Housing Vouchers and Failures in Desegregation in American Cities

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It seems like a good idea on paper. Housing vouchers are meant to address the fact that most cities, from Los Angeles to Baltimore, have a chronic lack of affordable housing. In these same urban areas, black and minority neighborhoods are disproportionately impoverished which effectively keeps cities segregated by race.

The theory behind the Housing Choice Voucher Program is that instead of getting a resident to move into established affordable housing sites, the Federal Government will instead help an applicant move to a new, better, safer neighborhood with more opportunities, and subsidize their rent to make it affordable.

It’s a two birds/one stone solution. The program is designed to desegregate poor communities to get residents out of the cycle of plight and to better school systems and less crime. It also addresses the problematic lack of affordable housing by expanding an applicant’s options. It’s a bold system that, at its heart, is based on the foundations of equality and inclusion. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, it’s also mostly a complete failure.

For evidence of this, one need look no further than the greater St. Louis area near Ferguson, Missouri, one of the most segregated locations in the country and a community still reeling a year removed from the Michael Brown shooting. There Crystal Wade, a voucher recipient, is trying to relocate herself and her three daughters to a better neighborhood. She has good reason.

In poor, predominantly black, neighborhoods like hers in the Northern St. Louis area the household median income is only $22,500; 75 percent less than nearby white neighborhoods with a median of $90,000. Life expectancy is also 15 years shorter. Miss Wade knows how important it is to relocate if her and her children are going to have a decent chance, but it’s a move she finds herself powerless to make.

Economics are the main driving factor. Even with a full time job at 40 hours a week, Miss Wade doesn’t have the means to get to a better neighborhood. What’s worse, due to property values, the vast majority of affordable housing is built in low income areas such as hers further preventing any hopes of escape. Housing segregation and discrimination may be illegal, but systemic inequality keep the effects firmly in place.

“Even though the on-the-ground mechanisms of segregation are now frayed, you end up with really a spatially divided housing market in which blacks can afford to live in one band of housing stock and whites in another,” says Colin Gordon, history professor at University of Iowa.

The federal housing voucher program was meant to tackle this issue, but it’s seen little success. It’s fatal flaw seems to be that landlords are not required to accept them and many in predominantly white neighborhoods simply don’t. In St. Louis, like many cities and suburbs across the country, a “not in my backyard” attitude seems to win the day.

Economists and social scientists have long established and proven the link between poverty and crime. Disenfranchisement, abject conditions, and a lack of opportunity beget tension and frustration with a system that comes to be viewed as broken for those it entraps. For some, the solution is to go outside the system and seek survival through illicit means. It’s this very tension and frustration that many believe led to the spark and eventual eruption of violence which shook the nation in Ferguson one year ago.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is well aware of this fact, which is why his administration has been promoting measures to establish and enforce fair housing laws. Still, economic inequality combined with a lack of affordable housing in good neighborhoods, and an unwillingness of landlords in those neighborhoods to accept vouchers due to a prejudicial association of minorities with crime, keeps families like Crystal Wade firmly in place.

As it stands, three out of every four voucher recipients in the St. Louis area end up in northern part of the county in the same impoverished neighborhoods. Through all of her searching, the few properties in better neighborhoods had multiple months long waiting periods.

The law may be on the side of anyone facing housing discrimination, but it’s difficult to prove and enforce. Katina Combs works with the Metropolitan Equal Housing and Opportunity Council to try to weed out any offending landlords. Doing so is challenging at best. A landlord is not likely to admit they’re being discriminatory. They have socioeconomics to do that for them.

“Discrimination is different today,” Says Combs, “It’s with a smile. It’s with a pleasant voice.”

As for Crystal Wade, her dreams of reaching a better neighborhood proved unattainable for now, and she was unable to relocate away from the tough Northern neighborhoods she’s used to. She settled on a home that’s structurally better than her current one, yet where crime is statistically higher. Still, the neighborhood seems safer to her with less empty lots and abandoned homes. For residents trapped in the systemic cycle of poverty, sometimes the appearance of improvement is the only measure one can afford.