Back then, over a half-century ago, the wholesale racial integration required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs, and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained legal protections two years earlier, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.
African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges, and careers once reserved for whites only.
I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive – and, yes, once upon a time, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1968.
Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for Black Americans in the past 50-odd years, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
This is now
So, how far have Black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. In 2018 black households earned $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families held just $5.04.
Another troubling aspect about black social progress – or the lack thereof – is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20% of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72%.
Depending on who you ask, then, Black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s too much.
What would MLK do?
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended, “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries has advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education, and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like.
To put it in Dr. King’s words, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
Editor’s note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order on Sept. 1 banning evictions of people who lost work as a result of the pandemic. To benefit, renters must sign a declaration that they don’t make more than US$99,000 a year or $198,000 for those filing a joint return and that they essentially have no options other than homelessness. But the order, which takes effect on Sept. 4, leaves some questions unanswered. We asked Katy Ramsey Mason, an assistant professor of law and director of the University of Memphis Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, to answer some of them.
1. What does the order do?
The order prohibits property owners from evicting covered tenants from any residential property because of nonpayment of rent before Dec. 31, 2020. It does not apply to any evictions that might be brought on grounds other than nonpayment, such as nuisance or alleged criminal activity.
It requires tenants to sign and submit a declaration to the landlord certifying under penalty that they qualify for protection under the moratorium. It does not relieve tenants from the obligation to pay rent – all of it comes due on Jan. 1, 2021 – and it allows landlords to continue to charge late fees and other penalties as permitted by law.
2. Who qualifies?
The CDC’s order applies to as many as 40 million renters across the country who could be at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent.
It is more comprehensive than the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act eviction moratorium, which expired on July 24 and only applied to an estimated 12.3 million renters, or about 28% of rental properties nationwide. The new order applies to tenants who live in any rental property in any place in the U.S. and its territories that does not already have an eviction moratorium with the same or greater protections than the CDC order. There are still 20 states with some form of a moratorium in place, about half of which are more comprehensive than the CDC’s moratorium. All of those moratoriums are unaffected.
Other than the financial requirements, to qualify for relief under the CDC order a tenant must certify that he or she is not able to pay full rent due to substantial income loss and has attempted to obtain government assistance with rent, and must commit to making partial rent payments to the extent of his or her ability.
The CDC’s order is certain to be unwelcome news for many landlords, who have already been struggling through the pandemic.
Many tenants have been unable to pay rent, and nonpayment evictions have been limited by state moratoriums and the coronavirus relief bill. According to the 2015 American Housing Survey, slightly less than half of rental properties are owned by “mom and pop” landlords, while the rest are owned by business entities. If landlords are not able to pay their mortgages and other costs, it could result in a loss of affordable housing units across the country.
Under the CDC’s order, landlords can continue to collect rent and charge late fees and other penalties, but they cannot evict tenants who don’t pay. The order also does not allocate any additional funding to assist tenants or landlords with unpaid rent, but encourages local governments to use coronavirus relief funds that have already been distributed towards rental assistance programs.
5. How will it be enforced?
Unlike the CARES Act moratorium, which had no enforcement mechanism, the CDC eviction moratorium imposes significant criminal penalties on violators. An individual who violates the order can be fined up to $100,000 and/or one year in jail. If a death results from the violation, the fine increases to up to $250,000.
If an organization or company violates the order, the monetary fines increase to a maximum of $200,000 if there is no death and $500,000 if there is a death. The order authorizes the Department of Justice to “initiate court proceedings” to seek those penalties.
6. What happens when the order expires?
When the order expires on Dec. 31, landlords will again be able to initiate eviction proceedings in accordance with state law – unless the moratorium is extended. If tenants have been unable to pay their full rent up to that point, they will be responsible for all of the arrears that have accrued – putting them at risk of losing their homes in the middle of winter. Some members of Congress have been pushing for additional funding to assist tenants – and landlords – with unpaid rent, but negotiations over another relief bill remain stalled.
