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Op-Ed: Make the ‘Housing Opportunities Made Equal’ Act truly equal; reform HUD

Opinion Section: Op-Ed
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Politicians routinely use happily deceptive acronyms to describe their bills. So it is with Johnny Olszewski’s HOME Act which stands for “Housing Opportunities Made Equal.”  It purports to end something called “Source of Income Discrimination.”  [Gunpowder Gazette: Baltimore County Council to hear testimony on HOME Act, which aims to end income discrimination.]

But the Home Act’s deception is deeper than an acronym. The text of the bill, and the well-orchestrated marketing campaign behind it, is based on a deliberate falsehood: that a Section 8 voucher is actually a “source of income.”  This is untrue under any legal definition or common sense understanding of the term “income.” Never mind the federal government, itself, doesn’t consider a voucher income; a voucher-holder isn’t free to spend that money as they see fit, even on housing.

Voucher-holders are subject to a senseless set of bureaucratic rules and requirements that presume them incapable of making the most basic life decisions. This is not income. It’s a badly designed government program with a well-deserved stigma among neighborhoods, landlords and voucher-holders themselves.

The program harms neighborhoods by making it difficult to evict problem tenants and concentrating poverty. It harms property owners by making their livelihoods dependent on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD)  incompetent bureaucracy.  Perhaps, most relevant, it fails society’s most disadvantaged members.  Yet, instead of reforming a failed program, Olszewski’s approach is to force it down everyone’s throats.

The reasons property owners refuse vouchers are easily understood. HUD and its agents can arbitrarily change the rent with no notice, and for no reason. Voucher-holders can break their leases and destroy property without consequence. HUD protects problem tenants from eviction, making entire apartment communities unattractive to other residents. Owners wait for weeks or even months with vacant units while bureaucrats fiddle away on paperwork.  Arbitrary inspections require minor, unnecessary repairs prior to tenants moving in.

Poor people who need housing are subject to this same incompetent bureaucracy, with an added layer of inane rules. To truly understand the magnitude of Section 8’s failure, and the depth of this political deception, consider the voucher-holder’s perspective.

First, you have to get a voucher, navigating a convoluted process where some sit on years-long waiting lists, while others hop the line.  When the voucher finally comes, the HUD bureaucracy determines how many bedrooms you’re allowed, which depends on the relative age, sex and number of children (no more than two per bedroom). A three-bedroom voucher can’t be used to rent a two-bedroom or four-bedroom apartment, even if the rent is covered. And don’t confuse matters by adding relatives with income. Based on the number of bedrooms, they will then tell you how much money you will spend on rent. You have no incentive to negotiate a better deal (a dynamic which drives up rent and concentrates poverty in lower-income neighborhoods).

Increasingly now, the social engineers at the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership will dictate the neighborhoods where you can or can’t live. If your family isn’t in a neighborhood they’re targeting with more Section 8, good luck with childcare; they’ll have a program for that too, someday.  When you finally find a property and set a move-in date, you better hope the inspector, who is supposedly working to protect you, actually shows up and doesn’t require repairs. Otherwise, you may be homeless for a couple of weeks, or months.

Who are these rules supposed to serve?

Once in the program, voucher-holders don’t move up the housing ladder by working harder and earning more. They face some of the highest tax rates in the United States with a 40% reduction in the voucher for every dollar they earn. That’s on top of other taxes and benefit reductions (luckily the IRS doesn’t consider a voucher income either).

Is there any wonder why the program is a dependency trap where relatively few people ever get out?  It provides a lavish benefit to some – up to $2,750 a month for a four-bedroom apartment – while offering nothing whatsoever to most of the working poor. The program’s design maintains dependency and concentrates poverty. Perhaps, more important, it isolates voucher-holders in a strange world of perverse incentives vastly different from American society at large. Housing opportunities will never be made equal within the constraints of this program.

To truly expand opportunity, we need to fundamentally restructure Section 8, not give it more coercive power. County Executive Olszewski is a skilled politician with a PhD in public policy. He undoubtedly understands the inherent flaws in the Section 8 program.  He has the power to fix many of the reasons that landlords refuse federally guaranteed rental income.  He talks a good game about giving voucher-holders more choice.  He has the ability to pick up the phone and call Dr. Ben Carson, who has something of a soft spot for Baltimore and understands its long and sordid history as a laboratory for HUD’s flawed experiments.  Why not try to make this work?

The solution is simple: stop misrepresenting a voucher as income and actually make it so. Cut the senseless bureaucracy and treat voucher-holders like everyone else. Empower voucher-holders to make their own life decisions, and stop presuming that all of them will make the wrong ones. Give people with addictions or other debilitating problems real help, not the false promise of a geographic cure.

That approach would win widespread, bi-partisan support. It would be a profile in courage read beyond the acolytes of The Sun’s editorial page. And a greater actualization of that political acronym, “Housing Opportunities Made Equal.”

But empowering voucher-holders means taking power away from bureaucrats and social engineers, some of whom now control over $1 billion worth of voucher money for Baltimore’s largest-in-the-USA public housing relocation scheme. And those are the people Olszewski’s Section 8 expansion – and the disingenuous marketing campaign behind it – has always been intended to serve.

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