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Lack of Section 8 is not Just About Poverty: It's About Race

By Michael Bodaken, President

At the National Housing Trust, we have used project-based Section 8 assistance to help preserve affordable rental housing for over 25 years. Project-based Section 8 has been a successful public-private partnership which helps provide affordable housing to very low income households. Today, however, I want to talk about tenant-based Section 8 assistance. Tenant-based Section 8 vouchers, commonly known as Housing Choice Vouchers, are provided directly to very low income residents to find an affordable home in the private market. 

Being eligible for Section 8 does not guarantee that a poor household receives Section 8 assistance. Securing Section 8 assistance is more akin to winning a lottery. 75 percent of U.S. households who are eligible do not receive Section 8 assistance. More likely, the household is placed on a very long Godot-like "wait list."  And the household waits. And waits. And waits. The average wait time on such a list is years. Not months. Years.

The lack of universal application of Section 8 is obviously a housing injustice. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), 20.7 million U.S. renter households are cost burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This number represents slightly more than half of all renter households.  But there is another pernicious outcome of the lack of Section 8 resources for every eligible household. Lack of Section 8 fuels inequality and works a racial injustice.

The obvious answer: universal vouchers.The Bipartisan Policy Commission (BPC) has recommended making federal rental assistance available to all eligible extremely low income households (with incomes at or below 30 percent of Area Median Income) who apply.  More research is needed, but early studies show that providing permanent housing actually reduces public costs associated with meeting the needs of the homeless. Surely the benefits of meeting the housing needs of our lowest income citizens plus the added savings associated with no longer needing to provide emergency health care and other services is worth the investment of the wealthiest country on the planet.  Providing stable housing for these under-served millions - many of them minority families - will open the door for them to then access education, steady jobs, health care, and opportunities for a brighter future. Seems like a pretty good idea, right?*

*A longer version of this commentary was used by Living Cities for their compendium of essays, Closing the Racial Gaps, Together We Can.