Out of public housing, and hoping for something better

Marketplace Contributor Jan 6, 2016

Out of public housing, and hoping for something better

Marketplace Contributor Jan 6, 2016

Sometimes learning your home is going to be destroyed can be a good thing.  Take the Tindall Heights Housing Project in Macon, Ga. It’s 28 acres of 75-year-old red brick or avocado green block, and more than 400 apartments.

 The Macon Housing Authority has a plan to replace this with something less dense and more modern. The idea is to reduce the density of poverty, to give tenants access to new neighborhoods and to get them on the road to a better economic future.

First, everyone has to move out.

Standing on the stoop of her red brick apartment, Auset Reaves, treated this as welcome news. 

“Me, I was already ready to move,” Reaves said.  “I’m excited about it. And I’m glad that they are doing this.”

Reaves is a college student. She and her children have lived here for five years. “I would like to get a house,” she said before giving voice to a larger dream.

 “Well, it’s going to be better cause my son’s going to be able to go to a better school,” Reaves said.

Auset Reaves has lived in Tindall Heights for five years and is ready to move. She hopes to find a home in a better school district. “Me, I’m excited about it. And I’m glad that they are doing this,” she said. (Grant Blankenship)

That might not be an option.  There might be nothing available in the area’s one grade A school district that meets the Section 8 housing requirements. Most of the places Reaves could pick as her new home fall in local school districts with failing grades on federal standardized tests. That’s because her choices will be limited by the Section 8 Tenant Protection Voucher, or TPV,  that will pay part of the rent at her new place.

June Parker, head of the Macon Housing Authority, said Reaves won’t get a look at her housing choices until she has her voucher in hand.

 “That’s why we make sure that our residents know that don’t move, or you won’t be eligible for TPV,” Parker said.

Still, Parker said the relocation vouchers issued by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offer people real choice.

Once Reaves and others receive their vouchers, they’ll have 120 days to find a place.  But for now, there’s no list of properties for her to look at.  Linda Couch, the senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that’s typical.

“I think that’s pretty common,” Couch said. “There’s no one perfect list, there’s no one perfect place.”

It took me a week on the internet to find a list of Section 8 housing in Macon, Ga. There were 195 local Section 8 properties, all outside that grade A elementary school district. That became clear once that list of properties was plotted against another map of school districts and test scores.  Your googling skills may vary, but remember many people in public housing don’t have internet access.

Linda Couch said it would be great if this were different, if there were one one huge list of Section 8 properties nationwide, but that’s not a task HUD is going to tackle. “It’s not feasible in the world of rapidly changing vacancies and lease ups,” Couch said.

HUD officials say keeping track of day to day housing markets is the job of local housing authorities. The Macon Housing Authority does have a list of 900 local landlords, but it doesn’t keep a list of their properties.  And again, Auset Reaves won’t have access to that information until after she has been given her voucher.

Lists are one thing, but there is something bigger at stake in the relocation voucher process. 

“It’s another thing talking about a quality resource for tenants to start their search and really get a leg up on getting their families in neighborhoods of opportunity,” Linda Couch said.

Voucher values are based on average rents across whole housing markets. So low rents on one end of town can drag the average down and cut off access to more expensive housing. It’s this mechanism that could cut off access for Auset Reaves to the best elementary school in town.

Recognizing that problem, June Parker said Housing Authorities regularly try to recruit new landlords. But there are limits. 

“If the homeowner or the landlord chooses not to be part of the Section 8 program, we cannot force them,” Parker said.

As a remedy, HUD is experimenting with letting voucher values rise and fall as tenants travel between the zip codes that make up larger housing markets. The hope is that this will short-circuit the ability of low rents to drag voucher values down.

A month after my first visit with her, Auset Reaves and her kids were helping her mother carry groceries into the apartment. She was still waiting on her housing voucher, and he was still excited, but she was planning to be deliberate.

“I want to get it right the first time,” Reaves said.

The clock has yet to start on her search, so she still has time. So for now she can keep dreaming of the perfect house.

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