The legacy of structural racism in Minneapolis was laid bare to the world at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street, the location where George Floyd’s neck was pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. But it is also imprinted in streets, parks and neighborhoods across the city – the result of urban planning that utilized segregation as a tool of white supremacy.
As co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, Delegard and her colleagues have been shedding new light on the role that racist barriers to home ownership have had on segregation in the city.
As a scholar of urban planning, I know that Minneapolis, far from being an outlier in segregation, represents the norm. Across the U.S., urban planning is still used by some as the spatial toolkit, consisting of a set of policies and practices, for maintaining white supremacy. But urban planners of color, especially, are pointing out ways to reimagine inclusive urban spaces by dismantling the legacy of racist planning, housing and infrastructure policies.
Racial segregation was not the byproduct of urban planning; it was, in many cases, its intention – it was “not by accident, but by design,” Adrien Weibgen, senior policy fellow at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, explained in a 2019 New York Daily News article.
Residential racial segregation continues to exist because of specific government policies enacted through urban planning. A key tool is zoning – the process of dividing urban land into areas for specific uses, such as residential or industrial. In the introduction to her 2014 book “Zoned in the USA,” urban planning professor Sonia Hirt argues that zoning is about government power to shape “ideals” by imposing a “moral geography” on cities. In Minneapolis and elsewhere, this has meant excluding “undersirables” – namely the poor, immigrants of color and African Americans.
With explicit racialized zoning long outlawed in the U.S. – the U.S. Supreme Court ended the practice in 1917 – many local governments instead turned to “exclusionary” zoning policies, making it illegal to build anything except single-family homes. This “back door racism” had a similar effect to outright racial exclusions: It kept out most Black and low-income people who could not afford expensive single-family homes.
In Minneapolis, single-family zoning amounted to 70% of residential space, compared to 15% in New York. Buttressing this, redlining – the denial of mortgages and loans to people of color by government and the private sector – ensured the continuance of segregation.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis City Council acted quickly in advancing plans to dismantle the city’s police force. Dismantling the legacy of by-design segregation will require the tools of urban planning being utilized to find solutions after decades of being part of the problem.
The current crisis also hits landlords, small ones especially, who may now struggle to meet mortgage payments, property taxes and other essential expenses. Again, the measures offered by Congress provide only limited relief.
As scholars of housing policy, we know that for any measure to have real impact, it will need to address problems facing both tenants and landlords. Such a solution may already exist in the Housing Choice Voucher program, a 40-year-old program which enables low-income households to afford rental housing in the private market.
Moreover, when renters skip their rent, they still owe it – it will need to be repaid at a later date.
These emergency measures do little to help landlords cover their expenses. It does prohibit lenders from foreclosing on landlords with federally backed mortgages, should they fail to make payment. But it does nothing to help them pay employees, utility bills or their property taxes. And when landlords cannot pay property taxes, it becomes even more difficult for hard-pressed cities, towns and school districts to provide essential services.
A downside of this approach is the potential for providing assistance to landlords and tenants who do not need it. It would also require a new apparatus to administer the program, which could delay implementation.
Advocates and policymakers have suggested other ways government could address the looming rental housing crisis.
The approach partially adopted by the CARES Act is to compensate displaced workers for their loss of income. This could be expanded through repeated cash payments to households. Alternatively, unemployment benefits could be increased. But there is also no guarantee that recipients will use the funds for housing or that funds would be targeted at low-income households that require assistance.
The government could pay employers to keep workers on their payroll and hire back those they have let go. It has already adopted this approach to an extent, but not anywhere close to the scale that would be necessary. Scaling up these efforts would probably take months and may not be politically feasible.
Vouchers for success
We believe a more viable option would be expanding the government’s Housing Choice Voucher program. Established in 1974, it enables low-income households to rent housing in the private market, paying no more than 30% of their income on rent, with the government paying the rest.
