"Section 8": The Myths of Low Income Housing in the U.S.
Section 8: The Myth of Low Income Housing in the U.S.
By Kirsten Anderberg (http://www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Written on Sept. 19, 2008
When people hear about the U.S. government’s Section 8 voucher program for low income housing, they think it sounds idyllic. The program boasts it pays going rates on rentals, and that the renter may choose the unit, and the low income renter only pays one third of his income as rent, with the Section 8 program paying the remainder. But in reality, many times Section 8 vouchers aren’t worth the paper they are written on in the housing market; no one will take them and/or there are no rents as low as the Section 8 maximum rent allowed and Section 8 will not allow the participant to pay the differences so as to meet the going rate for units. Some people wait *decades* in overpriced, sub-standard housing, or in homelessness, on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers. The Section 8 voucher program has many unspoken critical flaws in it, flaws that are well-known to Section 8 staff and participants but rarely voiced in print, which is why I am writing this article. I find that low income people are too exhausted trying to survive and/or were never “educated” in mainstream writing skills, or they do not feel safe enough from retaliation from authorities, or they just fear personal stigma for their poverty, and thus are not comfortable voicing an opinion about the problems with Section 8 in writing and publishing it, as I am here. But these critical problems that serve as constructive blockades to safe and decent housing for low income U.S. families need to be addressed.
The first glaring issue with Section 8 is that the program sets a cap for the maximum amount of rent a participant can pay for a rental unit. The rent for the unit must be at or below that Section 8 maximum amount, and that Section 8 maximum amount, of course, is set far below the rental market average. Ironically, Section 8 refers to this maximum cap for rent allowed as something like the “Fair Market Price,” but in reality, 90% or more of the units in any given area will usually be priced higher than the local housing authority will allow for Section 8 voucher use. If you do not believe me, then I challenge you to do some research. Google “Section 8 Voucher Program Standard Payment Allowed” and your city and state’s name. Look at the maximum rent allowed for a one bedroom apartment for one person. Now go to your local classified apartment ads, or Craigslist.org, and see how many units are at or below the rent allowed at your local Section 8 office. You will see what I am talking about. So, out of something like 100 listings, you will find 10, maybe, that meet the price limit allowed by Section 8. And Section 8 will not allow the participants to pay the difference. If a unit is renting for $1120 and Section 8 will only pay $1117, a Section 8 renter cannot pay the $3 difference but rather must forego the unit.
The second glaring problem with Section 8 is almost every apartment owner does not accept Section 8 vouchers. So let’s say you found some apartments within your price limit set by Section 8. Now you have to find a place in that small pool that takes Section 8 and surprisingly, a lot of lower end and cheap places refuse to take Section 8 due to past bad experiences with renters. Irregardless of those Equal Housing/No Discrimination signs all over, you can call apartment building after apartment building asking if they take Section 8 vouchers and 95% or more will say they do not take Section 8 vouchers on the first call on the phone. Don’t believe me? Then try it yourself. Pick up one of those For Rent magazines that are free all over, or go to Craigslist.org, and start calling places asking if they take Section 8 vouchers. Nearly every single one will say, up front, that they do not take Section 8, even though that is technically against the law, I believe. I tried this recently, and out of 300 apartments for rent that I called in the Los Angeles area, 3 said they take Section 8 vouchers!
The third obvious problem with Section 8 is the hurdle of proving “adequate income” to landlords while in poverty. So, let’s say you now have found your unit listed at lower than 90% of all other units on the market, and the landlord is one of the approximately 5% of landlords who take Section 8 vouchers, next the landlord will require proof you have an income of three times the full rental amount, which you will not be paying due to Section 8. Logically, you would maybe have to prove three times *your* portion of the rent, but very often, the landlord insists the renter prove three times the full rental amount. Paradoxically, if you made three times most normal rental amounts, you would not qualify for Section 8. For instance, if one person’s rent is $1100 in Los Angeles County, and their income is $3300 a month, they would make too much money to qualify for Section 8 in most situations. But if someone on Section 8 made $1000 a month income, and the rent was $1100, and they paid one third their income for the rent, which is $333, then he is within Section 8 standards. So at best, the renter should have to prove he makes 3 times $333, not 3 times $1100, but that is not how it plays out quite often. The only way the three times the full rent in income requirement can work with Section 8 is if you have some kind of odd arrangement, such as financial aid from school which does not count as income against Section 8 yet counts as income for the landlord, or self-employment *costs* working against income counted for Section 8, etc.
