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As Long as We Remember...

Section 8 Experiences Vastly Different

May 20, 2002

Linda and Tony Checchia's series on their bad experience with a tenant receiving Section 8 assistance points to the dangers of developing public policy by anecdote.

Their article included several photographs of a rental unit left in disarray. Interfaith Housing rents apartments in four counties. Most have subsidies attached to the buildings, but we do rent to 30 to 50 Section 8 voucher holders at any given time.

Our experience is far different than the Checchia story. We could counter the bad experience with stories of people who used Section 8 as a step to getting a better job and in some cases, becoming homeowners by building their own homes. We can show tenant planted flowerbeds and houses with a neatness rating that could be better than anyone reading this page.

I would rather not trade anecdotes because it is a poor way to develop good public policy. And, to be honest, those who would use worst-case anecdotes seem to have an advantage. Too many of us are quick to accept the worst as true when it is about the poor while labeling the good news story as an exception to the rule.

An example was the recent case of a walking time bomb released too early from prison who raped and killed a child. He never spent a night in the local cold weather shelter, but he did go there and was quickly arrested.

Neighborhood NIMBYs opposed to the construction of a new shelter picked up on this and the press soon reported that one went to a local school PTA with the message that most homeless people are pedophiles and the new shelter would lead to more assaults on their children.

The amazing thing is how many people seemed to accept this as true. Putting a human face on "those" people can help. At the recent city workshop on adding Section 8 as a protected class, the tone was far different than last week when some landlords showed up to claim that ALL Section 8 voucher holders were likely to be less clean and worthy as human beings than those of us who get our housing subsidies by other means. In the meeting on May 15, some offended Section 8 beneficiaries told their stories. The disparaging remarks about poor people were toned down because it is much harder to say such things to a real live person who does not fit the profile.

So what did I learn from the Checchia series? What I learned is that myths about the subject are slow to die.

Myth 1: People who have Section 8 vouchers are the problem.

Fact: Bad landlord/tenant experiences seem to have more to do with how professional the landlord is in managing property rather than their tenant's source of income.

Some of our worst property managers are the mom and pop owners of one or two units who don't take time to learn the business or attend to their job as managers. You need to act within days of an overdue rent. When a landlord says someone got months behind, that is a sign that management is not good. The same applies to care for the property. A good manager knows when to target a tenant for frequent inspections. I tell owners who don't go into their units for years and are surprised to find normal or abnormal wear that they should be in some other business.

Myth 2: It is all the Housing Authority's fault.

Fact: The Housing Authority determines if someone is eligible for a voucher and if the property meets a standard that is more or less the same as local codes. They are no more responsible for screening and management than the IRS employee is responsible for what happens to homeowners who get deduction related subsidies. I don't want the Housing Authority to manage our properties.

Myth 3: If source of income is added as a protected class to our outdated Housing Discrimination Code, landlords will have to accept all voucher holders.

Fact: Wrong! Interfaith rejects applicants with vouchers as part of our screening process. Vouchers are not the issue; we focus on the tenant.

Again, if you are going to be in this business, you need to do it right. If a landlord is not willing to invest in background checks, you can expect problem tenants. For us, these checks include looking at their credit, tenant history, checking police files and in some projects, visiting in their current rented unit. What happens to all the rejects? We have a proposal for a more structured environment that could be the subject of a longer discussion.

Myth 4: It is hard to evict someone with a voucher.

If that is the case, Interfaith is in trouble. We don't have to evict many tenants because we manage them, but when necessary, we can evict a voucher holder as we would a non-voucher holder. Keep in mind that we practice a "tough love" approach to affordable housing. Our lease has a version of one strike and you are out regarding drugs except that we focus on what happens on our property rather than a grandchild being arrested off site. We are yet to have a firearm discharged on our properties across four counties and I believe it is due to our gun policy.

Myth 5: Renting to voucher holders will put landlords out of business.

This reminds me of the reasoning of restaurants in North Carolina in the 1960s who said they could not be the first to seat minority people. Some people fear vouchers for the poor because they have stereotypical views about the poor or, in some cases, they see this as a means of excluding people of color. But, I think this is mostly about tight housing markets. In markets like Baltimore and Cumberland where they are losing population and have a surplus of aging housing stock, I see ads that say "Section 8 welcome", but the majority of apartment complexes in Frederick don't accept Section 8. They can rent in our local market without renting to Section 8 voucher holders. You don't see the owners of Frederick apartments who also operate in Montgomery and Howard counties (source of income is a protected class in those counties) showing up at hearings to claim they cannot make a profit. They are doing quite well in places where discrimination based on source of income is not legal.

So Linda and Tony, come see me and we can visit my anecdotes. Bring lots of film.

Jim Upchurch President, Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland

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