Housing Policy

Last year the Washington Post covered a proposed rule change from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):

…that would remake this system, adjusting the maximum value of vouchers in many major markets to account for the wide variation in what it costs to live in different neighborhoods. Instead of setting “fair market rent” standards at the metropolitan level, in about 30 major metros including Washington, New York and Chicago, HUD will set them by ZIP code instead. That shift will mean significant change for a program that serves 2.2 million households, more than live in public housing projects.

The policy is designed to enable low-income families to use their housing aid to move to neighborhoods with less poverty, lower crime and better schools — an opportunity that research has shown can boost prospects for poor kids. Until now, the voucher program that was supposed to give families a chance to move out of deeply poor housing projects has largely concentrated them instead in deeply poor neighborhoods. In cities such as the District, a voucher just isn’t worth enough to afford entry into truly “high opportunity” places.

Social theorists have long tried to figure out whether or not lower-income families can be boosted, not by more money in their pockets, but by their proximity to people that do have it. That’s essentially the logic behind school vouchers and it’s also the case here. Is there truly more opportunity simply by living in wealthier areas? If an adult wants to work close to home, the available jobs for those without a college education or specialized training are mostly going to be in the service industry. Where the true benefits apply are with better schools and lower crime rates. So ultimately, it’s about the children of these families and improving the environment in which they are raised.

As for the potential of this proposal to work, the article ends on a positive note

HUD is clear about what all of this will mean. The government will start paying more in low-poverty neighborhoods, and less in high-poverty ones. And the people who stand to lose out will no doubt object. Critics warn that poor renters will be evicted when landlords realize their vouchers are suddenly less profitable. But Collinson and Ganong didn’t see much evidence that this happened in Dallas. And in the long run, if some landlords decide the voucher program is no longer worth it to them, that may not be such a bad thing.

My question for readers is this: Can this work? What is your perspective on the effectiveness of housing policy in your location? What cultural factors, if any, play a role in the debate?


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Mike Dwyer is a writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture and the outdoors for Ordinary Times. He is also one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky. Mike is active on Facebook and Instagram. He lives with his wife and daughters in the distant suburbs, at the place where neighborhoods give way to farms and forest.

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21 thoughts on “Housing Policy

  1. The housing subsidies (out here in California we call them “Section 8” but I don’t know about elsewhere and haven’t explored where that nomenclature comes from) are also about letting people of all ages live with a degree of dignity, and are best employed to get someone through something like vocational training or a loss of work with minimal housing disruption. Though this does not mean that I disagree with the notion that there is an aim of getting kids out of bad schools and into good ones so that they can have a leg up.

    If you buy into the “class matters ethic,” then proximity to people who can offer opportunities matters too. The flaw is see with that reasoning is that if class matters, then it will also be relatively difficult for a kid from an economically disadvantaged family to befriend a kid from an economically advantaged family and thus access that network. If you buy into the “race matters ethic,” then the likelihood that there will be racial differences between the well-off and not-so-well-off kids compounds the problem of meaningful connections being made.

    Neither of which means it’s impossible. My interaction with young people suggests that they generally don’t pay a lot of attention to race, which I find heartening. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t unconscious biases that come into play, particularly in stressful situations. Nor does it mean that class and money don’t matter to them, either; kids will deny that it does if you ask them but here I suspect their behavior gives lie to that claim, as I notice kids with similar patterns in dress hanging out together and only occasionally reaching out to kids of other cliques. This seems only natural, by the way. Whether it ought to be or not is a matter we can leave for another day.

    Because the OP is about a restructuring of the housing subsidies. In my community, I suspect that this will cause a shock of disruption that will last about a year, and then those landlords who like Section 8 will carry on with it and those who are iffy about it will go off. Even now, a lot of tenants seem to lack the ability to adapt to changes in their subsidy structure, causing defaults and other difficulties, which is how these situations come into my office.

