US Housing Vouchers Don’t Work. Time To Turn Back the Clock For A Better Idea?

architect's drawing and plan for a cape cod cottage
Standard Floor Plans for a Cape Cod Cottage - NARA - 5928284 photo by National Archives and Records Administration is licensed under the public domain
Plan of a Cape Cod house. One struggling section 8 voucher recipient actually managed to rent a house like this — a lone fairy tale ending in a sea of sad stories about voucher failure.

The following article begins with a personal adventure in attempting to utilize a Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher in order to rent an apartment. These vouchers were created in the 1970’s as a more efficient and effective way to serve the housing needs of America’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. The nation was retreating from the construction of much-reviled social housing (not to mention tearing them down), and needed a replacement program that would overcome the much publicized failings of public housing. Today, Section 8 vouchers have been revealed to be a failure. Ultimately, the voucher program was, and still is, as poorly designed as social housing programs were.

Both were, and still are, chronically underfunded. (Remnants of America’s public housing program still struggle along, slowly smothering under its crumbling infrastructure.)

It was all too easy for managers of public housing and section 8 programs to blame the virtually voiceless recipients for bad design and bad management. “You can’t find anyone to accept your housing voucher? Must be your fault. Sorry, it’s expired now and you can’t have an other one. Try tenting.”

The Propublica article that follows moves from a personal saga to an in-depth look at everything that is wrong with section 8 vouchers. The article headline conveys the impression that towns full of wealthy people are responsible for throttling the voucher program to death. This is possibly because Propublica has teamed up with a Connecticut publication, the Connecticut Mirror, produce the article. And Connecticut is indeed a state of wealthy cities that seem to be filled with residents who are rushing to protect their assets, at best, or at worst, poor-and-minority-hating citizens.

But don’t be put off by the narrowness of the headline. Section 8 vouchers are abused and ignored across the country in wealthy neighbourhoods, middle class neighbourhoods and poor ones. They are sneered at and refused legally, thanks to landlords availing themselves of a Swiss cheese of loopholes built into the voucher program. And where some of those loopholes have been plugged, they are sneered at and refused illegally.

Time for a rethink on public housing? Perhaps a visit to other countries where public housing has proved to be efficient and effective for a bit of ‘how to’ construction? That’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, experience the full horror of the Housing Choice voucher program in Propublica: How Wealthy Towns Keep People With Housing Vouchers Out