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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 5, 2014

Housing Choice Vouchers: What Can You Expect From A Bureaucracy?


The problems that Housing Choice Vouchers present to Norristown and Pottstown—as well as other towns—need to be addressed.  The question is not who is to blame, but who is to blame for what.  Our focus is on the central player in this ongoing drama, the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA).  The question thus becomes what can we realistically expect from it, and in what areas?  The key to that, in turn, lies in understanding just what the MCHA is.  That’s no mystery, it’s a Government Bureaucracy, and that is a beast we need to understand at a very fundamental level.  The fact that it is a Federal bureaucracy only makes it more dispersed than any other level, and thus the hardest to target.  Bureaucracy is sensitive to only a few, carefully targeted pressures; most of those applied are wide of the mark, and are shed like water off a duck’s back, to no discernible effect. 
At the root of this is the fundamental disconnect between bureaucracy and the real world.  The fiercest critics of the MCHA are those who live in the real world, often near its clients.  They view the problems on an individual basis, and at no small risk to themselves.  They know something is wrong, not just because of the numbers around them, but in the behavior of all too many of the program’s beneficiaries, their neighbors.  This viewpoint is widely shared at the municipal level, for all the obvious reasons.  If those in closest contact with voucher recipients issued grades for program achievement, the MCHA would probably flunk.
Did you know that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does grade each of its local housing authorities on how they do their job?  And did you know that the MCHA routinely receives an “A” grade?  How can this be, if local discontent is so rife?  This is actually one of those rare cases where the answer is simple: the MCHA earns its high grade by strict adherence to the regulations that govern its work, not by striving to address the issues that those regulations create when they interact with the real world.  It’s not that the people don’t care, they do.  They are professionally trained in a field that does not pay all that well and offers little emotional job satisfaction, but they do it anyway and would like to continue.  That means they do it strictly according to the regulations, and to them alone.
I cannot emphasize this too strongly.  There is nothing strange at all about this, every organization does i.  Policies and adherence to them are rigidly enforced, in fields that range from finance to football.  Government bureaucracies alone, however, are not required to “win,” offer the best service, beat the competition, offer a better price, whatever.  There is usually no competition, because no one has figured out a way to make money doing it.  In such a structure, career advancement begins with—and depends on—rigid adherence to the rules.  That’s the core of the disconnect, because bureaucracies undertake the activities that require dealing with a great many people, who thus present a great many difficulties interpreting just how they fit into the regulations.  And they must fit into the established niches; a bureaucracy has no choice but to assign them to one if they are to do anything for them at all.  This holds true in all fields, at all levels.  Few of you deal with HUD, but each of you deals with the DMV, right?  Need I say more?  Rigidity does tend to increase as you go up the government food chain, but it is evident everywhere.
Bureaucracies are the worst in insisting on fitting a complex reality into a rigidly arranged structure, but let’s be fair here.  How many of you work for a company that allows you to deviate from its policy?  Or lets you allocate money in different amounts or to different people that the rules specify?  Thought so.  So why expect it from a bureaucracy?  Remember, it’s spending YOUR tax money.  Don’t you want every precaution taken to avoid waste and graft?  Do you really want a Federal agency to be able to just experiment with your money?
In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that after my graduation from college, I worked in a Federal bureaucracy.  My time was spent playing a very small role in what in what I believe to be a contender for the title of “most colossal and corrupt bureaucratic waste of money ever”.  I also know a little something about trying to help those most in need with entirely inadequate resources while adhering strictly to rules written by the type of bureaucracy whose office has no windows to the real world.  I loved my work, but I quickly established an adversary relationship with the Federal bureaucracy itself, and hence my tenure was brief.  The fundamental lesson, however, has stayed with me, and has remained relevant in my later professional studies.  It provides a clarifying filter through which to understand what you can get a bureaucracy to do, and what you can’t.
While conducting an interview at the MCHA, and despite my hard-earned underlying assumption about what the answer would be, I asked Joel Johnson and his assembled staff what plans they had to address the problem of too many housing vouchers in specific locations.  Their answer was prompt and delivered without hesitation.  They plan to do nothing further than the one thing they already do.   They do it because it’s the only thing HUD allows them to do, and even that’s optional.  They wouldn’t lose any grade points if they didn’t do it.  The lesson is clear: do not look to a bureaucracy for new ideas; there is virtually no reason for one to generate them.
Real, fundamental change in the several HUD programs we lump together as “Section 8” will require careful, reasoned action by Congress, and we all know that’s not going to happen anytime soon.  So, if we actually want to do some good, let’s look at what can be accomplished under the existing program regulations.  In a previous post I argued that we can only discuss Public Housing or any of the various Low Income Housing Tax Credit programs on an individual basis.  Last week I made the too-often overlooked point that vouchers are not held by any “THEY”.  That means that issues with Housing Choice Vouchers also need to be addressed on an individual basis.  Recipients are individuals, and deserve that.  The MCHA only administers regulations, but it interacts individually with each recipient household and each landlord to ensure that relevant portions of its regulations are enforced.  Or at least it is supposed to.  These are the areas where public pressure, properly applied has a chance of being effective.  So, let’s focus on actually making things better, and save your venting for Facebook.

This week's post was about what you can't get a bureaucracy to do.  Next week we get more detailed and discuss what the MCHA is actually supposed to do.  That's where you, the readers, get to chime in, because you know the reality in your neighborhoods.  I will work on getting that message passed along, and together we will monitor what happens, or doesn't.  It's a long-term endeavor, and very tiresome, but it's worth it.