    There will be relatively less subsidized housing overall. I’d predict — unremarkably — that those landlords who have properties in relatively more affluent neighborhoods will be quicker to decide to go without subsidies in favor of pursuing renters who can (or at least promise to) pay market rate. Those who have larger multi-unit properties in less affluent parts of town will stick with the program to get whatever reliable money they can: hopefully the subsidy will be enough to keep the building operating and whatever rent the tenants actually do pay is what the landlord can claim as profit. (N.b., for many of my clients, this “profit” is their only source of income and they live unremarkably unluxurious middle-class lives.)


    • I do think the biggest hurdle here is acceptance from the communities into which these families move. In my experience, young kids don’t notice differences very much. It’s a struggle with older kids, but I agree that race is much less of a factor. My kids could have cared less about race, but behavioral differences between them and their classmates were the challenge.

      I think one-on-one, adults mostly get along fine with their neighbors. It’s when they function as part of a group that they act like monsters. Seriously, check out the Nextdoor app for your area and you will be shocked. I recently saw people discussing some petty vandalism in an affluent neighborhood that quickly turned into a debate about justifiable shootings.

      While we think of life in lower-income neighborhoods as hard, navigating life in affluent suburbs takes serious social skills that many people do not have. I came from a blue collar background and it was a least a decade before I figured out that you don’t bring up your deer hunting trip in mixed company because there are probably a couple of vegetarians in the room you will offend. My wife, who was raised in that setting, has kicked me under tables more times than I care to recall.


      • It isn’t that kids don’t notice difference… they do. In fact, the brains of young kids are designed to see differences as a means of understanding the world around them. What they DO lack is the cultural and historical baggage associated with many of these differences.

        “…behavioral differences between them and their classmates were the challenge.”

        Can you expand on this?


        • Learned behaviors like table manners, when it is and isn’t appropriate to talk out loud, grammar choices, musical preferences, food preferences, etc. Some are cultural markers, some are economic markers, some even follow racial lines. And I’m not saying that my kids were offended, or had a problem with them, it was just different. An example: My girls love non-American cuisine. Indian, Asian, Ethiopian, etc. They will eat any and all of it. One of them invited a friend out to eat with us on her birthday and chose an Indian restaurant. The friend (also white) grew up in a low-income area and had never been exposed to that type of food. So it was an interesting situation. We tried to make it easy on the friend and helped her order but she was clearly a bit uncomfortable. My daughter, 12 at the time, had a tough time understanding why this happened.


          • You remind me of the time my daughter was 12 and we took her best friend along to the Renaissance Faire. Friend was an Air Force kid, and had never seen anything like that before.


      • While we think of life in lower-income neighborhoods as hard, navigating life in affluent suburbs takes serious social skills that many people do not have. I came from a blue collar background and it was a least a decade before I figured out that you don’t bring up your deer hunting trip in mixed company because there are probably a couple of vegetarians in the room you will offend. My wife, who was raised in that setting, has kicked me under tables more times than I care to recall.

        This is only relevant if you give a damn about upsetting the special flowers.


          • I have a female very liberal friend. We mutually each agreed to not speak about certain things, otherwise I’d tease her mercilessly about HRC’s loss and mock her HRC doll. She doesn’t talk trash about gun nuts. It works. But she’s the only one I do that with. Generally, I don’t talk a lot about myself and my hobbies with strangers, but with friends, I might mention something and if they object/bitch, so what? If they are true friends, they accept me, just like I accept them regardless of whatever crazy views they have. Like the friend above, or the piscatarian, or the “i only eat meet on thanksgiving and xmas or when I’m with my parents” types.

            Let me add that I have, on occasion, exercised some restraint in the interest of marital/familial harmony. :)


            • They won’t complain to me at the time. They’ll just grumble about it to their spouse on the way home. And the next time they might be a little less likely to interact with me, which is bad for both of us because I learn stuff from people I disagree with. So…I’m okay with playing my part. Navigating social situations is a good skill to master.


              • Then it’s their loss.

                But again, I have been asked to be more diplomatic at times, after comments that were considered “mean”, such as saying “when hell freezes over” to the question from my mother in law as to when I would be giving her grandkids.

                We never spoke of it again and I was asked, by the wife, to be more diplomatic in the future. I attempted to do so.


        • “This is only relevant if you give a damn about upsetting the special flowers.”

