"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 29, 2014

Housing Subsidies, Housing Vouchers; It’s Complicated, People!

Last week I discussed the unpleasant fact that the Housing Choice Voucher Program is specifically designed to help low-income families to somewhat better housing, whether you describe it as “medium-quality” or “modest”.  The Benjamins then do their part, as too many better neighborhoods are simply out of reach for a voucher household.  Please don’t jump to conclusions; this does not begin to excuse the result when that result so concentrates housing vouchers in just a few communities.  That is simply unacceptable.
I am proposing the exact opposite of acceptance; the need is for correction.  Correction, in turn, requires understanding the way things are and why they actually got that way, rather than seeing in a situation what you have already decided you want to see.  This has been my mantra from the beginning, and in “Section 8” I can see no other subject more in need of this approach (Okay, “Obamacare” probably ranks higher today, but “Section 8” has been around a lot longer).
That’s why I don’t like the term “Section 8”.  The phrase long ago became a buzzword, employed only to deliver unspoken messages to those who hear it.  Several completely different programs, administered at different levels of government, comprise the available spectrum of rental housing subsidies.  They are lumped together in the public consciousness as “Section 8,” and the result is predictable: the frequent exchanging of nonsense someone read on the Internet. 
I separated out Public Housing in a previous post, because it does not belong in the same conversation as Housing Choice Vouchers or Low Income Tax Credits.  Or at least I tried to.  A reader proceeded to comment about how they seem to be owned by just a few landlords.  This is an example of the honest, but all-too prevalent confusion that results from lumping together very different programs under one buzzword.  Public Housing is completely free of “private landlords”; when you see a problem, you know who to call: the MCHA. 
Public Housing is pretty much unique in its administration, but vouchers and LITC subsidies do involve private landlords.  That’s an important shared quality, and we will return to it.  The programs themselves, however, are completely different, and there are others that show up from time to time in new development proposals.  Any rational attempt to correct the all-too-apparent problems with the programs first requires an understanding of how they are different and what each is actually designed to do.
The various subsidy programs to builders should be discussed by the individual case, whether we are talking about earlier projects—such as the conversion of Rittenhouse School in Norristown—or any new ones that appear (here’s where I get to mention “Pennrose” once more).  Their boundaries can be easily identified, and the discussion focused.  Housing Choice Subsidies possess no boundaries, at least theoretically.  Last week’s post should begin to clear up why that doesn’t happen, but there is more to examine.  The obvious financial boundary I discussed last week does not by itself explain why so many vouchers end up within the boundaries of Norristown and Pottstown.  There are additional reasons.
It is time for me to disappoint some of you by rejecting the argument that the concentration of housing choice vouchers in Norristown and Pottstown is the result of some sort of conspiracy.  The staff of the Montgomery County Housing Authority is not meeting in secret devising ways to lure people to Norristown and Pottstown.  At the same time, I am not any more willing to believe that every recipient of a housing choice voucher chose to live in Norristown or Pottstown because that’s where they wanted to go than I am that someone simply threw a dart at a map blindfolded to locate public housing.  Reality has this annoying way of being complex, despite our best efforts to ignore that basic fact.  There are several aspects to the problems of housing choice vouchers and moral judgments—particular quick ones—should be avoided, if possible.  The evidence is incontrovertible, but a conspiracy is not a necessary part of the explanation.  Norristown and Pottstown have become “dumping grounds,” even if no one has performed any conscious “dumping,” and the blame for that can be spread around.
They are not in Norristown and Pottstown because of a conspiracy, but they are also not there just through the workings of “market forces” either.  They weren’t dumped there, they weren’t directed there, they didn’t end up there because they need other services, nor for any other reason or even combination of reasons.  Why?  Because "THEY" DO NOT EXIST.  They” are a collection of individuals, with individual reasons for being in the program.  What we must all do is begin by rejecting any explanation that results from viewing Housing Choice Voucher recipients as being any one thing, regardless of what that is.  Allusions to homogeneity, regardless of what they focus on, tend to trigger visceral reactions that deliver subtle, often subconscious judgments that are not justified by the collection of individual realities that actually exist.  Voucher holders exist across a broad spectrum; from second or third generation recipients for whom this condition has become a way of life to those who are on it temporarily because of individual circumstance, often health related.  People enter the program, people leave it, just not nearly enough of them; dependency is clearly an issue.  The voucher program aids many of those who need it most, and some of them show their gratitude by scamming it.  You might perhaps remember that I have previously written about “gaming the system from below,” and the principle certainly applies here.
All this exists, and more (Wait until I get to discussing the part landlords play in this).  Recognition doesn’t mean acceptance, and is absolutely necessary if you actually want to do something about the problem other than just denounce its results.  The point is that ANY and EVERY attempt to lump voucher recipients under one classification will produce conclusions that are self-defeating if translated into action.

Next week I take a look at the central player in this complex maze, the Montgomery County Housing Authority, and how we must understand it for what it is if we are to have any positive effect in correcting the evident shortcomings of the Housing Choice Voucher Program.