Have You Questioned Your Candidates On Section 8 Housing? FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 15 May 1999 14:01:18 -0700 (PDT)


As elections approach where you live, are you questioning your candidates
on their plans for housing and helping homeless and poor people?

If so, please email *your reports*
(or any post yous wish to get on-list) To:
<HPN@ASPIN.ASU.EDU>

http://www.phillynews.com/inquirer/99/May/09/city/SEC09.htm
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - May 9, 1999

     Citizen Voices '99

     QUESTIONS FOR CANDIDATES ON SECTION 8

     A trend to move subsidized renters
     into neighborhoods has worsened relations.

     By Peter Nicholas and Maria Panaritis
     Inquirer Staff Writers

 It is the taboo topic of the campaign trail, an issue that is so bound up
in feelings about race and decline of neighborhoods that the candidates for
mayor seem loath to bring it up.

 But the debate over the Section 8 housing program is being played out
elsewhere  -- from concrete stoops in Grays Ferry to tree-lined blocks in
the Northeast.

 A rent-subsidy plan that started with the best intentions  -- to liberate
poor people from forbidding housing projects and put them in established
neighborhoods  -- has ballooned into a program that some say is the scourge
of city blocks.

 And it is only getting bigger.

 Prodded by the federal government, the Philadelphia Housing Authority is
flattening high-rises and shrinking the massive, congested public housing
projects of old. Displaced tenants are getting Section 8 vouchers and being
told to find housing from private landlords across the city.

 The trend has roiled once-stable neighborhoods already enduring the loss
of manufacturing jobs, stagnant property values, and crime. Some longtime
residents have fled to the suburbs, citing Section 8 neighbors who leave
trash strewn about, play music too loud, entertain visitors at all hours,
and worse.

 It is not any easier for Section 8 tenants. Some complain about being
demonized by neighbors who, at bottom, don't want racial minorities living
on the block.

 By any measure, the program has been tough to run. There has been little
screening or follow-up of tenants, lax enforcement of rules, and poor
bookkeeping.

 Federal investigators found last year, for example, that PHA could be
paying landlords inflated rents  -- there was no way of knowing for sure
because records were so poor.

 Partly to address the rising chorus of complaints, Mayor Rendell brought
in a new agency director last year with a mandate to overhaul the program.
Many reforms already have been made, including checking the criminal
records of new tenants, hiring more investigators and reducing rents.

 Even so, there are no signs that the next mayor can escape Section 8.

 The mayor controls two seats on the five-member PHA board. The
appointments coupled with his stature give him considerable sway over the
future of Section 8. Many residents have made clear at packed community
meetings that they want the mayor, the federal government to keep the
program from hurting their neighborhoods.

 "If there was a candidate that came into this neighborhood and this area
and said, 'I have the cure for Section 8,' " said Debbie
Mulholland-Salamon, president of the Mayfair Business Association, "he
would win."

 Section 8 refers to a 1974 amendment to the United States Housing Act of
1937, which created public housing projects. The new law signaled a new
approach. The government wanted to put more money into private hands.
Section 8 provided subsidies to private owners who rent to low-income
tenants.

 Tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The
government pays the rest. In Philadelphia, the government pays an average
of $484; the tenant $189.

 Families are eligible if they make no more than half the area's median
income  -- $25,650 for a family of four. Rents cannot exceed certain
amounts. For example, the government will pay no more than $903 for a
three-bedroom apartment.

 In 1990, about 8,000 Philadelphia families received vouchers for use in
any neighborhood. Today, the number is 10,486.

 There is no sign that demand will slacken. As of last month, the waiting
list numbered 12,264.

 At one time, homelessness was the fastest path to Section 8 housing. In
the late 1980s, the federal government gave first shot to the homeless.
That shut out the working poor. Thousands of once-homeless families
trickled into traditionally sturdy rowhouse neighborhoods, with little
understanding of how to be a considerate neighbor.

