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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. Thanks to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), welfare recipients are using government handouts 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 more than $7 billion a year in rental subsidies to over two 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.”

The program is a symbol of government welfare run amok–of social workers using the power of subsidies to forcibly change the nature of hundreds of suburban neighborhoods. Roberta Achtenberg, former HUD assistant secretary for fair housing, 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 recipients’ income or to ensure that they actually pay their small share of the rent. Since many recipients claim to have zero income, their rent is totally on the taxpayers’ 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 Prince Georges, 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.

With such generous subsidies, many Section 8 recipients enjoy far more comfortable housing than do working Americans. For example, Section 8 certificates entitle welfare families to move into an apartment complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, that brags of its “deluxe modern kitchens with convenient breakfast bars,” microwave ovens, and heated pool with water jets.

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 with complaints from outraged private citizens.

HUD forces landlords to treat Section 8 renters better than renters who pay their own bills. It 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. Supposedly, apartment owners can 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, one such renter in Massachusetts won a court victory on his right to subsidized housing even though he was judged to be a pyromaniac.

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. The image of violence has become so accepted in some areas that a Washington, D.C., rap band named itself “Section 8 Mob.”

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 adviser 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.