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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why So Many Section 8 Vouchers in Norristown and Pottstown?

Let me begin with two statements that may seem contradictory, but are not:

1.  Housing choice vouchers serve a real need, and more should be funded.

2.  There are too many housing choice vouchers in both Norristown and Pottstown.

The facts back up both statements.  True to my word in a previous post, I’m not going to question the premise behind the Housing Choice Voucher Program, a component of what pretty much everyone refers to as “Section 8”.  Affordable housing is a major need across the entire nation.  The statistics and stories to back this up are readily available.  As far as I am concerned, the issues arise from how well a government program addresses a problem, not whether it should exist at all, and that’s what I’m going to look at.

As I also promised, I will begin with a look at the way things are now (or at last recently).  Last week I referenced a document on the Norristown municipal website entitled “2012 Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice for Norristown”.  I cherry picked an “Impediment” in order to ridicule both its premise and conclusion, but this week I utilize some of its basic numbers, about which there is no dispute, and certainly not by me.  The dispute arises over what the numbers mean.

“Section 8” is a more complex set of programs than most people realize, but it’s best known for “housing choice vouchers,” given to low-income individuals to help them afford rental housing.  If there is a more controversial Federal government program, I don’t know what it is.  It’s also been around for a while; the law creating the original Section 8 program was passed in 1974, and signed by President Ford.  The 1974 Act was itself a modification of a much older one that dates back to the New Deal.  And by the way, it is technically not even “Section 8” anymore, although most continue to use the phrase.  I would like to avoid “Section 8” because of the baggage it carries; it long ago became a buzzword for a wider set of problems. So “housing choice vouchers” it is, at least for that component of the “tenant-based” half of the program (I told you it was complicated).

Let’s start with the basic facts.  There are 62 municipalities in Montgomery County, and the holder of a housing choice voucher can theoretically exercise that voucher in any one of them.  There are 2,625 Vouchers in effect in the county, located in 55 of those municipalities.  The boroughs of Athyn, Green Lane and Jenkintown, plus the townships of Salford, Skippack, Upper Frederick and Worcester have none.

I extracted information from the “Impediments” document to prepare the table below.  It lists the eleven most populous municipalities in Montgomery County, in descending order.  Each name is followed by the percentage of the county population it contains, the number of vouchers being exercised there, and its percentage of the total number of vouchers in the county (I have rounded up the percentages expressed in hundredths).  I include eleven instead of the usual ten for this type of list because it allows me to include Pottstown, which helps to make my point.

Municipality               % of County Population            # of Vouchers         % of Vouchers

Lower Merion                       7.2                                     95                           3.6
Abington                             6.9                                     78                           3.0
Cheltenham                         4.6                                     54                           2.1
Norristown                           4.3                                 1,115                         42.5
Upper Merion                       3.5                                     19                             .7
Horsham                             3.3                                       7                             .3
Upper Dublin                       3.2                                       2                             .1
Lower Providence                3.2                                       5                             .2
Upper Moreland:                  3.0                                     59                            2.2
Montgomery                        3.1                                       4                             .2
Pottstown                            2.8                                   452                          17.2

Do any of the numbers above jump out at you?  Those for Norristown and Pottstown sure should.

Norristown is the county’s fourth most populous municipality, making up 4.3% of the total county population, yet it hosts almost 43% of the housing choice vouchers in the entire county.  The three municipalities with larger populations--Lower Merion, Abington and Cheltenham—together host 227 housing vouchers, barely 20% of the number in Norristown alone.  To call this a striking disparity is being kind.  Also, did you know that Norristown’s 1,115 housing vouchers represent almost 16% of Norristown’s total occupied rental units?  Such a number of houses inhabited by families that require assistance to pay their rent has a hugely depressive effect on the community.

Now let’s add Pottstown to the mix.  It is only the county’s eleventh most populous municipality, comprising a mere 2.8% of the county’s population, but it hosts far and away the second largest number of vouchers, 452.  That’s 17.2% of those in the entire county.  Consider also that the total number of vouchers in the nine municipalities with greater populations than Pottstown (excluding Norristown) is 323.  They collectively host but 71% of what Pottstown does all by itself.

Norristown and Pottstown together house 1,567 of the county’s total of 2,625 vouchers.  In other words, two municipalities that together comprise barely 7% of the county’s population host almost 60% of its vouchers.  I would call that prima facie evidence that something has gone seriously wrong with the housing voucher program because that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“Tenant-based” vouchers were part of the move away from Public Housing, one of the most conspicuous failures in the history of urban policy.  Instead of locating the poor within a specific area (that’s called “segregation”), vouchers were designed to be “portable,” and thus to be used to improve a family’s condition in a better neighborhood, not to consign it to a fixed (usually bad) one. 

Consider this quote from “Section 8 Tenant-Based Housing Assistance; A Look Back After 30 Years,” issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in March, 2000:

The hallmark of the Section 8 Program is residential choice and mobility.  
Families may choose to live in any neighborhood they want if they can find 
a housing unit that is affordable under the rules of the program, that meets 
Housing Quality Standards, and that has an owner willing to participate in 
the program.  This permits a family to make a housing selection based upon 
any number of factors including access to employment or transportation; the 
quality of the schools; the characteristics of the housing or the neighborhood; 
or nearness to family, friends, church, or other community facilities or services."
                                                                                                           (Page 10)

Lack of mobility was one of the earliest criticisms of the Federal Housing Program, and housing choice vouchers were created in response.  The idea emerged from two Federal Government Acts, passed in 1983 and 1987 (yes, that right, during the Reagan Administration!).  The primary message of the “Look Back After 30 Years” document was to highlight these changes to demonstrate that the program had improved.  “Portability” is one of its proudest boasts. 

The idea behind housing choice vouchers was to spread their recipients around the county, to integrate them into the local communities.  The above figures suggest it has had almost the opposite effect, at least in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Now that we know how things actually are, and that it's pretty much the opposite of what was intended, we can move on to the hard part.  The data on housing choice vouchers raise a number of questions, but we will keep things as simple as possible and just ask "Why"?  It's a short question, with several long, complex and not necessarily complimentary answers.  We will begin to examine them next time.