Dispelling the myth of the affordable housing bogeyman

Those in housing programs aren’t who you think

The following guest op-ed is a counter-point to one published last week on HousingWire. We welcome all viewpoints from readers.  

The scariest thing you’ll see this summer is not a genetically modified dinosaur noshing on nameless tourists in whatever iteration of Jurassic Park we’re up to, but rather the Obama administration’s forthcoming final rule to affirmatively further fair housing. Well, that’s what the rule’s opponents would like you to believe.

The rule, expected to be released any day, will provide more clarity and new tools for communities to ensure that they are meeting their obligations under the Fair Housing Act, which requires HUD’s program participants to take steps to actively overcome historic patterns of segregation and promote fair housing choice. Advocates and many others have long recognized that the current practice of affirmatively furthering fair housing choice has not been effective.

In speaking out against the rule, opponents continue to paint a picture of affordably housed bogeymen, a restless horde of urban invaders, just waiting for the chance to bring their poverty, their crime, their lack of work ethic and value(s) to an affluent suburban neighborhood near you. A quite literal summer blockbuster.

But it’s easy to vilify a population that is largely out-of-sight-out-of-mind for people fortunate enough to live in leafy suburbs with white picket fences and at least one car in each driveway. Somehow, those people living in federally subsidized housing in poor neighborhoods are undeserving of this slice of the American dream that President Obama is now trying to give away for free. It gets harder to tell those people “to go back to your Section 8 housing,” when the Section 8 housing is now just a few doors down the road. And when a small handful of those people manage to move into these communities, it’s easy to blame them for packing up and bringing their urban blight along with them.

Throughout this debate, amid all the stigmatizing and racial stereotyping, it’s clear that those who don’t live in federally subsidized housing have very little insight about the people who actually do. The trope of the welfare queen with a pink Cadillac and the gang banger sadly rears its ugly head quite frequently.

So it’s time for some facts. More than half of the people living in public and project-based Section 8 housing are elderly or disabled and likely live on a fixed income, meaning they will need housing assistance for most of the rest of their lives. Within the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program 88% of all households are either elderly or disabled, employed (or recently employed), or likely subject to work requirements under other federal programs. For those families attached to the workforce, the median annual income is $15,600 – a bit more than what a person would earn from a full-time, year-round minimum wage job. These are people working hard to make ends meet, often constricted by the lack of better job opportunities.

I’m not sure what better choices these folks could have made or what better work ethic they needed to have to earn the opportunity to live in a neighborhood with better schools, access to social services, and higher paying jobs.

And how can we fault a family – trying to break through the vicious cycle of poverty – from wanting the opportunity to live in the neighborhood of their choice, where they know their family can thrive and improve their prospects in life?

Recentlypublished studies by Harvard economists found that children whose families relocated to better neighborhoods experienced lower teen pregnancy rates, higher college attendance, and larger incomes as adults when compared to those children who continued to live in high-poverty areas.

I know, there are those people claiming that the new rule tramples on property rights and self-determination (funny how this concern only extends as far as their own backyard, never mind the gentrification and displacement of low-income residents from urban communities). But if they truly cared anything at all about those things, they would encourage people of modest means to move to wherever they chose and would stop using zoning laws to socially engineer people with low incomes out of their communities, and free developers to build housing for a market that clearly exists.

Sadly, steps have already been taken in Congress to stop the new rule from ever being implemented. The House recently passed an amendment, authored by Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill that would prohibit HUD from using any federal funds to implement the rule.

Mr. Gosar, when introducing a similar stand-alone bill, stated “American citizens should be free to choose where they would like to live.” I couldn’t agree more and wish that Mr. Gosar had stood by those words instead of offering his misguided amendment.

Thankfully, the Senate THUD spending bill does not have similar language. It’s vital that whatever form the final federal budget takes, this harmful provision isn’t included.

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