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Misleading depiction of Section 8

UPDATE: JUNE 30, 2011 5:59 P.M.–The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has also drafted a response to the Washington Post’s article. Read it at NLIHC’s On the Home Front blog.

Once again, we must correct a misleading depiction of an essential housing program.  On June 25, The Washington Post posted an article titled, “Housing vouchers a golden ticket to pricey suburbs.” The piece follows the story of Liza Jackson, a recipient of Section 8 vouchers in search of adequate housing to meet her family’s needs. With an oversimplified description of the Section 8 voucher process, the article gives the impression of recipients as picky freeloaders. Our major issues with the article:

  • Description plays into stereotypes.  The article offers gratuitous detail about Liza Jackson (gold sandals, car with pink eyelashes, slang descriptions) that play into popular stereotypes like the “welfare queen” bandied about in the 1980s.  At the same time, it tells us little about her economic situation—she gets unemployment, but that means she was previously employed.  If she’s receiving a voucher, she meets federally mandated income standards and has been vetted by a PHA.
  • Article omits basic facts about Section 8.  Voucher recipients must be low-income to qualify, and preference is usually for the very poorest.  Many who qualify don’t receive help at all, and those who do often wait a long time (as noted by the article).
  • Getting more property owners to accept Section 8 is good.  It’s only in the recent housing bust that more owners are willing to accept Section 8, because they value the stability of the subsidy stream.  During the boom years, it was often very difficult to get property owners in neighborhoods with better employment opportunities, schools, or transportation accessibility to accept vouchers.
  • Voucher holders should be picky consumers.  The article’s description of  Jackson’s choosiness when vetting properties seems to emphasize her relish at having a lot of options.  From a public policy perspective, we want voucher holders to choose the best properties and to leave if they’re not satisfied (vote with their feet, as we say in the industry).  That encourages owners to keep properties in good repair and provides the best value to government.
If you had a similar reaction, let the Post know what you think!
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