Another common hurdle is the insistence on good credit for Section 8 rentals. Section 8 participants are poor by definition and often do have poor credit, yet ironically much of that poor credit is based on nickel and dime debts that are quite small compared with average middle class Americans, as they were never given credit to buy houses, cars, and big ticket items to begin with. Also, many low income people have problems with debts in the past due to sky high rents and the lack of living wages. So once a Section 8 participant weeds out a rental unit cheaper than 90% of the listed units on the market, then finds one of 5% of those landlords who accept Section 8, a person can then sink $35 after $35 into applying to these places, even with meticulous rental histories and verifiable income that is adequate to pay rent, getting rejected due to “bad credit.” This can be quite a disillusioning experience, and one that wears on the soul, not just the pocketbook, rejection after rejection. In the “Housing Wanted” sections of Craigslist.org in cities all over the U.S., you see desperate ads by people with Section 8, pleading to be allowed to rent somewhere. Many people give up every month in exhaustion, not using their Section 8, forfeiting it after waiting years for it, as they could not find any way to actually use it for rent anywhere.
When you look at the bulk of listed rental prices in most American cities, and then look at the bulk of wages for jobs listed in the same area, and do the math, you will see a serious issue arising. The gap between wages and rent is staggering. I have spent most of my life working primarily to pay rent, first and foremost. On welfare, single mothers now, and for the last 20 years, have received approximately $440 a month from WA to OR to CA. There are few, if any, cities on the West Coast where you can find a rental unit for a mother and child for $440 a month. Nor could you find a rental unit for that price in 1990, or even 1980. In 1984, I was paying $550 rent a month. In 1994, I was paying $700 a month rent. In 2008, I was paying $900 a month rent. My mother has paid approximately $1000 a month rent for her apartment in Seattle for several decades now and she will die with nothing to show for it but a dirty empty apartment; in essence, she bought her landlord’s children land and houses, and not me, her own child, through that arrangement. Our family remains renters throughout generations with that arrangement, with me still renting and my adult son now renting, which behooves landlords, most certainly.
Another serious issue with Section 8 is instability. At whim, landlords can just stop accepting Section 8 or raise the rent to get rid of Section 8 renters. When a landlord raises the rent, it goes outside of the Section 8 allowed maximum rental amount often. This puts the Section 8 renter at risk of losing housing. I have seen this play out in several different ways. Once I saw a Section 8 renter kicked out over a $25 a month rental increase that Section 8 would not pay and would not let the renter pay. Due to that $25 a month rental increase, this single mom ended up paying thousands of dollars to move into a new unit that could raise the rent on her causing another move within a year. She also had to spend time homeless due to that increase in rent, trying to find anyone who would take Section 8, etc. Another scenario was one where the landlord increased the rent by $100 a month. Section 8 would not pay the increase but they worked out a $50 rental increase the tenant paid, and then made the Section 8 tenant pay utilities fees of $50 to the landlord when utilities had been included in rent before, so in essence, the renter ended up paying $100 more a month in rent, which now exceeded the purported 1/3 of income for rent guideline of Section 8. That Section 8 renter was paying nearly one half of her income for rent while on Section 8. Additionally, renters are terrified to leave units they rent, even when dilapidated, in fear of never finding another place that will rent to them, which adds to landlord abuse of Section 8 tenants.
