loose (i.e., vacancies are high) and they are somewhat desperate for rental income.
These are all problems that can be fixed through better enforcement, through tenant counseling (as shown by the Gautreaux program in Chicago), and through active recruitment of landlords.
Having said all this, I also think that a better way to increase the incomes of the working poor, so that they can have access to better housing, is to add a housing component to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, varying the benefit levels to account for differences in housing costs in different parts of the country. I describe this idea in some detail in a recent article in Shelterforce, so I won’t go into detail here.
There are, of course, other ways to increase the incomes of the poor, which will provide them with more housing choices. The best social program, after all, is a good job that pays a living wage. One way to do this is to increase the federal minimum wage to at least the poverty level, which would be about $9.50-per-hour. Another is to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which would level the playing field between workers and management, and give workers more rights on the job, including removing current impediments to union organizing. Workers in unions have better pay, benefits and working condition than workers with similar skills and experience who are not in a union.
Dealing with the income side of the housing quagmire — whether addressed through more Section 8 vouchers, the EITC, the minimum wage, or unionization — is important, but we need to also build more affordable housing to increase the supply and we need to remove the obstacles, like racial discrimination and exclusionary zoning, that limit housing construction and housing choices. All are needed to guarantee Americans decent housing.
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Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. He is a member of the boards of the National Housing Institute and the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing, and chair of the board of the Horizon Institute, a progressive think tank in Los Angeles.