Living as the only Section 8 resident in a wealthy suburb

Mary Schmich tells the story of Winnetka’s sole Section 8 resident:

In a Chicago suburb where million-dollar homes are common and the median household income exceeds $200,000, Miranda held a rare distinction for a while: He was the only person in town with a Section 8 housing choice voucher.

With his large belly and his mustache, his T-shirt and his jeans, he was a notable presence in the village. He liked to be out and about — staying inside depressed him — and his subsidized one-bedroom apartment on Elm Street put him in the heart of Winnetka’s action, meaning close to the Metra station, a bookstore, a Peet’s, a Starbucks, restaurants and boutiques, most of which he couldn’t afford.

He was often spotted with a big coffee cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other, maybe sitting on a park bench. He liked going to the library and, in the summer, relaxing by the lake…

Having a stable home of his own in a tranquil place offered him some peace that life otherwise denied him.

As much as residential segregation by race and ethnicity is present in the suburbs, this highlights another aspect: segregation by social class. According to the Census, Winnetka has over 12,000 residents, is very white – 94.8%, and also very wealthy – a median household income of over $207,000 and a median value of owner-occupied housing units of $941,800. How much affordable housing is available in places like Winnetka? Previous efforts to introduce the idea have met resistance. Does having any Section 8 residents threaten property values or the community’s image? Suburban residents don’t have to actively oppose such plans to provide space for poorer residents; their zoning and comprehensive plans can make their thoughts pretty clear. Would their opinions change if they met a person like Thomas Miranda? Maybe, but no matter how much they might like him as an individual, too many such residents of a certain status would not be good.

Megyn Kelley suggests HUD wants to diversify McMansion neighborhoods

In commentary over new HUD plans to switch to subsidies by zip code rather than by what renters can pay,

KELLY: This is being described as something that President Obama has had in the works for years, but has only now found the guts to actually put out there as a Housing and Urban Development proposed final rule because his term is almost done and this is the time to do it. The last thing on the list? Change the neighborhoods.

(….)

KELLY: They don’t want, quote, “unequal neighborhoods.” Unequal neighborhoods. It – they think too many cities are too white, too privileged with too big McMansions, too big McMansions and they – they want to diverse the communities whether the communities want it or not…

If I had to guess, McMansions owners are probably disproportionately white. Perhaps these are the same people who are “proud Americans“!

Then Kelly provides the typical hard-work narrative to explain her own ability to live in a nice neighborhood:

KELLY: I mean, I didn’t grow up in a fancy neighborhood. I wanted to be in one, but we couldn’t afford it and you know, then getting to an adult, I made more money and now I live in a nice neighborhood. It’s alright. It’s a nice home. The neighborhood – anyway. The point is, that’s the way it was usually done. It’s not like, you must diversify because Uncle Sam feels it’s too white or it’s too rich.

Yet, leaving it simply to hard work and market forces leaves us where we are today and where we have been for decades: ongoing residential segregation. Vouchers by zip code rather than by price point could help poorer families access the places that have the good schools and other features that can help them get ahead.

I imagine this will draw more pushback as one of the themes running through whiter and wealthier communities is exclusivity.

Some residents opposed to Section 8 vouchers being used for large homes in South Florida gated communities

Here is another side effect of the sluggish economy and housing market: some big homes in South Florida are being rented with Section 8 vouchers.

Housing advocates and the government view the turnabout as a win-win for homeowners and the poor, who have access to safer communities and better schools.

But some neighbors are aghast.

After a single mother and her nine children rented a house in the exclusive Isles neighborhood of Coral Springs, the homeowners association adopted an amendment to its governing documents stating: “No Section 8 or government leasing assistance is permitted.”

The association is threatening eviction.

Federal law does not expressly outlaw such bans. But the prohibition can’t be used as a pretext for other illegal acts, such as denying housing to people because of their race, gender, national origin, disability or number of children.

The Sun Sentinel examined federal housing subsidy data from housing authorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties and found 230 homes commanding rents of $2,000 or more, up to $3,375 a month, from Section 8 families. Typically, tenants pay about one-third of their income toward the rent and the government pays the rest.

Most of the homes were basic, modest-looking residences in unassuming neighborhoods. But about a dozen were far grander, upscale houses concentrated in Broward County’s western suburbs, including Coral Springs, Miramar and Cooper City, where one six-bedroom rental is worth $500,000.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the response of some of the gated community residents: they moved to these communities in part so they might never have to run into people with Section 8 vouchers. It doesn’t sound like this is widespread just yet but I can imagine the headline years later: racial and economic integration was achieved in South Florida through a terrible housing market that limited the ability of wealthier residents to keep out poorer residents.

Are Section 8 vouchers now being used for McMansions?

WalletPop has a story with a provocative opening line: “In what may be one of the strangest twists to the housing market crisis, Section 8 housing tenants are moving from urban housing projects and into high-end condo complexes and single-family McMansions that just a few years ago sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The premise makes some sense: in an unstable housing market with a lot of potential for vacancies and foreclosures, landlords are looking for steady money. While Section 8 users were “treated by landlords as the tenants of last resort” in better times, now landlords are looking for this consistent money from the government.

But as I read this article, I tried to figure out where the McMansions come into play: most of the examples here feature Section 8 users moving into nicer condos or apartments, not large homes out in the suburbs. So are Section 8 vouchers really be used for McMansions, which at the most basic level are large, single-family homes? Does a Section 8 voucher provide enough funding to allow people to live in McMansions, even ones with reduced prices? There is not much information here to back up this assertion although it does sound as though the housing crisis has allowed Section 8 users to access a broader market.

Also, the headline of the article, “Section 8 Tenants: the Housing Market’s Salvation?,” doesn’t really address if there are enough Section 8 vouchers to help the broader housing market. For this to happen, the federal government would need to free up more money for more people in this housing assistance program.