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Congress should further racial justice by reforming Section 8 housing

Changes to the program could provide support to America’s renting families, break down racial disparities, and build wealth in communities historically excluded from wealth building through homeownership.

What do you think of when you think of home? More often than not, people will answer this question not by describing the physical structure itself, instead remarking on their emotional and cultural ideas of what the idea of home means to them. Shelter is one of our most basic human needs, but for the millions of Americans who were able to capitalize on the myriad government incentives for homeownership, like the GI Bill and the mortgage interest tax deduction, the idea of home evokes the emotions of safety, stability, and prosperity.

Emily Anderson
Emily Anderson
However, if you are a part of one of the 43 million renter households in the United States, your idea of home may invoke emotions of stress and fear over the financial burden of renting. Half of these 43 million renter households pay over 30% of their income toward rent, passing the point at which the U.S. government would start to consider them cost-burdened and unable to afford other necessities. Of that half, 10 million households pay 50% or more of their income toward rent.

With millions of Americans spending a large portion of their income on a basic necessity and the majority of low-income renters being racial minorities due to the racist history of housing policy in the United States, it could be expected that the federal government would have some sort of policy intervention, just as it does for homeownership. Instead, it has the failing Section 8 housing voucher program, a rental assistance program for low-income households that is so underfunded and mis-designed that it only covers 25% of eligible households.

Coverage limits, poor design

Section 8 vouchers have limits on the amount of rent they will cover so recipients still end up living in low-income neighborhoods that lack access to opportunity. The system traps users in the rental market, and does nothing to address America’s racial housing disparities. Our most economically vulnerable citizens are saddled with exponentially increasing rents and are dealing with one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression; it has left millions of renter households at risk of eviction with little to no opportunity for assistance from the federal government.

Additionally, the current design of the program offers nothing to its users trying to achieve homeownership, the main way to build wealth in the United States that could enable class mobility and address racial wealth disparities. To protect its most vulnerable citizens, the federal government should assist all qualifying low-income renter households by fully funding the Section 8 program and making it an entitlement program like most other social welfare programs. The program should also be amended so that Section 8 recipients —  70% of whom identify as a racial minority and who are experiencing the historical impact of American residential segregation policies — can choose to put the vouchers toward mortgage payments to create wealth in communities of color. 

A question of political, not fiscal, feasibility

Detractors of these reforms will point out the $59 billion estimated price tag that comes along with the expansion of the Section 8 program to cover all qualifying households. However, the U.S. government has supported homeownership through the GI Bill, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the mortgage interest deduction, which annually deducts over $77 billion in taxes owed by homeowning Americans — essentially making it the largest federal housing program. Based on the funding for homeownership programs, the affordability of fully funding Section 8 makes the question not “Is it fiscally possible?” but rather “Is it politically possible?” 

Especially in Minnesota, Section 8 vouchers are the main source of housing support for our most vulnerable residents, yet they only serve around 25% of eligible Minnesota families. The Minnesotans currently using Section 8 vouchers are disproportionately people of color, with 59% of Minnesotan Section 8 users identifying as people of color and only 16.2% of Minnesota’s general population identifying as people of color. Beyond that, Minnesota has the fifth largest homeownership disparity between white households and households of color in the country and has not been exempt from the national trends of racism in housing policy. There are even geographic disparities in the administration of Section 8 in Minnesota, with Section 8 applicants outside of the seven-county metropolitan area waiting longer on average to receive a voucher than an applicant in the metro area. With strong disagreement at the Legislature on how to address the Minnesotan affordable housing crisis, the best hope for Minnesota families in poverty is significant action at the federal level. 

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A chance to break down racial disparities

Right now, after the police killing of George Floyd, lawmakers are under more pressure to pass legislation that addresses systemic racism in the United States. Communities of color make up a disproportionate amount of low-income renters who are unable to receive a Section 8 voucher. Yet the current structure of the program ignores the racist history of housing in the U.S. and its disparate impact on families of color.

Reforming Section 8 has the potential to break down racial disparities, build wealth in communities historically excluded from wealth building through homeownership, and provide support to America’s renting families, who face an ever-mounting slog of issues that prevent members of these households from seeing their home as a place of stability and safety.

Emily Anderson is a Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at the University of Minnesota studying housing policy and racial justice. Anderson completed her B.S. in urban studies and political science in 2020, also at the U of M. She is passionate about building thriving, equitable communities and creating solutions for urban policy issues, especially in her home state of Minnesota. 

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