 That has been a core objection to the program: Such tenants can ruin the
quality of life and potentially erode the value of houses on otherwise
quiet streets.

 Another source of resentment is the integration of historically white
neighborhoods. More than 85 percent of Section 8 tenants are black.

 "When people say, 'I have a complaint about a Section 8 tenant,' I can't
recall a situation where it has not been about a person of color," said
Kevin Vaughan, head of the city Human Relations Commission.

 Yolanda Quillen, her fiance, and children moved into a Section 8 rowhouse
in Grays Ferry a year ago. Trouble quickly followed. Her windows were
broken. Hostile letters were slipped under her door. Trash was dumped in
her tiny backyard.

 The reason? "They don't want black families on the block," said Quillen,
33. She plans to move.

 Vaughan worries that talk about the behavior of Section 8 tenants masks a
deeper prejudice that people are reluctant to express openly.

 To that extent, the program is unfairly stigmatized. People wrongly assume
that every new minority neighbor moving into an established white
neighborhood is getting a Section 8 subsidy.

 One in four complaints to PHA's Section 8 hotline targets neighbors who
are _not_ in the program.

 Still, some neighbors cite well-documented instances in which tenants have
made life on the block difficult. They blame the way the Section 8 program
has been run.

 "If they police Section 8, it would help a lot of people," said Rosanne
Ross, 46, of the 5900 block of Weymouth Street, an immaculate cluster of
aging houses in Lawncrest, Northeast Philadelphia, where residents have
clashed with a tenant since April 1998. "The system is so abused it is
ridiculous."

 At first, neighbors say, there were "little nuisances." Loud music. Foul
language. Late-night loitering. Fighting. Spitting.

 Then, neighbors learned that one of the tenants of the Section 8 house on
Weymouth Street  -- a teenager  -- had fought with a group of teens at the
nearby recreation center. The boy's family is Puerto Rican. The teens are
white.

 The incident, which quickly made the rounds on the block, served to stoke
tensions. Complaints about the family persisted.

 It wasn't easy for the family, either. Someone tossed a bottle through a
window of the house, striking the mother, Police Sgt. Sonia Elliott said.

 Residents said they did not know until June that the family was on Section
8. A month later, a neighbor phoned the PHA hotline and filed a complaint.
PHA investigated.

 What began as a dispute between tenant and neighbors had spiraled to a new
level: A civic association, the police, State Rep. Chris R. Wogan, PHA, the
landlord, the Human Relations Commission, and a fair-housing advocate all
became involved.

 "I saw with my own eyes that they weren't getting the kind of response
that they should have gotten," said Wogan, a Republican who represents
Philadelphia.

 Eventually, PHA amassed enough evidence to justify yanking the family's
Section 8 subsidy, according to an agency official. PHA found 18 police
reports documenting everything from loud music to behavior so disruptive
that the oldest son's own family called 911 twice.

 But the agency is reluctant to punish entire households for the misdeeds
of a few. That was the agency's thinking when it chose not to oust the
family. The agency more aggressively revokes vouchers if the head of
household is to blame, or if a tenant is caught with drugs or commits a
violent crime.

 "If we just went booting out people left and right, lots of people would
be criticizing us: 'You're kicking out the grandmother when you should be
kicking out the grandson,' " PHA spokeswoman Robin Leary said.

 In the end, PHA removed a 21-year-old son from the voucher program but
left the mother with her subsidy intact. She lives there today, but has
been searching since last year for a new place, in part to escape the
hostility on her block, according to her landlord.

 Ronnie Latham, director of the Fair Action Housing Center, who worked on
the Lawncrest situation, believes the family was unfairly singled out.
Other neighbors police cited for unruly behavior were left alone, she said.

 "I think anybody can speak out about anything," Latham said, "but to
target a Section 8 family, wouldn't you say that's a form of
discrimination?"

 The Lawncrest experience underscores what for the community is a mystery:
Who is responsible for Section 8 tenants? Is it the landlord? PHA? Police?

