Section 8 Everywhere

Mixed-income neighborhoods are part of the urban planning canon and will make any good urbanist’s list of prescriptions for an ailing city.  The potential benefits are overwhelming: better job and school access for the poor, increased diversity of residents and services, reduced crime and class animosity, etc.  Most importantly, they are the exact opposite of “concentration of poverty,” the case against which has been made many, manytimes (pdfs). Unfortunately mixed-income neighborhoods have proven difficult to achieve, and the degree to which our cities remain segregated by class is easily visible in the geographic distribution of per capita income of any major city, such as for Los Angeles at right.

Los Angeles map showing per capita income as intensity with a donut-shaped distribution, poorest at city core
Section 8 was supposed to fix this. Not fix poverty or make every block magically diverse, but de-concentrate poverty and create less daunting occurrences.  Not so, enclaves of extreme poverty remain; Section 8 has duplicated many of the problems of traditional public housing.  Why?

Currently through Section 8 (less popularly know as the Housing Choice Voucher Program) the US government subsidizes up to about 70% of the rent of low-income families. Landlords may make their building a project and receive payments through the local public housing authority or accept individual tenants who pay part of their rent with government vouchers.  This is the first problem.

Landlords may accept vouchers, but they also may not; participation has always been voluntary.  This has very effectively curtailed the range of housing options available to poor folk, in some cases leaving them with privately-owned ‘public’ housing as their only choice.  Responding to this issue, New Jersey, New York City, & DC have all enacted laws to prohibit landlords from discriminating based on income source, meaning that they can’t refuse a renter because they will pay with government vouchers. Giving low-income renters the opportunity to live where they choose is certainly a positive step that should be emulated elsewhere, even if the non-discrimination laws prove difficult to enforce.

As problematic as the legal barriers to allowing Section 8 tenants to move out of poor areas are, the social barriers are more intractable.  Moving To Opportunity is a test program to study the results of moving people out of low-income neighborhoods.  It suggests that even when given the option, many do not or cannot take advantage.  As summarized at The American Prospect:
“Many families offered the opportunity to move chose to stay. Others relocated but then returned to their old neighborhoods. When families did move, many youths remained strongly attached to their old neighborhoods. Most participating families who did move ended up in relatively nearby, majority-minority communities that were safer and modestly more prosperous than their old neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these receiving neighborhoods…themselves have relatively low-quality, racially segregated schools…children didn't show much academic improvement.”
So: how do you get people to move when your “concentration of poverty” is their lifelong home?  When they have a community of support they clearly value more than school quality?

Money is one answer: Government could provide a stipend or mandate that a landlords provide one to entice Section 8 tenants out of low-income areas.  Zoning is another: restrictions could be placed on the quantity of Section 8 housing available in low-income areas (something that has local political support in some poor areas).  Either way, it seems illegitimately paternalistic to attempt to manipulate low-income folks into deconstructing their communities - it’s based on the assumption that they can’t properly evaluate their housing choices.

Mixed-income neighborhoods remain a venerable goal.  Certainly laws should facilitate their formation rather than hinder.  However, the focus on where cities should stock their poor is misplaced, especially in the context of the choice of actual low-income people.

(Photos from Flickr user The Voice of Eye and Radical Cartography. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Daniel Nairn said...

This really is a tough one. I agree that it may be crossing the line to shove too much on low-income residents who, for whatever reason, choose to live in their own community. Social and cultural forces are very powerful, even if they fall below the radar of our usual quality-of-life metrics.

Of course, the opposite of drawing low-income folks out is enticing middle-income folks in. Both goals will serve the same purpose. The challenge is encouraging this trend without taking over the neighborhood completely, both culturally and economically (aka gentrification). There may be more promise in approaching the problem from this side.

avatarr8 said...

