Why the Section 8 Solution Won’t Cut It

Donald Trump’s appointment of Ben Carson to be the next Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts Dr. Carson in charge of a $45 billion budget that administers housing aid to over five million American families. Reading Matthew Desmond’s new book, which powerfully recounts the daily struggles of eight low-income families in Milwaukee, will help him prepare for the job.

An impressive work of ethnography (and also a bestseller), Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is the product of time spent living alongside Americans of low income—the author spent over a year in two communities, one black and one white—and rigorous research. The reader is drawn into, and made to care about, the daily toils of America’s neediest; by the book’s end, one cannot help but be ready to respond to this call to end the human suffering that happens in our own backyards. It provides a compelling view into the lives of landlords and tenants alike, illuminating the country’s housing and poverty crises by giving names and faces to the complex issues that contribute to them.

Desmond’s thesis is that safe and affordable housing is extremely scarce in the United States, and this scarcity is a primary perpetuator of the vicious cycle of poverty. He shadows two landlords, Sherrena and Tobin, and some of their tenants, all of whom are referred to by pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Sherrena owns and manages a number of properties in the predominately black community of Milwaukee’s North Side. Tobin owns a trailer park whose residents are predominantly white. Both landlords come across as industrious and law-abiding entrepreneurs who saw a lucrative opportunity in providing housing to low-income tenants. They turn a good profit from their rental properties, but Desmond shows that their work is far from easy, often because of the manifold life problems with which their clientele are saddled.

While living in the dilapidated properties that Sherrena and Tobin rent to him, Desmond follows the lives of his neighbors. He shows them to be unhappy individuals made unhappier by their travails. Most of them have a hard time maintaining steady employment. For some, addiction and mental illness prevent them from work; others simply can’t find work or choose not to. All are dependent on monthly welfare checks and food stamps for survival.

Desmond compels readers to take into consideration the problems associated with unaffordable housing. He does so by immersing his audience in the decisions that underprivileged Americans make each day in order to survive.

Arleen, an African-American mother of two and one of Sherrena’s tenets, spends 88 percent of her $628-a-month welfare check on housing. The rest she spends on utilities, school supplies, and food for her sons. When her sister died, Arleen decided that the unexpected funeral costs superseded eating that week and rent that month. She fell behind in the rent, and Sherrena gave her an eviction notice. After being expelled from her home, making nearly a hundred calls to landlords in search of a place to live, and living in homeless shelters with her boys, Arleen saw one of her sons removed from her custody by Child Protective Services to live with her sister.  “Just my soul is messed up,” says Arleen. “Sometimes I find my body shaking or trembling . . . my body is trying to shut down.”

In this book, people’s decisions have consequences; but its vignettes also show the degree to which people can be trapped by their circumstances. A trailer park resident named Larraine, after being evicted from her dwelling and while living with a neighbor, uses food stamps to dine on lobster and crab legs (washed down with Pepsi), fully aware that it means she will only be able to eat canned food for the rest of the month. Larraine also prefers having expensive anti-wrinkle cream and nice jewellery to paying rent and saving money. The fact is, she has little incentive to save. If her account accrues more than $2,000 she could lose her benefits, or her landlord Tobin could access her savings for any past rent. “If I can’t keep my money in the bank, then I might as well buy something worthwhile,” she says, “because once I pay on it, it’s mine and no one can take it from me, just like my jewelry.”

Through stories like these, Desmond acknowledges the effects that individuals’ choices have—for better or for worse—but we are still left wondering how they could escape their poverty, at least on their own. The details we get simply do not support the stereotype of low-income individuals gleefully living off the dole at taxpayers’ expense.

