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Section 8: A Wrecking Ball for Your Neighborhood

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The federal government is involved in economic blockbusting in thousands of the nation’s neighborhoods. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is using government handouts to allow welfare recipients to move into middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods.

Congress created the Section 8 program in 1974 to provide direct rent subsidies to selected low-income families. Section 8 currently gives over $7 billion a year in rental subsidies to over 2 million families. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros is pushing to rapidly expand the program to allow more welfare recipients to move to affluent neighborhoods. Cisneros calls Section 8 “a wonderful mechanism because it gives people tremendous choice and mobility.” Section 8 is a symbol of government welfare run amok — of social workers using the power of subsidies to seek to forcibly change the nature of hundreds of suburban neighborhoods.

HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing Roberta Achtenberg declared last year on National Public Radio: “We are compelled by statutory prescription as well as constitutional mandate to see to it that every American has open and free housing choice.” But the only people today who have “free housing choice” are those who have HUD vouchers that force other taxpayers to cover all or most of their rent.

HUD requires Section 8 recipients to pay between 10 and 30 percent of their income for rent, and the government picks up the difference between the renters’ share and the market rent. But, unlike how the IRS treats taxpayers, HUD makes little or no effort to verify Section 8 recipients’ income or to insure that recipients actually pay their small share of the rent. (The less the Section 8 recipient pays, the more the government must pay.) Since many Section 8 recipients claim to have zero income, their rent is totally on the taxpayer’s back.

Section 8 seeks to end the stigma of being on welfare by treating welfare recipients like a privileged class. Unfortunately, few Americans can afford the levels of rent that HUD shovels out. For example:

* On the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, a famous playground of the rich, HUD will pay up to $1,749 a month for an apartment for welfare recipients.

* In Stamford and Norwalk, Connecticut, HUD authorizes rental subsidies of more than $1,700 a month.

* In Westchester County, New York, HUD authorizes subsidizes of $1,552 a month, and in Bergen-Passaic, New Jersey, $1,521; in San Jose, California, $1,507.

* In Pitkin County, Colorado, HUD will pay up to $1,467 a month for a welfare family’s housing, and in San Miguel County, Colorado, HUD ups the ante to up to $1,684 a month.

* In Prince George’s, Frederick, Calvert, and Charles counties, Maryland, HUD will pay up to $1,396 in rental subsidies per apartment. But, according to local realtors, those counties have few, if any, apartments renting for such high prices.

Section 8 seeks to end the stigma of being on welfare by treating welfare recipients like upper middle-class, self-reliant citizens. Not surprisingly, with such generous subsidies, many Section 8 recipients enjoy far more comfortable housing than do working Americans. Pamela Price told the Los Angeles Times in March that “this is like Christmas” after she used her new Section 8 certificate to move into a luxurious apartment complex with a heated swimming pool, four spas, six tennis courts, and two air-conditioned racquetball courts. Section 8 certificates are entitling welfare families to move into an apartment complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, that brags of its heated pool with water jets, microwave ovens, and “deluxe modern kitchens with convenient breakfast bars.”

In May 1994, HUD raised Section 8 subsidy levels in Plano, Texas, to $750 for a two-bedroom and $900 for a three-bedroom apartment. According to HUD, the median rent in Plano, Texas, is only $586 per month. Helen Macey, executive director of the Plano Housing Authority, declared: “Our residents will be given better choices of where they can live.” Janice Stanfield, a HUD housing management specialist, explained: “Section 8 is not intended to isolate people or limit them to certain parts of town.”

Such lavish rental subsidy levels have not warmed the hearts of some taxpayers. When newspapers in Ventura, California, and Davenport, Iowa, published articles last year on the level of Section 8 subsidies, HUD was bombarded by complaints from outraged private citizens. Patty Jenkins of Ventura wrote HUD:

“What kind of incentive is it for us to see the government shell out more of our tax dollars to “assist” people to live in a higher price residence than we can afford? Has this country gone totally nuts?”

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded in a 1980 report:

“The high rents and quality of [Section 8] housing invite resentment on the part of the taxpaying public who see their subsidized neighbors living in better accommodations than they themselves can afford.”

The GAO also observed that Section 8′s goal of mixing the poor and the middle class is often not achieved because Section 8 “housing is often so costly that moderate and even middle-income unassisted households cannot afford to live in it.”

Not only do Section 8 recipients receive a large financial windfall, HUD also forces landlords to treat Section 8 renters better than renters who pay their own bills. HUD decreed that landlords can require only a $50 security deposit from Section 8 renters — instead of the usual full month’s rent deposit required for unsubsidized renters. One apartment owner observed that Section 8 tenants “don’t have anything to lose. . . . If you have a little more to lose, then you are more likely to make it clean when you move out or to take a little better care of it.” It would be difficult to concoct a better rule to maximize the irresponsibility of a privileged class of renters. Apartment owners can supposedly get reimbursement from local HUD bureaucrats for damage done by Section 8 renters, but the bureaucrats routinely make it extremely difficult and time-consuming to collect.

