While the housing crisis sweeps across the nation, black folks are getting hit hard. Harder than most. Over 55% of the high-risk sub-prime loans were made to African-Americans. We are facing the greatest loss of Black wealth in over 100 years. In Miami we are facing the latest blow to the Black community’s housing security: the privatization of Section 8. Section 8 is a federal program to subsidize the high cost of housing for low-income families. It is a critical resource for the community in a number of ways. Section 8 allows low-income families to keep up with the inflated housing market, offering rent support on rental dwellings in the private market. It supports homeowners by offsetting mortgage and tax costs by bringing in renters with subsidized rent. And finally the Section 8 waitlist serves as a measure, a watermark, in understanding the magnitude of the housing crisis in our community.
Miami-Dade County manages 12,000 Section 8 vouchers. However, the waitlist (last opened in 2003) is 40,000 families long. This month the list is open again and we anticipate the numbers to be closer to 100,000 families, or almost half a million people. This is where the measuring comes in.
As I said above, the mortgage crisis is hitting the African-American community hard. Many homeowners are forced to walk away from homes and enter the rental market where pickings are slim. Combined with a staggering statewide unemployment explosion, it is no wonder the numbers on the Section 8 waitlist are swelling with the newly in need.
Getting on the list is as close many get to subsidized rent. I met Latasha Jones about a year ago. She was living in slum conditions in an apartment building in Liberty City. A mother of three, she works days as a teacher’s assistant in a local high school. As her walls blackened with mold and her kids got rashes, she joined with her fellow tenants and the Miami Workers Center and fought her slumlord for damages. When she won, she took her rent money elsewhere. “Rent is so high these days,” she said, “I ended up in another slum building, no one should have to live like this.” Latasha has been on the waitlist for Section 8 for almost 13 years. Beyond the need for housing, what most people who have tried to get Section 8 have in common is a ridiculously long wait.
But those lucky enough to make it off the long waitlist face a new problem: a broken system. The Section 8 program is mired in mismanagement, poor client services and inconsistent policies. It is impossible to get through to a live body on the customer service line; voucher holders risk being thrown out on the street while they wait for an appointment to get a signature on a change of dwelling document; others have lost vouchers because of minor technicalities; many landlords complain they do not receive timely rent subsidies from the local housing authority, while others benefit from the poorly run system by renting units that are in poor condition to voucher holders. The list of problems almost exceeds the waitlist itself.
To supposedly find a solution, Miami- Dade County is falling in lock step with national trends. They are pushing to privatize Section 8. It seems to make sense, it seems responsible, it seems accountable even. But there is a slight of hand going on here. By handing the management of Section 8 over to a private company, we are asking the fox to guard the hen house. With privatization we will see less public oversight of the program that is so needed by the public.
If we look at the legacy of privatization we see a shady trail of corruption, deception and exploitation. From the debacle of Scott Carver Homes where public money was handed to private contractors who took the money and ran without building homes, to private contractors in the Gulf Coast (including South Florida’s own Carnival Cruise Lines) who were condemned by a federal investigation as profiteers after they were found exploiting government contracts during Hurricane Katrina and Rita relief. If we look at the headlines we can see the poster child of the private interest put above public good and smart policy: the mortgage crisis.
We are facing a problem with seemingly two impossibly bad solutions: failed public administration – or privatization and profiteering. But there is a third solution. People directly impacted by public housing subsidies should be active in its oversight and safeguarding its integrity. Housing is a human right. Our community cannot gamble with housing security. The solution to mismanagement is not less oversight, but more, in the form of direct community control of housing. We must reclaim the right to determine the future of our community, and secure housing for all of us who need it.