The program already has the administrative apparatus needed to handle an increase in participants: a nationwide network of over 3,300 housing authorities with decades of experience. Many have already demonstrated their capacity to dramatically expand operations to accommodate new households in the event of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.
If expanded to meet the demands of the current crisis, the Housing Choice Voucher program could act as a shock absorber for the rental housing market. For tenants, it would provide some stability where there now is uncertainty and reduce the risk of displacement, eviction and homelessness. For landlords, it would provide a steady stream of income to help pay the mortgage, property taxes and other expenses.
A guide to the Section 8 program. You’ll learn how to apply, how to qualify for a voucher and what it’s like to live in Section 8 housing.
by Maya Miller
What is Section 8 and how does it work?
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is a form of government rent assistance. In 2018, upwards of 5 million people across the country lived in a household that used a voucher to help pay some or all of their rent.
When Congress established Section 8 of the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, one of the goals was to make sure people earning low wages could find “decent housing and a suitable living environment” outside of public housing units.
Today, people who meet income requirements can apply to the program to receive a voucher when they become available. If they are approved, selected and then find an apartment or house with the voucher, their local housing authority starts sending payments directly to landlords.
The payments cover some or all of the voucher holder’s rent. On average, each household will pay somewhere between 30% and 40% of its income on rent.
We found that good information about Section 8 is not easily available.
Propulica spent some time reporting on how Section 8 is working as part of a series on housing with the nonprofit news organization The Connecticut Mirror. We learned that the process of getting and using a voucher to find housing is still filled with information gaps.
“Half the battle is the information piece,” said Josh Serrano, a voucher holder in Hartford, Connecticut. He and his colleagues run know-your-rights workshops for potential voucher holders.
“If you don’t know the law you can’t obey the law,” said Crystal Carter, who received a voucher through a Connecticut housing authority but struggled to find housing. She said the companies and landlords she worked with did not always know the Section 8 laws and processes, and that created problems during her housing search.
To create this guide, we spoke with dozens of people who have navigated the voucher process, as well as with property brokers, landlords, former housing authority workers, housing lawyers and housing advocates.
How to find out if I should apply for a Section 8 housing voucher
To get Section 8 housing, you will need to apply for a voucher.
Before you apply, you will need to know:
Where you want to live: Each local housing authority has different rules around Section 8. Decide where you want to live and then find the local housing authorities that are in charge of those neighborhoods. You can find a list of all the housing authorities here. Keep in mind: You can apply to housing authorities even if you don’t already live in that town. Don’t see the town you are looking for? Try looking for a regional or state housing authority.
How much money you and your household are making: The program is reserved for people making a certain amount of money compared with the area. Check out the housing authority’s income requirements. Then, go to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s online tool to see whether you — and the people you’re living with — fit into that category.
Immigration status for you and everyone you’ll be living with: At least one person in your household needs to have legal documentation to be living in the U.S. for the household to apply for a voucher. The nonprofit organization Affordable Housing Online has detailed information here.
Criminal history for you and everyone you’ll be living with: All housing authorities do background checks, but each one has different rules. It is possible to get approved for housing if you have a felony or if you are on parole. Ask the specific housing authorities by calling or emailing to see if you’re still eligible. IMPORTANT: You CANNOT get a voucher if you, or someone in your household, is on a lifelong sex offender registry, has been convicted of producing methamphetamine in federal housing or has been evicted within the past three years for drug-related reasons.
How do I apply for Section 8 housing voucher?
The first step to applying for Section 8 housing is to tell the housing authority you’re interested. But, there are more people who want vouchers than there are vouchers available. Most of the time, you’ll be placed on a waitlist.
Getting on a waitlist:
Get an email account. You will need an email account to apply. To create a free one, sign up for Gmail or Yahoo accounts.
