“WHY THE Damn, does this county even offer Section 8 if it’s a mythical unicorn that no one ever has? asks Alex, the main character of Netflix’s new series “Maid”. The show, based on Stephanie Land’s book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is a portrait of poverty and domestic work in Washington State. Section 8, now known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP), is a federal housing assistance program that subsidizes rent for 2.3 million poor American households lucky enough to get their hands on a voucher. Others may spend years on waiting lists hoping to be chosen.

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Housing policy scholars often refer to the voucher program as a kind of lottery: win and your life can be fundamentally changed. During the demolition of huge public housing projects in the 1990s, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (ATH) used vouchers as a means of housing the poor of the United States in the private market. With a voucher, tenants spend 30% of their monthly income on rent, and the federal government covers the rest. Many people on the voucher waiting lists are homeless or living with their families. Almost half of all voucher holders are black, 70% are racial minorities, and about a third earn less than $ 10,000 a year.

Vouchers aren’t just about housing: cheaper rent means more money for expenses like food, bills or school. Because vouchers theoretically allow tenants to rent a home anywhere, they can help poor families move to richer, more secure neighborhoods. Many researchers see them as a way to increase social mobility.

But not everyone wins the lottery. Many cities have had to close their waiting lists. A new study from the Housing Initiative at Penn, a research team at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that 10.4 million households would be eligible for a voucher under ATHcriteria, four times as many families as there are vouchers for. By comparing the gap between existing and needed vouchers with local tenant populations, the researchers found that Orlando, Charlotte and Phoenix would benefit the most from a policy where vouchers are given to anyone who qualifies.

When Democrats unveiled their massive $ 3.5 billion Build Back Better bill, it included $ 75 billion for housing vouchers. In the version passed by the House of Representatives in November, this was reduced to around 300,000 new vouchers at a cost of $ 24 billion. However, receiving a voucher and successfully renting a unit are two very different things. Penn researchers found that only one in five households eligible for a voucher obtained and used one successfully in 2019. It’s hard to find a home to rent in a tight market. But poor tenants face additional hurdles. the HCVP gives voucher holders only two months to sign a lease before needing an extension; security deposits can be expensive; and voucher holders may not have access to a car or computer to help them with their research.

The biggest barrier to using a voucher may be the overwhelming role landlords play in deciding who to rent. Eva Rosen, of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, says homeowners exist on a spectrum. On the one hand, there are some poor neighborhood landlords who seek voucher holders because they like the security of knowing that the government will pay a portion of their tenants’ rent each month. On the other side are the landlords who refuse to rent to families with vouchers because they don’t want to deal with the extra paperwork and inspections that come with the grant or because of blatant discrimination. .

A 2018 study published by researchers at the Urban Institute, a think tank, documents how difficult it is for voucher holders to sign a lease. Researchers sifted through 341,000 rental listings and called landlords in five cities for 16 months. The authors found that they had to look at 39 listings, on average, to find a potential home. When they called homeowners to see if they would accept a housing voucher, more than 75% of homeowners in Fort Worth and Los Angeles immediately declined. Refusal rates were lower in Newark (31%) and Washington, CC (15%), in part because both cities have laws protecting families with vouchers from discrimination. Los Angeles passed such a law after the study was published.

It is not yet clear exactly how the covid-19 pandemic affected the HCVP. Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins University says extra rent support could have helped some small homeowners struggling with their mortgages. For others, long moratoriums on evictions may have eroded trust between landlords and the government. While the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill focuses on increasing the number of coupons, it also includes $ 230 million in incentive programs to get more homeowners to accept them.

Other adjustments could make the program more effective. The maximum amount a landlord can get from the government is based on the average rent for an entire metro area. Some poor neighborhood landlords covet voucher holders because they can charge much more for housing than they would otherwise. Rosen argues that moving to a system where the maximum rent varies by postal code will put an end to these predatory tactics. And no federal law exists to protect voucher holders from discrimination. Only 15 states and Washington, CC, can boast of such a measure. Several cities have followed suit. However, homeowners can get around these protections by failing inspections or setting rent just above market rates. “No one has paid attention to homeowners since the 1970s,” says DeLuca. It might be time to start. ■

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “To Rent or Not to Rent”