More Mobility for Section 8

(image by Louisa Thomson

For low income families in need of housing vouchers, the housing choice voucher program (popularly known as Section 8) is often the solution. Section 8 aims to house as many low income families, elderly and disabled individuals as necessary. Qualified applicants have their choice of housing and must seek out housing units that meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) health and price standards. Due to the high demand and relatively ‘hands-off’ approach employed by HUD, Section 8 carries the stigma of ineffective at its best.

While Section 8 remains branded as yet another ineffectual government program, low income families in the city of Baltimore share a more successful story. According to an article produced by academics Stefanie DeLuca (Johns Hopkins University) and Jennifer Darrah (University of Hawaii at Manoa), the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP) has restored the faith of many low income families in the value of government housing voucher programs. DeLuca and Durrah found that more than two-thirds of the program participants decided to stay in their new, higher income neighborhoods for longer than the required year. Additionally, 60% of the parents who were interviewed articulated that they now place higher values on education and diverse communities.

So, what makes BMP so different from Section 8? A recent interview with Stefanie DeLuca explains the bottom line—participant choice and landlord participation.

“The Baltimore Mobility Program was different because it requires residents to relocate to neighborhoods that are low-poverty and mostly white for a period of one year, after which the voucher can be used anywhere.”

Section 8 sets no parameters or restrictions on where families can live. The policy seeks to give families the choice of housing to maximize ease and comfort. The pitfall of this method is that families will often choose to stay in high poverty, low opportunity neighborhoods. This choice reduces the overall effectiveness of the voucher because families are more likely to stay impoverished due to the low education and high crime in these neighborhoods. By requiring families to relocate to neighborhoods with more opportunities for a year, BMP allows them to acclimate to better education, quieter neighborhoods, and reduced violence.

“Counselors reach out to landlords who have rental housing in more middle-class neighborhoods in the metropolitan region around Baltimore to help them understand the benefits of renting to families in the program.”

Because HUD deals with a large payload of applicants to Section 8, it requires participants to seek out landlords who will be willing to rent to them. This process discourages families from moving far from high poverty neighborhoods because they are less likely to go out of their way to seek out landlords. Moreover, the landlords willing to rent to families using housing vouchers will be in low income areas. By taking the initiative and educating landlords, the BMP program is able to see greater success in relocating families to higher income areas. Landlords are more comfortable supporting these families when they are educated on the program and assured that their rent will be met.

While there are various other differences between the Baltimore program and the HUD program, these two stand out as the factors that divide their successes. As DeLuca mentions in the interview, the goal of the HUD program centers on quantity and the goal of the Baltimore program is about quality. With that in mind, it is unreasonable to think that HUD could take on this program on a national scale. However, if it could amend Section 8 and adopt both a landlord education program and specific living requirements, maybe it can shake the stigma.

Mike Walker is a sophomore Public Policy major at the College of William & Mary. Mike was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia.

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