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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 26, 2014

“Section 8” Is A Myth. What’s the REAL Problem Here?

I was going to conclude my series on Subsidized Housing with some thoughts on the questions you should be asking your public housing authority about why the Housing Choice Voucher Program operates so differently in your real world than it does in Bureaucracy World.  Disturbing news out of Norristown, Pennsylvania—and part of the reaction to it— suggest yet again that many of you have the right understanding of the core issue, but devote way too much of your anger at the wrong target.  So I will instead write about how the news from Norristown helps to put “Section 8” in a better context.  But the questions will be included.
The Norristown case involves those old favorites, cronyism and favoritism (it can be difficult to distinguish between them), and how useful it is to know people in the right places.  It appears that the Norristown’s housing inspector allowed a District Justice to rent out an apartment without a license, and presumably, inspections.  He has been relieved of his job, and everyone eagerly awaits further revelations, or at least news.
Part (and only part, I am pleased to say) of the reaction has been to reflexively lump this case under “Section 8”.  That’s where my problem comes in.  The tenant in this case did not hold such a voucher.  She is a woman who has worked hard all her life, is now elderly but still pays the full rent.  “Section 8” simply doesn’t apply in this case, but it certainly helps to make my point about how people see a housing issue in their community and automatically blame it on  “Section 8”. 
What has happened in Norristown cuts to the very core of the housing issues in many towns.  The Norristown case—and the response to it—offer a microcosm of what takes place in the minds of a great many all over this country.  Some of you have focused from the beginning on the real issue, the (alleged) corruption, but there are those who require little incentive to damn a welfare program before establishing the facts.  The result is no action, exactly when action is warranted.

Myths are accepted, not fought, and “Section 8” is a myth.  Not the program itself, but what putting the term in quotation marks signifies, that so many layers of spin and misinformation that have been lathered on the reality as to hide its actual shape.  There is truth at the core of every myth; but once people have coated it again and again with their personal/political agendas, the truth is obscured beneath them, and by accepting the myth people believe what the spin doctors want them to, not the truth. 
The most pernicious aspect of the “Section 8” myth is how it discourages people from actually doing something about the housing problems they see all around them.  When people drive by a depressed neighborhood, past the dilapidated residences and trash-strewn yards, where residents seem to have nothing better to do but hang out all day, how many do you suppose quickly think “Section 8”?  Once they do that, the battle is lost.  After all, It’s Section 8; it’s a Federal giveaway.  We can’t do anything about it.
There are two misstatements contained here.  First, it’s probably not “Section 8,” and second, you can do something about it.  You can call your local housing authority and complain.  Here’s where those questions I was going to focus on come into play.  Don’t just call and complain; know what violations are taking place and ask the right questions to find out why.  Remember, in the absence of you pointing out a failure to comply with a regulation, a government bureaucracy isn’t going to do anything.  Here are just a few of the basic questions; you can take it from here.
Does the authority’s employees perform those required inspections, or does it contract them out?  What do they look for?  There is pretty much a standard building code in place across this area, so are its standards the same as those of the municipality?  Do re-inspections take place?  If so, how often and for what reasons?  I suggest you obtain copies of the “Housing Assistance Payments Contract” that I mentioned previously to find out what the landlord should be doing.  Anyone interested in doing something about HCV problems in their neighborhood should start with obtaining a copy of that contract.  Armed with that and your own eyes, locate a specific problem and report it to the housing authorityRemember my earlier point about attacking each case on an individual basis; have the basic facts—dates, addresses—available when you call.  Wait for follow-up, then repeat as required until results are achieved.  Notice that I did not use the word “names”.  It’s actually best to avoid them; the safeguards for personal privacy are many and unforgiving.  I’ll bet we never learn exactly what the Norristown Codes Inspector actually did, because that comes under “personnel matters” and will be kept private.
If it’s not “Section 8,” you can call and complain anyway; just call the phone number for the Codes Enforcement department of your local municipality.  In fact, always call that number first.  After all, shouldn’t the supervision you want to see in the HCV Program also be taking place next door, where no voucher exists?  Can you tell the difference between a house not properly monitored by the MCHA and one not properly monitored by your municipality?  And besides, aren’t ALL houses supposed to be subject to municipal standards, whether inhabited by a HCV recipient or not? 
What’s the Real Problem Here?  Aren’t we really talking about slipshod work, overlooked violations, cronyism and favoritism in the administration of our towns themselves?  Does it really matter whether the house is “Section 8” or not?  Shouldn’t ALL housing be held to the same standards of codes and regulations?
If all you really want to do is bitch, then by all means complain about “Section 8”.  You’re right actually.  The Federal Government is not going to do anything about the program until the next major shakeup in Congress, and it is certainly not going to do anything based on your request (or mine).  Thus you get to do what you really want to do—complain—secure in the knowledge that the target of your ire will be unaffected, and therefore available to you in the future.
But if your goal is to actually make things better, stop obsessing on "Section 8," Housing Choice Vouchers, Public Housing or any of that.  Events in Norristown offer an opportunity to focus on what I less than humbly suggest is the much bigger problem.  The emerging--but already smelly--story in Norristown is right on point about conditions in too many of our municipalities today, and says a lot more about how money, connections and the corruption that results from their intersection than any individual "Section 8" abuse story ever could.  It's a bigger issue, because it can encompass many "Section 8" components and still rank them rather low on any cost-to-our-communities scale. Communities the size of Norristown and Pottstown, Pennsylvania--not to mention larger ones--face housing issues with many facets, and all the "Section 8" programs lumped together are actually just a component of them.  Abuse in these programs exists alongside abuse that has nothing to do with it.  Let's stop using a buzzword to explain away a problem and instead learn more about the real world before we identify the villain and demand reforms.  The root of the CORRECTABLE problems in both Norristown and Pottstown--and I submit, elsewhere--lies in the porous collection of inspections, corrections and follow-up that is supposed to see that the rules are actually being followed regardless of whose rules they are.  That's why you pay taxes to your municipality as well as to the Federal Government; not just to write laws and regulations, but to enforce them.  Complain about taxation--and what it is spent on--all you want, and see what it gets you.  But if you unite and offer specific positive suggestions, your voice in your community can actually change things for the better.  It's up to you.