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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 12, 2014

Housing Choice Vouchers: Here's What Is SUPPOSED To Happen

In Bureaucracy World, the Housing Choice Voucher Program works precisely like this:
A household seeking a voucher applies to the MCHA.  He/she fills out several forms, wherein he/she lists each person in the household and all sources of income, among other things.
The MCHA conducts background checks, including a criminal one, to make sure that all voucher recipients are of good character and honest.  It totals the household income and determines the critical 30% figure that the household can pay for rent.  It then calculates how much assistance will be given, i.e., the difference between the 30% figure and “The Fair Market Rent”.
With everything in place, the household then seeks out housing for which it has qualified (that pretty much means number of bedrooms).
Once the household has found housing of the right size whose landlord is willing to submit to the rigorous standards that will be imposed on him, the MCHA again enters the picture.
Every potential housing unit is first inspected by the MCHA, thus ensuring that it meets all current code standards.  If any deficiencies are found, the landlord quickly makes them good until the MCHA is satisfied.  The potential landlord then signs a “Housing Assistance Payments Contract” with the MCHA, in which he devoutly promises to follow the rules.
Once everyone is satisfied and all standards fully met, the landlord and the tenant execute a standard lease, and the household moves into its new home.  They faithfully pay their share of the rent—and dutifully report all future changes in either household income or composition—while the landlord ensures that they continue to live in a safe and healthy environment, the MCHA punches another ticket toward its “A” grade, and everyone lives happily afterward.  God Bless America.
What a wonderful world this would be.  Of course, that phrase comes from the song about the guy who “don’t know nothing ‘bout history,” so be advised.
Let’s examine the basic structure of this all-American fantasy for its weak spots, because they are where The Benjamins leak out.  We will climb our way up the leakage scale, because more leakage means more expense to you, the taxpayer.  Let’s follow the money, continuously asking the same question: who stands to profit by not following the rules?
The voucher program is a tri-party arrangement; the housing authority, the income-eligible household and the private sector landlord.  If each fulfills its end of the bargain, then harm is mitigated, and the larger good may actually surpass the local damage done.  Maybe.  If any party fails in its obligations, however, it only encourages one or both of the others to do so also.  An increasing scale of harm results. 
If the failure is on the part of the tenant, it is in the interests of both the landlord and the housing authority to either correct the failure or expel the tenant.  Money is usually involved somehow, but neither the landlord or the housing authority stands to profit (Yes, the landlord may be “in on it,” but let’s keep a reasonable balance here).
If the landlord fails to keep his part of the bargain, things get complicated because the profit motive enters into it, at least for the landlord, who has a very personal understanding of the concept.  Correcting the problem is in the interests of both the tenant and the housing authority, but ratting out one’s landlord is rarely in the interests of the tenant, so the housing authority may not even be informed of it.
If, however, the housing authority fails to do what it is supposed to do—properly monitor the reality of what the other two components are doing—then both the other components have the opportunity for illicit profit.  Both are also prime candidates for seizing such an opportunity, so trouble is pretty much guaranteed.
That’s why we will conclude this financial ascent focusing on the MCHA.  Ironically, that’s where you will find by far the least actual malfeasance, but how diligently the MCHA performs the functions it is supposed to do makes all the difference, either opening or closing loopholes through which the two other components either profit improperly or be forced to obey the rules, as the case may be.
That’s also why I begin with malfeasance by the tenant.  It is frequently the most obvious and is the most castigated because it is the most wrong in the eyes of most people.  I’m going to disagree with that assessment based solely on my adherence to The Benjamins as my guiding criteria, not by comparing the heinousness of various crimes.  Tenant malfeasance in the Housing Choice Voucher Program is yet another example of “gaming the system from the bottom”.  I don’t ignore it, I don’t mitigate it, I encourage relentless pursuit and elimination of all examples of it, but I contend that “gaming the system from the top” costs us all a lot more.  It’s nowhere near as obvious, and easy to overlook.  But if you follow the money, it’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you end up.  That is the route we will follow, and the next post moves up the scamming ladder, because we will add the possibility of profit that is legal, although of dubious morality.  
The real cost of tenant malfeasance is very locally focused, in the immediate neighborhood, and The Benjamins are only one method of measuring it.  That real cost to a neighborhood and its people is the reason I’m going to wrap up this post with some non-advice about what to do.  There is not necessarily any actual difference between malfeasance and crime, so it’s best you stay as far as possible from both.  I don’t want to ignore this enormously important aspect of the problem, but neither am I qualified to make any valuable contribution to those who find themselves among it.  I would never offer any fatuous, from a distance advice to anyone about how to deal with a situation in your neighborhood.  There are several things more important than The Benjamins, and always put them first.
Let me finish with a question.  Why, given “what everybody knows about housing voucher holders,” would a potential landlord even consider entering a program when they could easily—and legally—avoid it and all the obvious hassle?

Gee, what do you think?