May I be so bold as to suggest that being "low-income" itself is the problem? Why subsidize housing directly, why not raise the minimum wage and subsidize that--let folks invest in the communities they are already part of.
oh f**k it, who am I kidding, back to the countryside with everyone! death to cities, long live the peasant! Seriously though, can the gummint buy up foreclosed suburbs (say, in, oh I dunno, Bakersfield) and redistribute them for free to low-income folks? Probably not my best idea, but I'm just saying, i woudln't turn down a free 4 bedroom house.

Dan Lorentz said...

Your post addresses what I consider one of the most important and vexing policy questions facing American cities.

I think a mix of income levels adds a vitalizing diversity to neighborhoods—a mix that helps everybody (poor, not poor, rich) in different ways.

Like you, I don't think poor people should be expected to leave their neighborhoods. Some will want to leave, and they should be given the resources to do so because the evidence suggests that these motivated "leavers" might benefit. But motivated "stayers"—as Jane Jacobs and others have suggested—often have deep, stabilizing and other socially beneficial impacts on their neighborhood. Like leavers, stayers should be supported, perhaps even more so than leavers.

Low-income people should not be manipulated into deconstructing their communities, but, of course, poverty itself is a constraint that limits housing choices. For some poor people, leaving the old neighborhood might be life-saving. For others, dissevering old connections and roots will be a big mistake. But without some government help to create choices that otherwise wouldn't exist, low-income people don't really have lots of housing choices open to them.

Thanks for the excellent links.

Daniel Ahkiam said...

The double-binds of creating 'good' neighborhoods are tremendous. People can't be locked in, people can't be pushed out. There needs to be development so that a neighborhood gets basic services like grocery stores, but you need to avoid gentrification. I want to learn more about the leavers vs. stayers dynamic, especially if there's some research into what differentiates the groups. Is it how acute each experience the poverty in their community or how disparate their economic opportunities are? How much of a pull do local institutions like churches have? I guess I'll start with Jane Jacobs.

Clearly, as Dr. Tarr says, eliminating poverty in a socialist revolution (possibly centered at my parents house in the Bakersfield exurbs) is one solution. But you see, proposals like that are why "Geography PhD" is just another word for "Troll." =)

I prefer the Land Trust solution (they, like cooperatives, being little progressive loopholes in the law): Use deficit spending to buy up land in poor areas to be administered by the local institutions. Then you can allow gentrification to occur without it creating pressure on housing prices, so no one gets displaced, but everyone can benefit from the new services that wealthy neighbors bring. Really I just want to give these people (pdf) billions of dollars.

Dan Lorentz said...

My earlier comments about "leavers" and "stayers" probably sounded more confident than I had a right to convey.

It's more that I suspect--on the basis of common sense, which can be quite unreliable--that there are such groups of people.

The Jane Jacobs reference I made is to Chapter 15: Unslumming and Slumming in The Life and Death of Great American Cities.

There must be some research about who benefits and who doesn't from the Moving to Opportunity program and Chicago's Gautreaux Project, which inspired MTO.

I'll be nosing around a bit to see what I can find, and I'll let you know. Let me know if you find anything.

Katia Savchuk said...

When I did research on Section 8 through the lens of "mental maps," I found that where voucher holders look for and find housing is limited by the areas that are visible, accessible, and positively valuated in their mental constructions of the city. Visible means in the realm of the areas that exist for them: what's on their mental map, so to speak. Accessibility means whether or not they imagine it is affordable or "welcoming," not directly correlated with actual affordability. And having a positive valence means it's considered "better" than their current situation. So many of these studies look at systemic explanations, without considering the fluid relationship between the subject and the city.

Daniel Ahkiam said...

I liked the leavers vs. stayers concept because previously I wasn't really thinking of each as an active choice taken by people with agency. In my mind, there were those who left for better things vs. those who failed to leave.

Obviously that's problematic, so I jumped on your model. Don't worry; I won't ask you about your dissertation on the motivations of leavers! I too am wading deeper into the MTO information, will post about anything interesting I find.

Good points. It'd be interesting to see a study where "mental mapping" is conducted on participants before they enter an MTO-like program. Then we could see how predictive the maps are, what the relative importance of visibility vs. accessibility is, etc.