Desmond asserts that there exists a tension of competing goods: the right for a landlord to profit from his or her property investment and the freedom for a tenant to live in safe and affordable housing. Chief among his proposals to make available more affordable housing is the universal housing voucher—or an expansion of Section 8— for which anyone below a certain income level would be eligible. The only story here with a happy ending is that of Scott, from Tobin’s trailer park, who lost his nursing license because of his opiate addiction. Scott only regained sobriety— and the ability to work toward reclaiming his license—after he obtained a housing voucher. Therefore, Desmond argues, expanding housing voucher programs would allow landlords to make money (albeit not too much!) while ensuring that all those who need housing receive it.

But here is where conceptual problems emerge in this in many ways admirable study. Evicted is a classic case of the prescription not following the description. Probing as he is, the author has avoided two critical questions: Why is rent in Milwaukee so unaffordable in the first place? And what is the cause of his neighbors’ difficulty staying housed?

Desmond neglects to look at the underlying reasons that Sherrena and Tobin charge so much in rent. He reports that price-to-rent ratios (ratio of home’s purchase price to the price for which it is rented) are higher in the North Side than the well-off Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. He expresses suspicion about this—but doesn’t consider the fact that landlords renting in the North Side have to factor costs into their rental prices that landlords in Wauwatosa do not, such as damage to property, missed rental payments, and evictions (not to mention the reduced likelihood of the homes themselves significantly appreciating in value). Landlords know that these are costs inherent to servicing their disadvantaged clientele; it’s an unfortunate reality that hardworking single mothers like Arleen suffer because of the negligence of other renters.

The powerful descriptions of the lives of the non-working poor lead him to reach for a solution (the universal housing voucher) before he has plumbed the root causes of their problems. To prescribe the voucher as a solution is implicitly to assume that housing is itself the root cause. But does a lack of housing cause drug addiction, compulsive spending, or violence? Or do those habits cause a lack of housing? In some cases, like that of Scott, it is acknowledged that drug addiction had much to do with this man’s homelessness and poverty. But the heavy focus on the voucher solution belies this recognition. Widening the eligibility of the voucher would hardly do much to get at such problems as addiction and family breakdown. A randomized controlled trial, the gold-standard among research methods, recently published by the American Economic Review examined the effects of randomly allocated housing vouchers. The result was that individuals who received vouchers worked less and relied more on government welfare.

Another question is that of representativeness. Evicted tells us much about poverty and under-housing in Milwaukee, but provides insufficient evidence that the experience of Milwaukee’s poor is representative of other American states and cities.

Lastly, it is important to consider Desmond’s policy proposal in the broader context of other policies aimed at solving this problem. Policymakers in the past have examined supply-side policies—such as building public housing and rent control—and demand-side polices—including artificially low interest rates to incentivize home ownership (a la the housing bubble of late 2007 and the subsequent financial crisis), and Section 8 housing vouchers. Each of these have fallen short in their own right, so it’s not clear that enlarging a failed program would do much in this circumstance.

The irony is that by attempting to help the under-housed afford shelter, the policy prescription favored here would pad the pockets of the Sherrenas and Tobins of the world who, with a universal housing voucher, would only profit more. Granted, with the increased demand that an expanded voucher would allow, more landlords would likely enter the market and provide much-needed competition, but the fact remains: landlords would almost certainly benefit. We see from this account, perhaps more against than with its author’s own conclusions, the important role that landlords—and payday lenders for that matter, which he also condemns—play in providing services to low-income Americans. If more regulations were put in place to curb the extent to which landlords or payday lenders could profit from providing their services to the poor, the result would be fewer such services available to the poor, not more.

Still, it is well to remember that issues relating to poverty and housing in America are layered and complex. Evicted presents many lessons about what Secretary-to-be Carson ought and ought not do if he hopes to improve the status quo. “We cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities,” Dr. Carson told Fox News. The answers are not as simple as Matthew Desmond seems to suppose, but his book should be celebrated for calling attention to this subject and most of all for giving it a compelling human face.

Reader Discussion

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on December 13, 2016 at 07:50:10 am

Why are poor people poor? Making bad decisions is a large part of the explanation, and unfortunately government assistance--welfare--often enables this. Personal accountability incentivizes good decisions.

