Housing Vouchers Clustered in Certain Neighborhoods

January 22, 2010

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Voucher holder Lisa Ruth. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Each year the Chicago Housing Authority spends up to $30 million a month subsidizing rents for low-income tenants. These housing vouchers help working and financially struggling families in the Chicago region.

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Myth number one about voucher holders, also known as Section 8: they are flocking to the south suburbs.

Voucher holder Mildred Dennis is on a CHA tenant council, where she represents a segment of voucher families.

DENNIS: There's not too many in the south suburbs, I can tell you that much. They were either going out in Roseland or 79th Street.

A WBEZ analysis shows Dennis is right. The 559 suburban vouchers are more evenly scattered than the city vouchers. In Chicago, the 35,000-plus vouchers are represented in all 77 neighborhoods. Just some more than others.

Voucher holders in the city are concentrated in several mostly black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides such as: Austin, Englewood, South Shore, Roseland, and North Lawndale. Families pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Some of these families are turning to CHA for affordable housing, and others are coming from torn-down public housing units.

Paul Fischer is a retired Lake Forest College professor who has tracked voucher locations. He says CHA policy still hasn't improved the addresses of families.

FISCHER: If the goal was to facilitate families moving into better neighborhoods, in terms of neighborhoods providing better schools, better job opportunities or safety then I think the answer is no.

In 1995, a lawsuit alleged discriminatory relocation practices for public housing residents. A court settlement required that CHA provide more resources and counseling for families.

But there's a reason that more affluent neighborhoods such as, say, Lincoln Park don't have more voucher holders. The federal housing authority pays 40 percent of fair market rent.

Janice Stewart, who runs the voucher program, says that puts CHA in a bind.

STEWART: Whether it's in Uptown, Lincoln Park, or whether it's in Englewood, or wherever, it's based on the money. So as you can see it's going to be very difficult to go to Lincoln Park and get a two-bedroom for $800. And I think that's the reason the disparity. It's not so much can a family live in Lincoln Park, can a voucher support?

The reality is that the lack of affordable housing citywide is reinforcing existing economic and racial segregation when it comes to placing voucher holders. The need is great: 40,000 people are on the waiting list for a voucher. A quarter of a million applied to get in that lottery.

Stewart says the federal housing department, or HUD, encourages CHA to put families in more well-off neighborhoods.

STEWART: But I think they speak with forked tongue. The money does not support families living in low-poverty areas. The money is not set up for low-poverty areas.

Another issue that CHA can't control is where people want to live. Lisa Ruth chose to rent a house with her voucher in Roseland rather than moving to the unfamiliar suburbs.

RUTH: I'm used to the South Side and with the suburbs, I don't drive so the bus transportation is better for me to get around. Ruth is in walking distance of four buses.

And that's what's most important to her – not the socioeconomics of a neighborhood.