The key to leveraging the promise of coupons is trust

Now that we have reviewed the history of the Section 8 program, Congressman Ryan’s criticism of the program a decade ago, and how the program functions today, we can start thinking about how the program can be improved in the future. The idea behind Section 8 – offering people help to pay rent for housing available on the private market – arose out of the recognition that buying land, financing, building and operating housing is expensive, complicated and risky. The idea behind the program was to let the private sector do all of this and help people with less money make decisions about where to live without the government having to build and manage housing. It is a good idea. But it doesn’t work. Let’s take a look at why and what might be next.

Both left and right have some ideological problems with programs that offer simple, easy-to-get cash assistance. When it comes to housing, there is a real and sincere concern on the left to help people who are poor. Simply giving them cash seems to overlook concerns that people need “services,” however that’s defined. On the right, cash payments are viewed as conducive to inertia and inflation. More money means people lose incentive to work, and all that money tends to lead to more spending and higher prices. Both the left and the right are concerned about fraud and abuse, the left is concerned about housing providers offering unsafe and run-down housing, and the right is concerned that recipients will find ways to trick the system and get money, if they don’t deserve it.

The government is eventually trying to address both of these concerns, and the Section 8 program suffers from the burden of requiring people who receive vouchers to live in units that are approved and inspected by local authorities. People who need help with rent are forced to fill out papers proving their qualifications and then have to wait for vouchers and then go and look for a unit. I have already outlined how the program causes residents and housing providers to fail. And I’ve outlined why I think cash is often the best solution over the years, and I’ve even pointed out that it really is a conservative policy.

There is an answer to the problems of participation that the program has seen with many unused coupons: Let people use them where they currently live. Here’s how it would solve the problems I addressed in the last post.

More resident participation: Allow voucher use immediately

In the last post we saw how people who receive coupons have 60 days to use them. There isn’t enough time for that everyone to find a new apartment. If you’ve ever moved, you know it’s a hassle; Now try to find a needle in a haystack, a qualifying unit that is correctly priced and inspected by a local public housing agency. Inefficient at best and cruel at worst, the current Section 8 program enables people already struggling to pay rent to go Easter egg hunting for the perfect unit. We all know there is no such thing, and with the early experiments with coupons it was clear that people were choosing to stay close to friends and family.

More participation from housing providers: Let every housing provider take a voucher

A bold step would be to remove all requirements for housing providers to take vouchers. Imagine a young family struggling to survive – perhaps a newly arrived family – already paying rent somewhere. They don’t live in the best place in the best neighborhood, but they make it work. Her kids are getting used to her school and everything they need is close by and somehow they pay 29.99% of their gross monthly income on rent. If tomorrow the rent goes up and their income goes down and they are eligible for a HUD voucher and the local PHA requires them to move to use their voucher. Based on the study I cited in the last post, the housing provider would not care where their rent came from and would probably even see it as an advantage and reason to keep the family in place.

Efficiency is compassionate: housing solves problems by itself

Notwithstanding Ryan’s conclusions to the contrary, The Family Options Study, a truly deeply shaky and comprehensive study with many samples and contributions over the years, has proved to my satisfaction that simply paying a family’s rent relieves all kinds of pressures and opens up all kinds of opportunities . My own experiences of cheap, basic, and easy-to-obtain housing for farmworker families agree with these findings. When I was working in nonprofit housing, our farmworker condominium offered families a large hotel room for $10 a night. Families relieved of the pressure to move settled down and enabled their children to finish school. The value of this is inestimable, and the study has confirmed this.

We have to believe in people who make less money

Poverty is a terrible thing. It eats away at people’s self-esteem and robs them of the peace and mental focus afforded to people who don’t have to spend all their time just surviving. Yet poverty is a great motivator for both good and evil. Trusting people, I believe, unlocks the good and socially useful tendencies in people. When policies are based on outliers, scammers, and bad actors, people in the middle also feel like scammers and bad actors. Giving people the money and the ability to use it freely to support their own decisions strikes me as not only very American, but genuinely compassionate. The Section 8 program should become a beacon of that kind of optimism among our fellow Americans who happen to have less money.

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