"A trailer park resident named Larraine, after being evicted from her dwelling and while living with a neighbor, uses food stamps to dine on lobster and crab legs (washed down with Pepsi), fully aware that it means she will only be able to eat canned food for the rest of the month. Larraine also prefers having expensive anti-wrinkle cream and nice jewellery to paying rent and saving money."

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Mark Pulliam
on December 13, 2016 at 16:36:39 pm

A few thoughts: For those who cannot work, as in "cannot be hired for paid employment, "work" is available in other forms. This does of course require respectful sensitivity for severe conditions and certain special needs to which any decent society must attend.

Setting aside those special cases then: I do believe that a wide spectrum of people - most people, in fact - will, if asked and encouraged, agree to certain reasonable requirements* - for example, maintaining a clean and orderly apartment or room and bath, attending to personal hygiene, purchasing with cash or food stamps the elements of a healthy diet (perhaps according to a supplied list), adhering to a reasonable retiring and waking schedule, - as a form of "work". Performance of this "work" is rewarded. The rewards include better health - bodily, emotional, mental, spiritual health - and the self-respect that is a natural result of participation in the economic life of one's community. A society which refuses to acknowledge the essential "rightness" and "goodness" of these things may find itself having to accept the kinds of outcomes described in this article. This is the result of a society which fails to provide respectful models incentives that encourage them to improve their lives.

I and many, many others have pondered the different aspects of this problem. One reads with anguish of neglected children, despairing adults, increase in addictions and in suicides of young people. This article prompted me to look for sources that might offer guidance. I searched "welfare housing" and happened upon a historic "Settlement House" site. It was interesting but one passage in particular "jumped out" so to speak. This passage mentioned that the original social workers, those who lived and worked in the settlement houses, such as Hull House, were not free of bias in favor of "middle class values and customs". The writer did not list the values that exhibited "bias". If they were oppressive, then certainly he was correct.

But, I wonder. Could he have meant some of the activities I have listed above? If he did, are these standards arbitrarily associated with an economic, sociologically definable group of persons or are they standards that are by nature "good", as in "good for human health and flourishing". Did the "activities of daily living" taught at the Settlement Houses assist the newly-arrived persons, provide a model for human flourishing, "set an example", a respectful example? Are we denying this kind of assistance to those in need? I think that, with all good intentions, we are doing exactly that.

Why, also, I wonder did the author feel need to refer to "bias". I could not help but be reminded of a passage from Pope Benedict: "Pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction. It is not the uninvolved who comes to knowledge; rather interest itself is a requirement for the possibility of coming to know."

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Linda Smith
on December 13, 2016 at 18:56:52 pm


You are quite correct. These "things" are important for human flourishing, or at a minimum human health.
The problem may very well be caused by the "takeover" by the State of what had previously been community, and especially religious backed charity. In effect, what we are seeing is the destruction of core values, at least the promulgation of those values, when we convert a "civic good", i.e., charitable works, into a public good, i.e., *right to.....* with a predicate in newly created positive law. with that law comes all manner of specific requirements and obligations for the charitable provider such that the underlying goal of moral education / behavior is impossible to achieve as the State may not be seen to *prefer* any particular religious / moral philosophy AND, of course, multiculturalism.
After all, abusing your own body / family / neighbors is in the current milieu a viable choice.

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Image of gabe
on December 13, 2016 at 21:12:48 pm

I spend approximately 10 years working with and helping my high school best friend navigate, deal with and survive as a homeless person. His background was from a good, stable family, college educated and without initial mental problems. How he became homeless was a matter of life choices, most of which was alcoholic and drug addiction.

Initially, my wife and I approached the problem with middle class values, provide him a clean place to live and he would rise above his situation. Wrong. We got him into a decent apartment and through his abuse he continued to get ejected out of each until there was no other option of to live in shelters and on the street.