          If you don’t give a damn about upsetting the special flowers then you’ll end up with a garden that’s nothing but rocks and bare dirt.

          And sure, rocks and bare dirt can look good—with a lot of effort, and to the right sort of aesthetic sense, and you’d be surprised how fast weeds can grow when there’s nothing else around.


          • I’ve managed quite a number of decades not giving a damn about what most people think. Those I care about, their opinions matter to me. Works for me. Your mileage may differ.

            My “garden” is full of smart clever men and women. I tend what I permit to grow there well enough, thank you.


  2. IIRC San Francisco has local city laws that state Section 8 housing/public housing/”affordable” housing needs to exist in all city districts/neighborhoods. Basically you can’t stick all the affordable/subsidized housing in Bayview/Hunter’s Point or the Outersunset (which isn’t poor per se but is very far from downtown).

    All schooling is done by lottery here to avoid the good zip=good school problem.

    I think there are a lot of things going on here. One thing about mixing neighborhoods that it is not just necessarily about poor people being placed in better neighborhoods but it is also about not letting rich people wall themselves off. There is evidence that what makes a school district good is dedicated parents and richer parents generally have the time and resources to be more dedicated.

    Though there is also an issue of helping the few rather than the many. I know people who grew up poor but attended exclusive private schools for their entire educations because their parents devoted time to studying the system and/or they had a benefactor looking out for them. So not everyone at Exeter or Nightingale-Bamford is rich but I think it is problematic to let the private schools assert themselves by saying “We have 10 pure scholarship students in each class. We are good.”

    This helps the few and not the many.


  3. My wild-assed guess is that the thing that will make a difference is getting people to actually work on stuff with other people who aren’t in the same “class”. People construct the concept of “Us” out of shared work, not simple proximity.

    Of course, schools are an issue, and that won’t have no impact. But social isolation and a very impoverished social network are real things, and probably won’t be changed much by location.


  4. In my hometown we have exactly one choice for schooling — the dreaded guvmint monopoly. No privates, no parochials, no choices at all really, other than the option to send your kids to a neighboring PSD, and transportation is on you (minimum 10-15 miles).

    So basically if you live here you send your kids here regardless of your income. Aaaand… we have a very high graduation rate, college-bound rate, and score highly on standardized assessments. Make of that what you will, but I suspect parental buy-in, even if it’s basically forced, has a lot to do with it.


  5. There is also a school of thought (or was, not sure how much traction it gets) that one way poverty perpetuates is because it concentrates, so moving people into more affluent neighborhoods isn’t just about exposing them to affluence, but also about preventing a whole community from becoming deeply impoverished.


  6. I am rooting for policies like this bc i think when poverty is concentrated, you get terrible consequences. When all the adults you know are struggling; working low wage/status jobs feels like the norm. For young people, habits of mind and behavioral patterns are formed in these impoverished environments. Its probably why so many poor folks have such cynical attitudes about their own abilities. If you dont see anyone succeed, why should you be the one to get out? So, by breaking up these neighborhoods, you give people a chance to hit the reset button; its an opportunity for people to tell themselves a new and better story about themselves.


  7. I find it hard to believe that rich neighborhood landlords in stable real estate markets will take HUD up on their offer. It’s the same reason rich folks opposed busing, and it’s not just racism.

    People see the disorder and crime in poor neighborhoods and schools. That disorder and crime is even highlighted for the argument as to why folks need an opportunity to escape it. This is all well and good, but if you’re in the recieving neighborhood, the salient word isn’t escape. Instead, it sounds like “see all the cr*p going on over there? Here’s a big, steaming slice of it plopped down on your block. Eat up!”

    The challenge will be to separate opinions about the residents from the neighborhood without sounding like you’re making the transparently ridiculous argument that none of the people who make bad neighborhoods bad will somehow get sorted out by magic.

    If you can’t establish a benefit to the incumbent population in a better neighborhood besides assuaging a guilt that residents may or may not feel, all you’re really doing is cutting subsidies for Section 8 in poor neighborhoods. Which may be exactly what the Trump HUD wants.


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