In a symposium on Section 8 convened last year by the Urban Institute, the problems identified with the program are nearly identical to the problems described by Greenbaum and Rodriguez. In the transcripts of the symposium, the facilitator acknowledges that finding housing with a Section 8 voucher is becoming increasingly difficult as housing markets heat up. The facilitator also states, "... the philosophy of free choice about where is the right place to live with your voucher may not be operating fully in reality. There may be geographic clustering with pockets of poverty forming in some communities."
In a tight housing market like Tampa's, landlords in areas with a low rate of poverty can take their pick of residents who can afford to pay rent without assistance. And accepting Section 8 vouchers involves the worst kind of bureaucracy — the kind that's managed by the government. If landlords can keep their units filled with middle-class tenants who pay their own rent, why bother?
According to Section 8 manager Clarence Brown, there are landlords with units that are not in poor areas who accept Section 8, but accepting the voucher is only part of the equation. While housing projects provide accommodations to those who meet the housing authority's relatively low criteria, independent landlords set the rules for Section 8 recipients. Some want renters without a criminal record; some require that they have a good credit rating or be employed. Some may even have a minimum income standard.
These standards can make finding a decent place even more difficult, and they can make the search so frustrating that people give up and return to housing projects.
Brown would not say that taking the voucher is a gamble, but that's just semantics. He does say, "Section 8 is a rental-assistance program. Some people will be successful in finding housing and some will not."
He says that the industrious will find housing. But unless the former public-housing resident is earning considerably more than minimum wage and has a AAA credit rating, finding acceptable housing is far from a sure thing — even with a lot of effort. Still, whether it's in Suitcase City or in Palma Ceia, many do find housing with Section 8, just as McDanieal did. Then they have to work on staying there. The bureaucracy that most of us try to avoid is a fact of life with Section 8. The housing authority inspects Section 8 apartments before residents move in, and the residents must pass an annual inspection as well. Most people just throw a rug over that reddish blotch caused by an up-ended glass of wine, but that blotch can be a black mark for public-housing residents. Stains on the carpet and any other signs of wear and tear are just some of the reasons vouchers can be revoked, leaving people to either pay the full rent or lose the roof over their heads.
And then there's the paperwork. Forgetting to fill out a form can wreak havoc on already precarious finances. Shortly after moving into her new place, McDanieal neglected to inform the Section 8 office that she was no longer working at Burger King, and they continued to expect her to pay her share of the rent, $115. By the time she realized her error, the back rent had reached $435 and she started getting eviction notices. Her mother had to pay her back rent.
Most voucher holders have to pay 30 percent of their income in rent while Section 8 picks up the rest. Unlike the projects, where there are utility subsidies, voucher-holders generally have to take on those expenses themselves. A public-housing resident who might have relied on a neighbor's phone to make calls, now must have her own installed. Overall, housing can be more expensive on Section 8, says a HUD spokesman, especially for the very poor.
The Rocky Road to Self-sufficiency
With most social programs, including Section 8 and public housing, the overriding problem is poverty. It doesn't really matter where the poor get shuffled to if they always remain poor. HOPE VI does have a self-sufficiency component, but the program doesn't put its money where its good intentions are. Of the nearly $58-million that will be spent to tear down and rebuild College Hill and Ponce de Leon, only $400,000 has been allocated for services for the residents so far. The plan is to spend about $1.2-million over the course of four years. The Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League has a contract with THA to track HOPE VI residents and to provide them with services.