Get alerts. You can sign up for services that will email you when housing authorities open waitlists. Affordable Housing Online has a website where you can see which waitlists are open. The group also has a webpage where you can sign up to get email alerts from the state you’re interested in living in. Some housing authorities have their own alert systems. If you absolutely know that you only want to live in one neighborhood, find the housing authority that oversees the area and sign up with that housing authority directly.
Be flexible. Apply to as many waitlists as you can, as long as you can see yourself living in that neighborhood for at least 12 months. After a year, you can look into moving while still holding onto your voucher.
Use a dependable mailing address. If you move around a lot, or are homeless, give the housing authority the mailing address of a friend or family member who can let you know when mail arrives for you. You can also ask local churches and shelters if you can use their mailing address. If they say yes, check in with them once a week to see if they’ve gotten any notices from the housing authority.
Do not pay money to apply. You never have to pay to apply to a Section 8 waitlist, and there is no way to pay to move up the waitlist once you’re on it. If you’re asked to pay, it’s more than likely a scam.
A doctor’s note can speed up the wait. Some housing authorities move you up the waitlist if you or someone in your household has a disability or a health issue like asthma that is getting worse because of where you’re living. If these cases apply to you, ask a doctor to write a note to the housing authority explaining how new housing will help your condition. Get and keep a copy of the note.
Steps to take while you’re on a Section 8 waitlist:
Lawyers and former housing authority workers say that being on the waitlist doesn’t mean you should just wait until you hear something. They shared a couple of important tips:
Take notes and photos. Keep a written record of all your communication with the housing authority. You can use your phone to take pictures of documents, emails you send or notes you take while having a phone call. Record keeping is important because there is a lot of staff turnover within housing authorities, lawyers and former employees told us.
Keep in touch. Respond to any notices you get in the mail from the housing authority over phone, email or mail so the housing authority knows you’re still interested in staying on the waitlist.
Keep applying. As soon as new waitlists in your state open up, apply. Don’t wait!
Be patient. It can take months or years to get approved depending on demand. Don’t give up!
Keep everyone updated. Communicate with the housing authority if there are any changes in where you live, how much money you or someone in your household is making or how many people are in your household (for example, if you get married or divorced, or adopt or have a child).
What to do after being approved for a Section 8 housing voucher:
Be your own advocate, and ask questions if you have them. If you are missing information or have questions, you can call or email the local housing authority. It’s a complicated process, and it’s important to speak up for yourself when you don’t understand something. The housing authorities also have walk-in days where you can stop by and ask questions.
Hand in the paperwork on time. If you miss the deadline, your move could be delayed.
Don’t miss the housing authority “briefing.” All housing authorities are required to offer in-person briefings to provide you with the information you need to know before you get your voucher. You’ll get a notice in the mail that will tell you when and where the briefing is taking place. If you can’t make the briefing for any reason, be sure to contact your local housing authority. Some housing authorities give you the vouchers the same day you receive a briefing, and others hand them out a couple days or weeks later.
How do I find housing with a Section 8 housing voucher?
Once you have your voucher in hand, you should start looking for an apartment. First you get the voucher. Here’s what a voucher looks like. Yours may be different.
What to know about the voucher:
Check the number of bedrooms, and ask the housing authority about the rent. The voucher comes with a limit on how many bedrooms the apartment can have. The voucher does not come with a set amount of rent. So, before you start your search, you should talk to your housing authority worker about what the range of rent might be.
Calculate the cost of gas, electricity and other utilities (like heat). We’ve heard stories of people who ended up with hard-to-pay utility bills because they didn’t consider their cost. If you’re unclear about your utility allowance, get in touch with the housing authority or a local housing advocate.
You are responsible for the security deposit. Ask the property owner or landlord how much the security deposit is while you’re looking for housing because you’re ultimately responsible for paying it. You can also check whether your state security deposit assistance programs can help cover the deposit by looking up “deposit assistance program” in a search engine like Google or asking your housing authority.
