The stark need for better policy on housing security

The stark need for better policy on housing security
© Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Under a cloudless summer sky, not far from the Atlantic Ocean, bicycles zip down the street, children sprawl in the few green public spaces, and senior citizens relax on porches. Utika Byrd’s two-bedroom, second-floor apartment blends into this active daytime scene on the south side of Pleasantville, New Jersey. Byrd can afford to live in one of Atlantic County’s most economically depressed neighborhoods in large part because of a housing choice voucher (HCV) — the largest federal housing subsidy program, commonly known as Section 8, which gives low-income people access to the private housing market.

In a time of unprecedented housing insecurity and shrinking affordability, we need to expand access and protections to HCVs for people of color to integrate racially homogenous affluent neighborhoods.

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In May, the House passed a bipartisan funding bill for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that included $50 million to implement the Housing Voucher Mobility Demonstration Act: $30 million for housing mobility services and $20 million for new vouchers. The House Appropriations Committee’s funding bill report noted that “low-income families, including voucher holders, tend to be concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods where schools are under-resourced, transportation is limited, and well-paying jobs are scarce. This demonstration will … help families with children seek housing and successfully move to privately-owned units in lower-poverty areas.”

Housing vouchers shield more than 2 million families from hemorrhaging more than half their income for shelter and mitigate some of the social anxiety induced by crime-ridden streets, underfunded public schools and limited access to life-sustaining jobs.

However, unaddressed landlord discrimination and unequal access to reliable transportation constrain a person’s housing decisions even with a mobility voucher. Some landlords try to set qualifications that disqualify a person from renting, such as not having enough income. Though no one tracks national statistics on voucher discrimination, participants in Washington, D.C., experienced housing discrimination at least 28 percent of the time despite more than a decade of education and advocacy.

As Richard Rothstein writes in “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America,” HUD and local public housing authorities were not even required to offer housing vouchers to black persons dislocated from public housing until 1998 — decades after white families started using vouchers to subsidize their relocation to private rentals.

Currently in the United States, 11 million renters commit at least 50 percent of their monthly income to secure housing. The “American Dream” appears fictitious when full-time, minimum-wage workers bring home slightly more than $15,000 in some parts of the nation — hardly enough money to rent a studio apartment in the gentrified neighborhoods of New York’s Harlem or Chicago’s South Side.

Housing income barriers exist in every county in America. The gap between income-strapped households and affordable housing continues to widen, as detailed in a 2017 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. More than a case of personal predilection or individual bias, this is because of housing policy and structural inequity.

Gentrification regularly prompts the discontinuation of long-tenured housing without sensitivity to the economic future of those who are displaced. Under the guise of urban renewal, municipalities partner with private developers to renovate the landscape, often necessitating the demolition of public housing accommodating non-white tenants. Without guarantees of rental equality and enforceable anti-discrimination policies to govern landlords, this predatory displacement masked as redevelopment unbinds family arrangements and exacerbates economic insecurity.

Amid such traumatizing displacement, HCVs could become passports out of economically forsaken neighborhoods, providing a glimpse of familial and residential security. The stigma associated with public housing has not layered the housing subsidies historically offered to white working-class families. However, many black and Latinx voucher holders experience unchecked denials from property managers and landlords when they venture into more affluent neighborhoods.

As the Harvard report confirms, voucher recipients live under pressure to find housing within a specified timeframe. Time constraints, financial uncertainty and landlord discrimination compel  many renters to elect to remain in familiar communities, despite questionable private accommodations that often rival the conditions of failing public housing. A six-year tenant of her current landlord, Byrd says it’s “easier to stay in Pleasantville. I also find that there are more minority private owners here, who [accept voucher] tenants because they don’t have to keep their properties up to par.”

A call for universal, affordable housing initiates a new social contract with those assaulted by the choice to pay rent or purchase groceries. To make ends meet, many rent-burdened families devote as much as 53 percent less on food, health care and transportation combined than households without cost burdens. These mothers and fathers fill their refrigerators and tables with more economical food options, which almost always are less nutritious. Hunger and sickness haunt the hearts of parents and curtail the possibilities of children.

Although not a panacea for social change, a universal guarantee of housing security, dignity and affordability safeguards families from some of the tentacles of poverty. We need policy that:   

  • Requires local housing authorities to recruit landlords in economically diverse neighborhoods to participate in the housing mobility demonstration;
  • Legislates federal protection for HCV holders against racial bias and income discrimination by landlords and property managers;
  • Implements racial equity education and fair housing seminars for landlords and property managers;
  • Educates the public and voucher holders about their rights as program participants; and
  • Provides voucher-holders with concentrated assistance in the search process.

Housing insecurity and class isolation are moral wounds festering at the heart of our nation’s cities, dictating school graduation rates, health outcomes and life expectancies. We must offer people a better way out of poverty.

Willie D. Francois is senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, and a fellow at the Center for Community Change. He is co-author of “Christian Minister’s Manual: For the Pulpit and the Public Square for All Denomination” (2017).