Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Let's talk Housing: Part One

So this morning I opened up the NY Times and saw their story on Section 8 and New York Rentals. And it made me think of a conversation that I had with my father a few weeks ago about the way "low income" people are treated in the US. For those who don't know, Section 8 is a housing subsidy that is provided to low income families that allows them to pay approximately 30 percent of "fair market rent." This program has been the "escape" for many out of substandard housing and particularly public housing. I remember years ago coming across Section 8 housing when a friend rented to a family on Section 8, I immediately thought, this is a really good idea. Why would we relegate people with lesser financial means to ghettos and cramped public housing, when they could possibly rent a house with a yard or at least a little grass... alas my idealism betrayed me. Section 8 on paper was liberating, revolutionary, and logical, however it's reality was tied up in people's "housing choices" and thus protected like the ring by Golem.

Now if there is one thing I realized in all those years of policy school is that Americans are definitely wed to their belief in "choices". Despite the fact that low-income people are often limited by middle and upper-class folks choices, the notion of free will (for the privileged) is fought for tooth and nail. Housing is the perfect example of this. How do we truly reduce segregation? We'd probably have to seriously limit the locations that people could move. How do we un-concentrate poverty? A similar need for regulation rears it's head. While classic economists would suggest the "market" would regulate itself, the only equilibrium in the market is that the poor end up stacked next to each other and the rich end up stacked next to each other. While middle and upper income people are given latitude about their potential locations and thus end up in suburban affluent spaces, poor people continue to be carted into substandard housing or given hopes of a "free market" with Section 8 vouchers.

As the article describes many landlords are not accepting section 8 or other housing programs. How is it illegal to say, "we do not accept people with children" but it is legal to say, "we do not accept programs (read poor people)?" A couple of months back when I called an ad to inquire about housing the first two things out of the landlord or brokers mouth were, "We don't accept programs. How much do you make?" No "hi", no "what unit are you interested in?" just a clear statement POOR PEOPLE NEED NOT APPLY. In NY and in many cities, having a section 8 voucher or other housing program is like having a hunting license, what you find is up to you and if often not what you thought you could capture. The freedoms which we allow rentors to ignore housing programs is equivalent to asking the poor to gamble their future location. How good would you be at sinking the Section 8 ball?

Now some of you reading this will undoubtedly be students of urban development and contend that housing vouchers are great, mixed income facilities are great and they represent the best choice options for low income folks these days. But the reality that people searching for housing or being displaced from housing are high stakes. My father works for a housing project not far from where he lives now and for almost a year he's been in a mode of perpetual frustration. The local city government has been doing everything possible to eliminate public housing and replace it with a private housing development. They've cut back on programing for residents, hired consultants to introduce a "new housing model", told the residents they'd be given choices when the new development came along, the whole nine. This new model, of course, starts with a bulldozing of the projects and the development of a mixed income facility. While many people will be put out of homes, a few will be given access to a lottery so they can compete for the "affordable" units in the new PRIVATE development. The remaining residents MAY be eligible for relocation via voucher programs, assuming they meet the criterion for being in good standing with the local housing authority which will be established AFTER the projects are bulldozed. I can't make this stuff up, I promise!

All that to say, as we continue to re-develop and provide "options" to low-income people, I argue we are running dangerously close to continuing to limiting their options. Until there is some form of (enforceable)legislation, federal and local, that regulates the ability of people to reject vouchers, destroy public housing for private developments, and truly relocate poor families to suitable housing, we'll continue to fool ourselves into thinking our current system is working. While we have been undergoing re-development and renewal for years now, we still have few answers about the people who are displaced and when they answers do come along, they certainly aren't trotted across the papers or into the public's ears. The silences we have around housing and income housing discrimination are actually deafening. I hadn't fully realized this until a recent class when I was at a lost for words. One of my students asked me, "When they're gentrifying, where do all the poor people from Harlem go." I paused, thought, and responded, "I don't really know."


Scott said...

re: '"When they're gentrifying, where do all the poor people from Harlem go." I paused, thought, and responded, "I don't really know."'

From what I've heard and read from people researching this stuff more recently, turnover rates in lower-income areas is almost always very high -- poor people in tend to move once a year or more. When neighborhoods begin to "gentrify" this rate actually slows down -- which suggests people try harder to stick around -- but doesn't stop, so it doesn't take long for demographic displacement to happen, without really affecting the individual displacement rate.

Where they go is elsewhere in the neighborhood or to another neighborhood or out of the city entirely, which is where they probably would have gone in any case.

Annah said...

"The silences we have surrounding...housing discrimination are deafening." Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. I worked as an advocate in New York for several years--my first day on the job, I was informed that Section 8 was the best option for people moving out of homeless or domestic violence shelters. The other option? A different homeless shelter. A New York City Housing Authority employee actually suggested that I encourage my clients to move outside the city or upstate, where it is supposedly cheaper to live.

Then I go to grad school for social work, and I find that no one has ever heard of Section 8 or public housing or "mixed income" units.

P.S. The organization I worked for conducted a study of landlords in NY and concluded that less than 9% accepted "programs" such as Section 8.

Scott said...

The problems with housing vouchers go way back. This was also a huge problem during the Robert Moses era urban renewal and highway building programs. When Moses would plow a highway through a neighborhood, he'd promise everyone who was dislocated would receive housing in the newly constructed housing projects if they were unable to find suitable housing, but when people actually tried to make use of the assistance provided, they were mostly shown very poor quality housing as their only option, and very few actually made it into the new construction.

This time around it's private money and development doing the displacement for the most part, so it's a little more frustrating than when one could demonize the autocratic Moses. The city isn't doing enough to balance the ill effects but they're not the primary driver of displacement this time.

Housing shortages are a difficult problem to solve. There are really two big picture solutions to the problem (short of encouraging poorer people to leave). One is to make the city a less desirable place to be so people with money stop showing up to push out people without money. The other option is to massively add to the housing stock to keep up with demand. Given the already tight density of the city, this isn't easy to do, especially since NIMBYs hate buildings bigger than the ones already in their neighborhood ...

Anonymous said...

The real story is that "In NY and in many cities, having a [a job] is like having a hunting license, what you find is up to you and if often not what you thought you could capture." Real estate is a blood sport in this town. Go read NyTimes real estate section or curbed.com if you don't belive me. Why should we make it any easier for poor people?