Housing Poverty Immersion Research: Lessons from a Landlord
January 11, 2022
By Dr. Destenie Nock
A house poor person is anyone whose housing expenses account for an exorbitant percentage of their monthly budget. In extreme cases, some people spend up to 90% of their income just covering their rent costs. A recent report found that over 40% of Black and Latino households spent more than 30% of their gross income on rent, compared to just 25% of white households. As you can imagine, when a large percentage of your income goes to rent, not much is left over for food, medical bills, energy, and other basic needs. Securing shelter is the first step to establishing security.
House poverty is one of the biggest issues with resolving the poverty crisis in America (some people spend 90% of their income on rent). After reading the book Evicted, my husband and I realized that when we became landlords one way to be a part of the solution would be to accept housing vouchers (aka Section 8). We took out a loan to get the house (which came with an inherited Section 8 tenant), and closed on the home late December. After three weeks of calling and emailing Section 8, we have still not been able to get the housing voucher transferred to our account as the new landlords...or even communicate directly with anyone. Thus, the previous landlord is still getting our payments. Meanwhile, the mortgage company has definitely take their money out of our account. We've been calling Section 8 for three weeks with no answer. Leading me to the conclusion that (warning this has not been peer-reviewed), at least in my city, the housing crisis is in part due to lack of staffing and/or dysfunction in the housing program office.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program was enacted in 1974 as Section 8 of the United States Housing Act. Through this act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administers the program (at the federal level). Locally, vouchers are administered by public housing agencies (PHAs). Each year Congress appropriates funds for these housing vouchers, and PHAs are given a set number of vouchers that they are authorized to dish out to low income residents each year. Often residents are on the waitlist for these vouchers for years.
If you thought getting the voucher was the hard part, then I suggest you re-read the first half of this blog post. When an applicant receives a voucher from their local PHA, they must then find a housing unit on the private market. The landlord of the unit will have to agree to accept the vouchers and will enter into a Housing Assistance Payment Contract with the PHA upon signing the lease with their new Section 8 tenant. A key benefit of the Housing Choice Voucher program is supposed to be the mobility portability, which permits voucher holders to move to the jurisdiction of another PHA and retain their assistance, and choose any house they wish in the private market. However given my difficulty with contacting the housing authority office I am no longer surprised to find that unanswered e-mails and phone calls have led to a shortage of landlords willing to accept the vouchers.
This difficulty in working with the program is extremely upsetting and frustrating given the years families have waited to receive these vouchers, and the low-income housing crises plaguing cities. There were over 43 million renter-based U.S. households in 2016. A good portion of these are low-income people in dire need of assistance.
P.S. If you are Section 8 please pick up the phone and stop disconnecting us after 3 hours of being on hold.
P.S.S. If you are a policy maker please help with this.
Sincerely, A landlord trying to do the right thing
Note about the Author: Dr. Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Her current research is focused on energy justice which has strong ties to housing justice. Her research is computational in nature and involved creating mathematical models which simulate electricity systems and evaluated them in terms of their sustainability and equality. Her papers detailing the research she completed in energy justice, sustainability evaluation, and electricity modeling can be found here, and on her Google Scholar page. Fun fact: Dr. Nock became a landlord in December of 2021.