According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which
finances Section 8, landlords are responsible for screening and evicting
tenants. But they are often difficult to reach.

 PHA investigates complaints and has the power to revoke subsidies. But it
has no authority to evict.

 Another longstanding criticism is that not enough is done to help new
residents fit into communities. As Vaughan put it: "Every neighborhood has
its own rules." Of course, some say there's a different set of rules for
Section 8 tenants. They are watched more closely for the slightest
violation of the neighborhood's norms.

 What was done to prepare the Puerto Rican family for life on Weymouth
Street? "Not as much as should have been done," PHA's Leary said. "That's
one of the reasons we're instituting this reform."

 Previously, tenants would receive only briefings about their
responsibilities. Starting this month, they must complete a training
program on maintaining their units and being "good neighbors" before
receiving assistance.

 That is one of a series of changes PHA executive director Carl Greene has
pursued since succeeding John White Jr., a Democratic candidate for mayor,
in March 1998. Greene also is working to keep landlords from collecting
more rent than their apartments are worth. Critics say high rents encourage
owners to buy up many properties, turning neighborhoods of home owners into
blocks of renters.

 Greene's staff has identified more than 100 cases in which landlords were
charging rates that exceeded the rent at comparable properties in the
neighborhood. PHA has reduced rents by as much as $100 a month.

 Greene said he doesn't yet know how many more cases there are. Grays Ferry
residents suspect a few.

 The 1500 block of South Marston Street is a gritty, working-class patch of
Grays Ferry. Here is where Quillen clashed with her neighbors.

 She lives in a three-bedroom rowhouse bought in 1996 for $10,000. It now
rents for about $650. Another house on the block the same size is privately
rented for $450. Quillen's house has no washer or dryer, no dishwashing
machine and no central air-conditioning. She pays for all the utilities
except water.

 In approving the rent there a year ago, PHA records show, the agency
considered rents at two "comparable" houses also in the $650 range. One is
on the 1800 block of Carlisle Street  -- nearly 40 blocks away. It is two
blocks off Broad Street and next to a hospital. Marston is a few blocks
from a housing project.

 The handwritten PHA worksheet detailing the rents does not show where
these houses are on the block, so there is no apparent way to compare
amenities and know whether the rent analysis is valid.

 Two years ago, White said that rents were not excessive. But White, who
ran the agency from 1993 to 1997, is not so sure anymore. "If it went on
while I was there, I was unaware and I'm sorry," he said. "Because it
should not be going on."

 Greene has hired a company to compile an up-to-date record of citywide rents.

 That's one of several changes Greene is making. He also is opening the
program to the working poor by reserving only one-quarter of all new
vouchers for the homeless. Further, PHA is checking the criminal records of
new tenants, and has hired two community relations employees to defuse
neighborhood squabbles.

 But Section 8 clearly remains on peoples' minds. Candidates have faced
pointed questions about it. Democratic candidate Marty Weinberg's political
operatives have been instructed to bring up White's ties to the programs
when canvassing neighborhoods.

 At a forum at La Salle University, a student asked Weinberg about Section
8. "It's a real problem in the Northeast," Joe DeFelice, 21, said after the
event. "It should be a major issue in the campaign and nobody's really
talking about it."

 Maria Diaz, 24, mother of five, is proof that Section 8 can work.

 Three years ago, she was unemployed and barely able to keep her
$235-per-month, roach-infested studio apartment in Kensington. The family
shared a queen-size bed.

 "It was rodents everywhere," Diaz said. "It was real suicidal for the
children. But I couldn't do anything about it. I had to live where I
could." Today, they live in a three-bedroom Section 8 rowhouse in North
Philadelphia. She works full time at a day-care center for $250 a week and
goes to college.

 "I'm settled now, so maybe I can achieve more of my goals instead of just
worrying about where am I going to live."

 Section 8, she said, "really stabilized me."

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