As cities around the country continue to grapple with the economic and social fallout of decades of racist public policy, a new book by Georgetown University sociologist Eva Rosen offers a compelling ethnography of the Section 8 housing voucher program. Though The Voucher Promise (Princeton University Press) is focused on a low-income Black neighborhood in Baltimore, its insights apply to Chicago and probably every other segregated American city.
Section 8—now officially called the Housing Choice Voucher program—has emerged in recent decades as the primary vehicle for subsidizing rental housing. Just five million households across the U.S. receive federal housing assistance, and more than half of them are in the private housing market. Where the federal government once allocated funds to cities for building and maintaining public housing, it now offers subsidies to landlords for housing poor people. Tenants pay a portion of their income in rent, while landlords collect the rest from the government. The "failure" of the public housing experiment (now widely understood by experts to have been preventable and even planned) has not resulted in poor people gaining access to less segregated, more resource-rich neighborhoods, however. Rosen's work adds to a chorus of research findings from the last ten years that have revealed vouchers to be inadequate for promoting housing integration and upward socioeconomic mobility.
While they alleviate the heavy financial burden of housing costs for some of the poorest families, vouchers also help reinforce segregation. Because the value of vouchers is usually calculated using metropolitan-area rental cost averages, the vouchers end up bringing in more money than market rents would to landlords in poorer neighborhoods. This incentivizes landlords to aggressively court voucher holders there. "In a complete reversal of the state policy goals of the program, a program meant to provide a safety net to tenants ends up acting as one for landlords," Rosen writes. She found that landlords can sometimes get hundreds of dollars per month more from a tenant with a voucher than from one without.
Thus, voucher holders find themselves at the mercy of landlords, who steer them to units "that deliver the biggest profits, which happen to be in the very neighborhoods from which the voucher might afford families the opportunity to escape." Since many voucher holders don't have extra money for security deposits and are operating on the tight deadlines set up by housing authorities, their options are limited and the landlords can easily leverage this by offering units with attractive cosmetic remodels, waiving security deposits, and providing transportation to viewings. "These tactics wrest control and choice away from tenants," Rosen writes. And, once they have them in their units, "landlords exploit the intricacies of the voucher rules to limit the movement of voucher holders out of their properties."
Meanwhile, vouchers bring less money than landlords in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods would get from market-rate renters, which adds an economic disincentive on top of racial and class biases against voucher holders there. But finding housing in a lower-income Black neighborhood doesn't mean voucher holders (who are disproportionately Black) are free of discimination and class bias.
Rosen's ethnography of Section 8 is based on the experience of renters, homeowners, and landlords in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore. Like many Black neighborhoods around the country its history is one of de jure segregation and redlining that gave way to blockbusting and white flight. The neighborhood declined as deindustrialization sapped jobs from its residents and various forms of discrimination and disinvestment overlapped to hinder wealth building by the Black homeowners. In recent decades the housing stock has aged and devalued, municipal services have dried up, and the neighborhood has experienced an influx of renters squeezed by market conditions and public policy. While the homeowner and renter classes in the area are overwhelmingly Black, the landlord class is disproportionately white. It's the voucher holders that are most often scapegoated for the decline of the neighborhood, however.
Rosen documents in detail the class divides that exist between homeowners, unassisted renters, and voucher holders (and reminds us, once again, that Black people aren't a monolith). Though her insights are undoubtedly limited by the fact that she's a white woman, her observations about the social dynamics between these groups are crucial to understand for anyone doing community organizing work or advocating for public policy changes in neighborhoods like Park Heights. Like researchers of mixed-income housing in Chicago, Rosen underscores that proximity to higher-income neighbors with more social capital does not translate into tangible benefits for poorer voucher holders. Even when living cheek-to-jowl with better-off homeowners or unassisted renters, voucher holders are often isolated and stigmatized.
Rosen's years of research and months of living in Park Heights lead her to conclude that "the 'choice' of where to live that policymakers hope to provide to voucher holders is largely an illusion." Indeed by now we should all be on guard when we hear policymakers use the word "choice," especially when new policies purport to offer "choices" to the most marginalized people. "Removing financial constraints to make room for choice is not always enough to allow people to take full advantage of the available options," Rosen writes. She concludes the book with a discussion of possible solutions to the corruptions and shortcomings of the voucher program.
While the narrative, anecdotal parts of the book can feel truncated and lacking in depth and texture, it remains an engaging read. Most compellingly, Rosen offers a moving psychological portrait of her interlocutors, revealing how people cope with neighborhood change and reconcile limited opportunities and chronic disappointments. The mental gymnastics residents of Park Heights undertake to deal with their realities are at stark odds with policymakers' rosy narratives about how people make decisions about where they live and how neighborhood social bonds are formed. Instead, the people we meet in the pages of The Voucher Promise share what happens when your only way out of a neighborhood is through the story you tell yourself about it. v