Sectioned Off: Subsidized, low-income housing in America

Sectioned Off: Subsidized, low-income housing in America

The U.S. government issues housing assistance to millions of people each year. 

For some, this subsidy is in the form of a mortgage tax deduction. But for many low income families, elderly people and veterans, this comes in the form of a Housing Choice Voucher. 

Commonly known as "Section 8," these vouchers help individuals and families cover the gap between what a person can afford for rent, and what their rent actually is. 

More than 5 million people, and 2 million households get this help, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Vouchers are supposed to be the ideal public-private partnership, by allowing people to use them in the private rental market. And for some people, they work fine.

But not always.

In many cases, in many cities, Section 8 voucher-holders are still treated as pariah in the housing market — either by landlords who refuse to accept them, property owners who steer them to segregated areas, and a society that clings to racial and economic stereotypes. 

The result, for many, is a "choice" program with few options and a system many fear perpetuates damaging housing patterns. 

So, in this episode, with help from reporters in Georgia and San Francisco, we bring you stories from across the country, and explore just how tough it is to find affordable housing -- even with a little boost from Uncle Sam. 

Yellow signs advertising Section 8 housing line the street between Tindall Heights in Macon, Ga. and neighboring homes. | GRANT BLANKENSHIP

Some background

It used to be that cities facing a shortage in affordable housing would often look for monolithic solutions.That often meant towering housing projects, but the philosophy began to fall out of favor in the 1960s. 

There were worries that those big housing projects only furthered the concentration of poverty and racial segregation. On top of that, some lawmakers were reluctant to spend the money needed to keep those buildings up to date.

Section 8 represented a new way of thinking.

Signed into law by Gerald Ford in 1974, the voucher program is a classic bit of private-public policy making. In theory, government subsidies for rent and utilities would open up the private housing market to people struggling to make ends meet.

But if you talk to housing officials, residents and advocates, they'll tell you there are still some big issues with the program.

The podcast digs into these three: 

Supply/Demand

Devin Katayama is a reporter at KQED in San Francisco.

He covers housing and poverty and brings us the story of a Marvin Jordan, a homeless father trying to find housing in the Bay Area.

Limited Choices

Grant Blankenship is a reporter with Georgia Public Broadcasting.

He brings us the story of a housing project in Macon, Ga. being torn down to make way for a new housing development. And he follows the path of two women shopping for new homes with vouchers. 

Segregation by steering

Local housing advocates say that though St. Louis' affordable housing issues may not be to the scale as other cities, it's history of segregation continues to play out in real ways when it comes to vouchers.

Most voucher-holders in the region are black. And many get routinely steered to certain area because of cultural and racial biases, according to investigators at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. 

 

 

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