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Mossburg misrepresents research on housing vouchers

In her April 23 column, “Forcing landlords to accept vouchers won't help the poor,” Marta H. Mossburg quoted me as saying that laws prohibiting landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers “exacerbate” the problem of finding housing for the poor. That’s wrong. When Ms. Mossburg interviewed me for her column, I was clear: banning housing discrimination based on source of income will help increase housing options for the poor.

I told her about fieldwork I’ve done with families in Baltimore; Mobile, Ala.; and New Haven, Stamford and Norwalk, Conn., where I repeatedly heard about landlords refusing to rent to parents who were trying to secure housing. These experiences are demoralizing for families and discourage them from seeking housing in neighborhoods with less violent crime, more space to play outside and schools with better teachers.

Ms. Mossburg also writes, based on my statement that vouchers are scarce in Baltimore, that increasing these opportunities won’t help the poor. That is simply illogical. Ms. Mossburg distorted and inverted my statements to serve the purpose of her article. That’s a disservice to the readers of The Sun.

Housing for low-income families has historically taken a back seat to policies focused on inequality in education and health. Housing assistance, in the form of housing vouchers, is in short supply — only one out of four families needing housing support receives it. Millions of poor renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. And this deficit has been allowed to persist despite decades of research that shows the significance of shelter, stability and community for child and family well-being.

We know that neighborhood quality, especially neighborhood violence, predicts children’s educational achievement and the physical and mental health of parents. And we know that the social class of children’s classmates predicts educational achievement gains. Housing policies are about more than housing; increasing access to safer communities with better schools can be powerfully leveraged as education policy and health policy too.

Despite these benefits, poor families who receive housing assistance often struggle to find homes in low-crime neighborhoods with good schools. In part, this is due to a shortage of affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, but this challenge is also compounded by the reality that property owners may, at their discretion, refuse to rent to otherwise-qualified tenants based solely on the source of their income — not whether someone can pay, but rather where that money comes from.

To support such discrimination means we must believe that it should matter to a property owner if a tenant works at Walmart or Target, or is living on a trust fund. At a basic fairness level, this is manifestly unjust. If you can pay the rent and meet other basic rental requirements, why should it matter where your rent money originates? To suggest that prospective landlords need to discriminate based on source of income is rooted in stereotypical judgments of the “types of people” who receive housing subsidies. That’s wrong.

It’s a mystery how anyone could mistake my support for a ban on source of income discrimination as opposition to it. But much less of a mystery lies in the decades of research — the facts — that buttress housing policy debates today. Those facts are clear and not open to manipulation: Our housing policies need improving, and creating more housing choices can help families raise their children in safer communities and higher performing schools.

Stefanie DeLuca, Baltimore

The writer is an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Sociology.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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