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WALL STREET JOURNAL AUGUST 18 2001
Raising Hell in Subsidized Housing
Section 8 rental subsidies have long helped ruin neighborhoods. Obama administration policies are making things worse.
By JAMES BOVARD
Section 8 rental subsidies have long been one of the most controversial federal social programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Obama administration is making a troubled program worse.
In the 1990s, the feds were embarrassed by skyrocketing crime rates in public housing—up to 10 times the national average, according to HUD studies and many newspaper reports. The government’s response was to hand out vouchers to residents of the projects (authorized under Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974), dispersing them to safer and more upscale locales.
Section 8’s budget soared to $19 billion this year from $7 billion in 1994. HUD now picks up the rent for more than two million households nationwide; tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent and utilities while the feds pay the rest. Section 8 recipients receive monthly rental subsidies of up to $2,851 in the Stamford-Norwalk, Conn., area, $2,764 in Honolulu and $2,582 in Columbia, Md.
But the dispersal of public housing residents to quieter neighborhoods has failed to weed out the criminal element that made life miserable for most residents of the projects. “Homicide was simply moved to a new location, not eliminated,” concluded University of Louisville criminologist Geetha Suresh in a 2009 article in Homicide Studies. In Louisville, Memphis, and other cities, violent crime skyrocketed in neighborhoods where Section 8 recipients resettled.
After a four-year investigation, the Indianapolis Housing Authority (IHA) in 2006 linked 80% of criminal homicides in Marion County, Ind., to individuals fraudulently obtaining federal assistance “in either the public housing program or the Section 8 program administered by the agency.” The IHA released an update last month citing recent crackdowns on a “nationwide criminal motorcycle gang operating out of a Section 8 home.” It also noted one “attorney who allegedly operated a law practice from a Section 8 home for eight years, providing shelter to unauthorized occupants who were linked to 10 homicides, 431 police calls and 394 criminal arrests during that time period.”
Dubuque, Iowa, is struggling with an influx of Section 8 recipients from Chicago housing projects. Section 8 concentrations account for 11 of 13 local violent crime hot spots, according to a study by the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies. Though Section 8 residents account for only 5% of the local population, a 2010 report released by the city government found that more than 20% of arrestees resided at Section 8 addresses.
Dubuque’s city government responded by trimming the size of the local Section 8 program. HUD retaliated by launching a “civil rights compliance review” of the program (final results pending).
HUD seems far more enthusiastic about cracking down on localities than on troublesome Section 8 recipients who make life miserable for the rest of the community. And because Section 8 recipients in some areas are mostly black or Latino, almost any enforcement effort can be denounced as discriminatory.
HUD launched an investigation of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority in 2009 after an Ohio attorney accused the authority of racially discriminatory Section 8 policies such as “eviction for offenses such as loud music.” In June of this year, the authority signed a conciliation agreement with HUD, pledging to cease penalizing Section 8 recipients for nuisance offenses. Policing tenant behavior was the job of police and landlords but “an ineffective use of resources” by the housing authority that “could lead to inappropriate program terminations,” HUD spokeswoman Laura Feldman told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
After the city of Antioch, Calif., formed a Community Action Team to assist the Contra Costa County Housing Authority in curbing violence and other problems in subsidized housing, the Bay Area Legal Aid sued the local police department in 2008, claiming it was guilty of racial discrimination because of an allegedly “concerted and unlawful campaign to seek evidence which could lead to the termination of participants’ Section 8 voucher benefits.” (The case is ongoing.)
Nevertheless, middle-class blacks are the program’s least inhibited critics. Sheldon Carter of Antelope Valley, Calif., testified at a recent public hearing on local Section 8 controversies: “This is not a racial issue. It is a color issue. The color is green and it’s my dollars.” Shirlee Bolds told Iowa’s Dubuque Telegraph Herald in 2009: “I moved away from the city to get away from all this crap. Dubuque’s getting rough. I think it’s turning into a little Chicago, like they’re bringing the street rep here.”
Remarkably, HUD seems bent on creating a new civil right—the right to raise hell in subsidized housing in nice neighborhoods. Earlier this year, the agency decreed that Section 8 tenants (as well as other renters) who are evicted because of domestic violence incidents may sue for discrimination under the Fair Housing Act because women are “the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims.” In essence, this gives troublesome tenants a federal trump card to play against landlords who seek to preserve the peace and protect other renters.
In June, HUD encouraged local housing agencies to permit ex-convicts (except for the most extreme sex offenders or individuals caught manufacturing methamphetamine “on the premises of federally assisted housing”) to move in with relatives in Section 8 or public housing after exiting prison. The Virginian-Pilot condemned the new policy last week, noting that “it’s unwise to allow people with a history of violence into public housing developments designed for the elderly and disabled residents.”
The Obama administration is now launching a pilot program giving local housing authorities wide discretion to pay higher rent subsidies to allow Section 8 beneficiaries to move into even more affluent zip codes. Hasn’t this program helped wreck enough neighborhoods?
Mr. Bovard, the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006), is working on a memoir.