HUD has vigorously pushed local housing authorities to include mentally ill renters in subsidized housing across the country. Some of the mentally ill renters are violent; two years ago (1994), one mentally ill renter in Massachusetts won a court victory on his right to subsidized housing even though he was judged to be a pyromaniac. Maybe that is HUD’s idea of a politically correct neighbor.

HUD is bending over backwards to portray Section 8 as noncontroversial. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros declared in 1994: “There are almost no cases in America where people resist Section 8.” But when plans were announced in Chicago in April for an expanded program to export public housing residents out of the city limits, dozens of mayors of surrounding suburban towns and villages staunchly opposed the proposal. The image of violence around Section 8 has become so accepted in some areas that a Washington, D.C., rap band even named itself “Section 8 Mob.”

Section 8 recipients can pull down a neighborhood because of the paralyzing red tape that HUD imposes on private landlords who want to evict recipients who are troublemakers, hooligans, or deadbeats. A Boston Globe editorial complained:

“Among the roughly 8,000 families receiving federally subsidized Section 8 rent certificates in Boston, most are concentrated in Roxbury and Dorchester. The majority occupy homes owned by absentee landlords who are reluctant to evict tenants, even for the most egregious lease violations. For landlords, the guaranteed subsidy payment proves a stronger incentive than the desire to maintain a safe building.”

The Boston Globe noted in April 1993 the disruption caused by Section 8 renters living across the street from Mayor Raymond Flynn:

“The subsidized tenants living in the house across the street were nuisances, allegedly using drugs and making loud and threatening noises, but little could be done about it. The landlord had paid no attention. The housing organization that provided the subsidy had thrown up its hands; federal rules forbade it from removing the family from the program.”

In other cities, Section 8′s links to crime and declining property values have become political hot potatoes. In August 1994, the adverse impact of subsidized housing in eastern New Orleans became a major issue in a race for the Louisiana legislature. Candidate Louis Ivon called for a moratorium on additional Section 8 housing until the program was reformed to better protect surrounding homeowners and the tenants themselves.

In Haledon, New Jersey, last fall, a public meeting on Section 8 exploded. The Record , a local newspaper, reported:

“The meetings were as rancorous as any ever held in the borough. Residents denounced their neighbors in federally subsidized housing, accusing them of ruining property values and bringing a bad element to the borough. The two meetings held to protest the ‘problem’ were standing room only.”

When 441 new Section 8 vouchers were proposed for St. Louis in late 1991, St. Louis Alderman Jack Garvey complained: “I do want to get funding but I don’t want to put the neighborhoods in my ward at risk with a program that is ruinous.” After a $35 million public housing/Section 8 plan for St. Louis was approved in February 1992, St. Louis Alderman Marit Clark promised to “go to war” if Section 8 landlords did not evict trouble-making tenants. Clark also stated: “I get as many complaints from my black constituents as I do from whites [about trouble-making Section 8 tenants].” This past January, Alderman Paul Beckerle publicly protested that neighborhoods throughout his ward were being dragged down by a crime wave generated by Section 8 clients who were recently moved into the area. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch , in a March 18 article entitled “Housing Subsidies Set Off Exodus” (of middle-class homeowners), reported that, as a result of Section 8 subsidies, “crime has soared” and a growing number of homeowners say Section 8 is undermining their neighborhoods. From the Shaw neighborhood to the Hi Pointe neighborhood to the Dutchtown South area, people want the government to keep a closer eye on Section 8 landlords and tenants.”

Lt. Joseph Richardson of the St. Louis Police Department declared of one batch of Section 8 renters:

“There is evidence of drugs being sold there, and ample evidence of gang activity responsible for the drug activity. These are terrible neighbors. No one would want to live next door to them.”

Members of the neighborhood loudly protested but, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted:

“Both sides [of the controversy] agree that the rules for the Section 8 subsidized housing program make it difficult to get rid of troublesome tenants. Section 8 recipients can’t be punished — by losing their eligibility for rent subsidies, for example — for bad behavior.”

HUD announced a special program last year to fight crime in and around Section 8 housing complexes. Unfortunately, the initiative consists largely of recommendations that local HUD officials, residents, and politicians form task forces to meet and discuss the problem.

Federal rental subsidies should be abolished. Giving subsidies to allow selected welfare recipients to live the high life is an insult and an injustice to all working Americans.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.