Struggles with Section 8 Vouchers

May 30, 2017

Many good intentions about housing for the poor struggle in practice, when reality confronts the ideal.

Take the idea of gaining entrance into “neighborhoods of opportunity”. That’s the catch phrase for areas that offer good transit, well-paying jobs, decent housing and good schools — areas that might help low-income families have easier access to the support and services that would help them climb out of poverty, as opposed to areas where rents are low, but services tend to be less desirable, and harder to come by.

But in truth, programs meant to make that happen don’t always work as intended.

As NPR recently reported, Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, meant to help cover the cost of rent for struggling families, often remain unused. The government-backed subsidy has a lengthy waiting list, and once offered, the vouchers must be attached to a lease signed within 90 days. The program covers a portion of rent for the holder of the voucher, usually 70 percent or more per month, allowing them to move into better housing, hopefully in a nicer area, with better access to public transit or better schools. 

While supportive in theory, in practice many Section 8 voucher holders struggle to find landlords willing to take their money. Section 8 housing carries a stigma, and negative stereotypes follow voucher holders — even an earnest single mom with full-time employment, as NPR profiles.

“Nationally, most voucher holders are able to use them, but in hot rental markets… it’s not always easy,” NPR writes.

Originally, as NPR reports, the goal was to help families gain access to safer, more supported neighborhoods that would in turn help lift Section 8 voucher holders out of poverty.

But when faced with a choice between a tenant with a high-paying job willing to pay at or above-market rent, or a family coming with paperwork to fill out, many landlords don’t want to bother with the latter.

A Housing and Urban Development study from 2016 found this to be one of the greater challenges associated with the Section 8 program — that a subsidy created with such good intentions carries a stigma that presents a bar to entry into these areas of higher opportunity in the most desirable cities, where quality housing can be the hardest to come by.  

The market often stymies the best of good intentions, and in this case, it’s time for agencies to step up and realize that in many cities, from Dallas to the Washington D.C. area, families need more than just a voucher and good luck wishes to gain access to quality “neighborhoods of opportunity”.