At one point we went the Section 8 route, heralded as the golden award by homeless people, but I have nothing positive to say about this program. Like all Government admistered program, the good intention collapses under its administration. Its problem is the requirements HUD puts on building owners and the standards they must meet in order to be eligible to receive Section 8 tentants. Safety, inspections, air quality, structural requirements, the proper amount of widows and exits, air quality along with periodic inspections. The reality is that a landlord had to charge a higher amount of rent and be concerned about their tenants because of the capital requirements and operating cost to be a Section 8 provider. For my friend, getting into Section 8 housing was not only cost prohibitive, but having been evicted previously, could not qualify via the landloard.

My current attitude about the homeless is that they are made of of two groups, those who have become recently homeless due to a variety of adverse circumstances and with aid will be able to right the ship and be self supporting again. The other group are now perpetuallly homeless, wether through addition or mental illness or both. To the later was my friend who refused to follow the minimum guidelines and ultimately died on the street. To the latter it seems to me that our society should provide some reasonable shelter for them. Something Section 8 can never do. They need shelter, not a condo.

I am personally troubled by the rise of homeless people I see these days. We have a lady that live perpetually on our next block, 24/7, but she is accompanied by many more in and around our alfuent and mixed neighborhood. I personally attribute these homeless people to our less than adequate economic and imigration policies. If we allow able bodied people from other parts of the world to take low paying jobs, why would one hire an out-of-work older person? There is a cost in our society of these decisions and unfortunately there are a lot more people paying that price

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Image of Earl
on December 14, 2016 at 07:52:32 am

"Why the Section 8 solution won't cut it." The author's education and experience require readers to pay respectful attention.

I replied to the social, psychological, moral questions raised by the personal vignettes in the post. In other words, I missed the main point. Still, from the point of view of the "common man", the economic and the social, etc. aspects of the problems described seem inseparable.

We have created a standpoint from which we must reason/legislate: Absolute neutrality regarding the "goodness" of things. Thus, "goodness" must be decided by individual choice. Yet we know and freely acknowledge that certain choices go wrong, are certain to go wrong, are known to go wrong, and that people often make these hurtful, harmful choices. How do we know that?

We are not neutral about the consequences of these mistakes and we ought not to be - that is, if we ascribe any value to a concept loosely described as "common decency" - or something like that. Words and phrases once commonly understood are lost, as in "A way of seeing is being lost." (Prof. James Kugel, Harvard). What would such words, "common decency" mean today and what authority would we ascribe to it? Can it be defined?

If we believe in nothing above individual choice, how are we to explain to "Arleen" or "Larraine" how to begin again or why to begin again?

Still, strong and sturdy housing (not soul-deadeningly stark in design and quality), a healthy diet, opportunities for training and encouragement to avail oneself of this training as a requirement) are things good in themselves. I think we can agree on that. Order and cleanliness are good for the inner person; these and other "good habits" shape character. The rest must be left to each person's intrinsic ability to recognize and strive for a "good life".

How to provide this idyllic scenario in reality is the task of Dr. Alexandra Hudson and her colleagues. I wish them well.

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Linda Smith
on December 14, 2016 at 09:58:32 am

At the risk of redundancy:

If we analyze ("take apart") this issue and the many similar and related to it - all the way to the "core," what we come to are the needs for appropriate, sufficient (even if not optimum) understandings of what are the **obligations** in particular circumstances; whose obligations are they; how do they arise in the **individuals** involved (the sense of CARITAS, e.g.); how are they to be met or performed.

It is not necessary that we start with the best (or most "comfortable") ways of meeting obligations that can become the enemy of both good ways of performance and understanding the nature of the obligations.

As Gabe intimates, there are consistent efforts to "transfer," or spread the burdens of, involvements with obligations - to the Church, to charitable and other groups, and even to political constructs.

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R Richard Schweitzer

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.