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by Peter Moskos

June 17, 2008

The failure of Section 8 housing

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post about the Failure of Section 8 Housing. I wrote a comment as well.

[Here's a link to the Atlantic article that started this discussion.]


Anonymous said...

Everyone should read the Atlantic article....


Another discussion of section 8 -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_8_%28housing%29

One thought that crossed my mind is that school vouchers, a favored educational reform approach of conservatives, housing vouchers haven't worked out well.

At least in Chicago, it is extremely difficult to get in subsidized housing today -- waiting lists are closed.


The only thing this means is that dismantling the public housing mess is a one time thing.

PCM said...

That was a very good Atlantic article.

I think vouchers, both for schools and for housing, are great for those most able to help themselves.

And in that sense they do some real good.

The problem is what do we do about those least able to help themselves? What do we do about parents who don't give a damn about where their kids go to school? Or people who are just too fucked up to deal with the bureaucracy needed to get housing vouchers?

This is where the system breaks down. Liberals assume that it's the system's fault and the solution lies in better programs and opportunities. Conservatives generally don't want to pay to help those who refuse to help themselves.

Sometimes people are just messed up. What do we do about them? Other than lock them up.

[I was born in Chicago. It's amazing that the CHA hasn't been accepting application for 7 years! That being said, it's hard to shed a tear for the demolition of places like Cabrini Green. But I wonder, living in New York City, how come highrise public housing in New York has always worked so much better than it ever did in Chicago?]

Anonymous said...

New York is always the exception. Among other things, I read that they screened public housing applicants when it wasn't done in other areas. Also, housing in NY has always been more expensive.

At the moment, it seems to me that a public housing voucher in Chicago is not that dissimilar to legacy crop subsidy rights (like tobacco acerage rights) -- they have some value and they aren't giving out any more.

In Chicago, Cabrini Green is right in the middle of the North Side redevelopment area, and it was important to get rid of it to assist in redevelopment/gentrification. The CHA seems to want to keep elderly housing, which would justify their existence and more or less phase out its original role as a major provider of housing. I suppose that they aren't going to get more money so they want to downsize and reposition while keeping the legacy jobs.

I found the Atlantic article important in the sense that housing vouchers just rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic. It should have come to no surprise that simply moving people wasn't going to make much of a difference. What really seems to be happening is that Americans collectively decided that they should have followed a European model where less desirable public housing was moved out of the cities, which were too important to be allowed to rot.

I was alto taken by the Atlantic's article's emphasis on both the extent to which the discussion was disagreeable and politically difficult and the care with which they went to to avoid touching the politically sensitive 'third rails' of race and class. People really don't want to think too much about this.

PCM said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with rearranging a few deck chairs. A silver lining in watching some “urban” problems move out to the suburbs is that by dispersing some problems previously isolated in “inner city” neighborhoods, perhaps more people will have to care about solutions.

Maybe we can stop blaming cities for urban woes and provide some real solutions paid for by the federal government.

America's cities aren't to blame for America's poor; cities shouldn't be exclusively responsibility for America's poor.

America—all of America—should help the less fortunate. And America—all of America—should share the fiscal costs and the risks that go with the link between poverty, race, and crime.

As a city resident, I'm quite happy to pay more taxes to help the needy. And as a city resident, I'm also quite happy to see some needy tax-receivers move somewhere else.

About Cabrini Green, I don't have anything invested in redevelopment or gentrification. Whatever the forces were that brought down the buildings, I'm just happy I can get off the L at North and Clybourn and not be afraid. Nobody benefited from what was a dangerous and huge no-go area.

Anonymous said...


I don't think we really disagree about anything. I am all in favor of getting rid of the Cabrini Greens. I do go into the city and avoid areas where former residents are most likely to relocate to. The idea of the Atlantic article is that the problems were moving to relatively stable working class areas and pushing them over the edge.

I don't know if there are real solutions. The problem with simply rearranging the problem -- relocating them physically or passing them off to other institutions is that they tend to end up in institutions of last resort like the criminal justice system. When they deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, they ended up on the streets and frequently ended up in jail.

When you look at the public housing experiment, it really started off with good intentions and a reasonable amount of funding. There are plenty of pictures on the CHA web site of the history of the CHA -- the construction and original occupants of the buildings.

Back to your earlier comment on why it worked in New York, in the US, public housing residents are required to pay 25-30% of their income, and the working class could buy a small suburban house, again heavily subsidized, on a quarter of their gross income. Except in New York.

Back to the Atlantic article -- The total number of people simply isn't that large.

Per Wikipedia, the number of units in the US and Canada are:

New York City Housing Authority 162,130
Toronto Community Services 58,000
Puerto Rico Public Housing Administration 56,063
Chicago Housing Authority 34,499
Philadelphia Housing Authority 15,905
Housing Authority of Baltimore City 13,888
Boston Housing Authority 11,656

If you toss out New York, Toronto, and PR, that leaves Chicago with 35k, Phily with 16k, and Baltimore with 14k.

I suppose the smaller cities addressed in the Atlantic would have 5k or less units. This is an awful lot of trouble for the numbers.

It also sounds like we are at least 1/2 way through this process, if not further. I am wondering that since this is now more or less recognized and known, if it could be proactively addressed by police. That is, they know when it is happening and who is involved, so couldn't they come up with something like compstat to get on top of this sooner rather then later? I suppose that once social problems become police problems, it is too late to do much more then mop up. Still, it is still going on, and how many times do people need to act surprised at the consequences.

BG said...

Why is the answer always Federal? Why not keep solutions local. The answer to the problem in New York is not necessarily the answer to the problem in LA.

PCM said...

The solutions should be local, but the funding should be federal. Why should New York City or Chicago or Baltimore have to pay for poor people when residents who simply move outside city lines don't have to pay? It's just not fair.

People aren't poor because they live in a city. They live in a city because they have no choice. Plus, too often, richer suburbs have regulations and zoning and no public transportation that keeps poor people out. That's a fact.

If people can afford to live in segregated rich towns, well, I guess that's their business. But you shouldn't be able to run from the civic responsibilities (or integrated schools) just because you crossed some arbitrary municipal line.

PCM said...

Generic guy: good points, all. It's actually not that many people who cause a lot of problems. Regarding your last point, those numbers are interesting. I think people like David Kennedy are taking advantage of that. Most recently he's been helping reduce murders in Richmond, Virginia.

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