There is a stigma with Section 8. It is considered a form of welfare and thus is not a source of pride to be receiving it, but rather, is supposedly a source of shame. People are mean to people on Section 8. Even calling apartments asking if they take Section 8, apartment managers are condescending, even in saying they don’t take it. It is embarrassing to ask if an apartment takes Section 8, you are stigmatized in your relationship with your landlord, and it is embarrassing for your neighbors to find out you are on Section 8. Cars and vans with big letters marking them as Housing Authority roll up to the doors of Section 8 participants yearly to do “annual inspections” and “out” Section 8 renters to their neighborhoods against their will. The Section 8 “inspections” seem more to check on the participants’ behaviors and lifestyles than to actually inspect for housing code and standards violations. I knew a woman who had no handles on the stove and refrigerator, they were broken off, and also the front door did not lock properly, and Section 8 approved the unit! The woman was so desperate for housing she took the unit and fixed the problems herself on her own dime and time.
In all reality, the only reason the Section 8 program is funded and allowed to continue is that it is designed to benefit land owners, much more than the renters. Section 8 does not help renters become home owners. Section 8 will not allow Section 8 renters to pay their rent towards home ownership, as in a mortgage, they may only use Section 8 for temporary rentals, turning it in essence, into a benefits program for land owners, really, since the money goes straight from the government to help the land owners. The renters just get a small portion of temporary time on that land. Section 8 is aware of this criticism, and thus has ridiculous “self-sufficiency” programs where they will put any raise in your rental rate into a bank account and give it to you when you leave Section 8 supposedly as a down payment on a house. That is laughable as many things make these programs utter failures. The amount of Section 8 participants ending up owning land due to the Section 8 “self-sufficiency” programs is laughable. So really the government pays land owners money for people to temporarily stay on their land, and the renters are pretty much left out of the loop completely, kept in a dependent renter positionality, to their death, with no equity in anything for decades of renting at mortgage prices. The amount that most renters pay in rent *exceeds* mortgage payments, which is where the land owners make their cut, or profits. They charge low income renters more than their mortgage for profits, and it would be better if low income people could put a down payment down on land and a home and then use Section 8 to pay their own monthly mortgages instead of someone else’s mortgages. Well, that would be better for the poor people, not the land owners.
Another built-in benefit to land owners but not renters is the refusal of many local Section 8 programs to pay for any sort of shared housing situations. So if two welfare moms with Section 8 wanted to team up and try to find an affordable house together, costing the state *less* in funds for rent, Section 8 will not pay for that: the two women must rent separate rental units, probably apartments instead, at higher prices, which actually pleases the landlords. In Seattle, the Section 8 office refuses to tell its clients how to utilize Section 8 for shared housing, although they claim such an option does exist. Los Angeles County Section 8 offices refuse to pay for any shared housing for Section 8 participants while also hosting an almost impenetrable rental system with Section 8 regarding rental rates and what Section 8 will pay.
There are also horrifically long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers. I know a single mother on welfare who often dealt with homelessness, who waited 16 YEARS to finally become a Section 8 participant. By the time she got the vouchers, all of her kids were grown and not living at home and she was threatened with not being allowed to finally use the vouchers as the kids were now gone! But she was still poor and mired in debt from single motherhood in poverty! High rents were still threatening to leave her homeless, even with her kids gone from her home! It seems circular that they will not give single mothers in poverty Section 8, but rather only put them on “Section 8 waiting lists” and then when their kids are finally grown, they are offered Section 8 miraculously, contingent on minors in the home. It seems at every turn the government is trying to make sure only a small percentage of those who qualify for Section 8 can get it, and then those who finally do get it, cannot use it!
These are just some of the problems with today’s Section 8 program. Homelessness is a serious, and growing, problem in the U.S. today. And the gap between the rich and poor is also mimicked in a housing crisis where poor people simply are not allowed housing. People with jobs, upstanding citizens, smart, sane, people, families, cannot afford housing prices in the U.S. anymore. Minimum wage is not equal to minimum rents. There is a serious housing crisis and the chasm between the have and have nots has never been more obvious. This band-aid program of Section 8 vouchers barely functions in reality. Constructively, Section 8 vouchers are often not worth the paper they are written on and people are forced, after months of wasted effort and application fees, to just get a cheap rental unit that costs a bit higher than the Section 8 maximum allowed, without using their Section 8 vouchers. In essence, the government has made the Section 8 voucher program nearly impossible to use, while feigning the illusion of concern and remedy.