Forcing landlords to accept vouchers won't help the poor

Human nature frequently disproves theories. Conventional wisdom, for example, says that open office space plans with workers grouped like cattle encourage creativity and collaboration. But study after study shows that people are more inventive, productive and healthy with more privacy.

Susan Cain writes about this eloquently in "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." But examples are legion of experience trumping ideology.

Would that legislators, like state Sen. Jamie Raskin, keep this in mind when trying to help people.

The Democrat from Montgomery County this year wanted to force landlords across the state to accept Section 8 vouchers so that low-income people could have access to better neighborhoods and schools. It did not pass, but as frequently happens, it will come back again in future sessions. He said, "the theory here is that if you can pay, you shouldn't be discriminated against based on the source of your payment."

Many cities around the country already do this, including New York, and some states. For a true blue liberal like Mr. Raskin, it probably sounded like a no-brainer.

But as Johns Hopkins University sociologist Stefanie DeLuca told me, laws like this can "exacerbate" the problem of finding housing for the poor because they focus attention away from the real problems.

Ms. DeLuca, who has extensively studied housing choices of the poor, said housing vouchers are scarce and many cities — including Baltimore — have closed their wait list for them, so increasing the supply of housing available to voucher recipients will not translate to poor families living in better homes for the vast majority of those in need.

Second, she said that time constraints on using the vouchers, combined with a lack of information about where to go and a worldview that only knows poverty, work against the few with vouchers choosing and staying in higher-income neighborhoods with better schools. "To be known makes people feel safe," she said.

In a 2012 paper, "We Don't Live Outside, We Live in Here," that Ms. DeLuca wrote with Peter Rosenblatt, the authors found, "poor families … trust their ability to 'handle' rough neighborhoods. Turning inward to focus on the home space and the limited area around their house makes sense as a mechanism for getting by in dangerous urban communities." They added, "However, these strategies suggest that housing programs cannot assume families will search the whole menu of metropolitan neighborhoods as possible destinations when they are given the chance to move to new communities."

There is also the issue of cost. In the program, tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and the housing authority pays the remainder, up to a certain amount based on an analysis of rents in the area. So, many people choose a bigger place in a lower-income, higher-crime neighborhood.

Mr. Raskin said the legislation is not a "program," and that "we are not going to relocate people." But the main argument of proponents was that the legislation would be a ticket out of high-poverty and high-crime areas to neighborhoods with better jobs and schools, and ultimately a means to break the cycle of poverty, which Ms. DeLuca said is most often not the case without extensive additional counseling and other assistance.

Other arguments speak against the legislation as well. Forcing landlords to work with the government is wrong, just as forcing any business to supply the government or be sued would be. Doctors are not forced to take Medicaid patients, for example.

In addition, landlords would have had no means to recoup losses from the government if a voucher holder trashed an apartment, and they would be required to get permission from the state to raise rent under the legislation. It also could unintentionally put low-income people who don't have vouchers at a disadvantage if landlords get used to the security of a monthly government check and don't want to risk taking unsubsidized tenants, as Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, argued during the legislative session.

All this points to the fact that mandating landlords accept Section 8 vouchers is a solution that does not understand the problem. The saddest thing, however, is that federal housing policy through the decades helped to create ghettos of the mind for generations of poor families that are remarkably harder to tear down than public housing.

Marta H. Mossburg is a Baltimore-area writer whose work appears regularly in The Sun. Her email is Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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