Expanding Demand, Limited Supply
Last week’s chaotic scene in East Point, Georgia was a striking reminder of a government program stretched thin and of the dire effects of the recession on ordinary people’s lives. 30,000 lined up, some for nearly three days, some from cities up and down the East Coast, and sixty people were ultimately taken to the hospital as a result of injuries and heat exposure.
They were applying for Section 8 housing vouchers. To be accurate, they were merely applying to get on the waiting list to qualify—East Point only has 455 such housing vouchers, and all are currently taken. It could be up to 10 years before any of those who lined up last Wednesday will actually receive subsidized housing.
A federal program that ensures that low-income earners pay no more than 30 percent of their housing costs, the number of Section 8 vouchers has dropped over the past decade. Public housing units have been demolished (Atlanta will soon be the first to raze all of it public housing blocks), the recession has pushed many middle-class families into economic insecurity, and cities have cut the number of housing vouchers because they can no longer afford the costs.
The result is that at a time of increasing need, an expanding pool of people are fighting over a limited, and shrinking, number of resources. Cities across the nation have been hit with a surge in applications, and many have closed their waiting lists altogether.
This is alarming, clearly. It is also unproductive. In contrast to homeowners currently struggling with mortgages, Section 8 renters have the benefit of mobility, and could help fill the housing market. The program was designed precisely to avoid the segregating effects of urban public housing towers, and no matter where the vouchers are issued, tenants are free to live in whatever neighborhood or city they choose. This means that Section 8 renters have the potential to play a role in occupying many homes that now sit empty as a result of the housing bust. While the Housing and Urban Development says that the program has been buttressed by an additional $2 billion, the turmoil last week makes clear that much more will be needed.