If you tune into a dystopian movie from the 1970s, the underlying theme you’ll likely see is rampant homelessness and squalid living conditions. We’re almost done with the first quarter of the 21st century yet tens of thousands of men, women and children — vast swaths of the state — are living in never-ending reruns of sad sci-fi movies.
Almost 10,000 New Jersey residents had no place to call home in January 2020, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. More than 13,900 students experienced homelessness sometime during the year. California, Texas, Florida, New York — some of the richest states in the union — fail their citizens at higher rates. More than a quarter million students in the Golden State have no place to sleep beyond random shelters or the streets.
Why have we become a dystopian nation? Housing is a fundamental right. Homelessness is failure of safe, affordable housing. In 1974, the federal government set up the Housing Choice Voucher Program, what is commonly known as Section 8 housing assistance, to help low-income residents and families find reliable housing in the communities where they want to live and work. No more herding the great masses of the poor into dilapidated, city apartment projects, the theory went. Give everyone the same chance to live the way they want, to be free, productive, and to raise their children in an environment that will give them a fighting chance to break out of poverty.
But just as government tried to be the solution to the housing crisis, it created a new problem — which was really a repackaging of an old problem — economic racism.
A Section 8 voucher became a “Scarlet 8” mark for those wishing to use the subsidy to move into middle-class, upscale, nice — whatever you want to call sound housing where you don’t have to worry what part of the living room will flood during a rainstorm — rental apartments and houses. A would-be renter must tell a landlord they will be using the government voucher to pay a portion of the rent.
“We don’t take that,” is the refrain Section 8 holders often hear from landlords, as the USA TODAY Network and the Asbury Park Press reported in October. Rejecting a renter because of Section 8 is illegal in New Jersey, under state law. It is the definition of economic discrimination. But it’s essentially legal here because the state government virtually ignores complaints. Don’t even bother to call the feds. There is no national law against Section 8 discrimination. There needs to be one.
There were 83,246 Section 8 housing vouchers at the end of 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vouchers cover 170,204 men, women and children. Seventy-five percent of all voucher holders are non-white; 80% are single women, with 32% raising children. Their average income was $18,400 a year. Some recipients attend schools to build better futures; others work two, three jobs to makes ends meet so they can pay their share of the rent beyond the government’s voucher. The unlucky ones, those still on the waiting lists, are most likely homeless, shuttling from churches or motels, hunkering down in shantytown, and trying not to freeze or broil to death in outdoor tent encampments.
And their hardships are compounded by the cavalier “we don’t take that” attitude, where an average Section 8 voucher holder must wait an average of 3.25 years (in some high-income towns, the wait is up to 12 years) just to get a voucher. Lucky winners of a Golden 8 Ticket then have just 60 days to find an apartment, where the landlord won’t say “we don’t take that.”
Section 8 was supposed to even the playing field for low-income renters. Little changed. Another good-deed government program became a broken government program from indifference and neglect. A program meant to end discrimination actually reinforced prejudice with the foreboding Section 8 stamp. A third of the 83,000 voucher holders live in six of the poorest cities in the state, HUD data showed, not the best places to break the poverty cycle for kids.
Let’s make government fix the problem. A subtle yet powerful change to the Section 8 program can be had with willpower from the top. Here’s the idea: give the Section 8 voucher money directly to the renter, not the landlord. The landlord shouldn’t know where the rental money comes from, only that the renter has enough income to pay each month.
Someday, perhaps, “we don’t take that” will never be heard again in New Jersey and across the nation. And the housing dystopia we are now living will just be another sci-fi movie fantasy of the 1970s.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ Section 8 rental discrimination can be fixed. Here's how