Tips for the housing search:
Almost everyone we talked to said that it is important to document everything. Write everything down, and bring someone with you who can help take notes on your search process. You can also take pictures of everything with your phone. Here are the things you should write down:
The dates, times and places where meetings happen.
Names and job titles of everyone you meet.
The address of the apartment or house you want to rent, and the type of building.
IMPORTANT: If you are denied housing, write down the reasons you were turned down.
Look for housing online. HUD compiled a list of all the apartment buildings it has worked with through Section 8 and put it into a map that you can scroll through. Otherwise, you can look through:
Once you’ve found an apartment or house that fits your needs, you should apply for a lease.
Submit your paperwork to the landlord. Make sure the paperwork is filled out and returned to the housing authority. You’ll get this paperwork, which includes a “request for tenancy approval,” when you get your voucher. Make sure the housing authority gets the “request for tenancy approval” and a copy of the lease.
Read the lease carefully. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Housing lawyers have told us these leases can be complicated, hard to understand and can include loopholes that put you at a disadvantage. They recommend that you read through the lease alongside a housing authority staff member, housing advocate or local lawyer before deciding whether to sign.
Keep inspections in mind. Within a few days or weeks of the lease signing, the housing authority will set up a time to inspect the place to make sure it’s in good condition. Once everything passes inspection, you can move in.
What can go wrong:
The time limit. From the moment you get your briefing, you’ll have at least 60 days (it can be 90 or 120 days, depending on the housing authority) to find housing. It’s normal for people to struggle to find housing in that time frame, especially if the person is working long hours.
If you have trouble finding housing in that time, you can ask the housing authority for an extension. “Do it earlier rather than later,” said Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
The housing authority will give you an extension so long as you can show them that you’ve put in effort to find housing. So, write down and take pictures of all the places you visit on your housing search and when you visited them (including the date and time).
Housing discrimination. In the 40-plus years that vouchers have been around, research shows that local zoning boards and property owners have made it hard for people with vouchers to live in certain areas.
Some states have responded with laws to address this practice. As of December 2019, there are 14 states that have passed laws banning landlords from rejecting tenants based on their source of rent income, which includes Section 8 vouchers. If you come across a housing listing that says “No Section 8” in one of these states, report it to the local housing authority and to legal aid or fair housing attorneys in your state.
If it feels like the only reason you’re NOT allowed to apply for an apartment is because you have a voucher, make sure to document it and then tell your local housing authority about the incident.
Living with a voucher
We’ve heard from people with plenty of experience in the Section 8 process. Overall, they’ve told us it’s just like living in other apartments. But there are some challenges that come up when living with a voucher that folks regularly brought up.
Here is what you need to know about living in Section 8 housing:
No matter what, always pay your portion of the rent on time. Always ask for receipts of your payment, and keep them on file.
Get everything in writing. If your landlord reaches out and tells you that you need to pay for a repair, ask for a written explanation. If you don’t think you should be paying what the landlord is asking for, reach out to the housing authority, a local housing lawyer or a housing advocate for advice.
Moving with a voucher. If you have lived in the same place for at least 12 months, you can move to a different neighborhood or state while keeping your voucher. This is called “porting.” You must apply. HUD has trainings and forms for porting that you can check out.
Unless a family breaks up, you can’t pass along a voucher to somebody else. The voucher can stay within the household if the person carrying the voucher dies, divorces or is convicted of a crime. You can’t pass along vouchers in a will or sell them.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.
How to Apply for Section 8 Housing
If you legally reside in the United States and don’t make enough money to pay your rent or mortgage, you might qualify for Section 8 housing, also known as housing choice vouchers. Although applying for government assistance can be difficult, receiving the voucher can be a big help when you’re in a tough financial situation.
Understand how Section 8 housing works. Housing choice vouchers are administered by local public housing authorities (PHA), of which there are several around the nation. Vouchers come as either project-based or tenant-based — see below for more details. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supports PHAs, and your local PHA will help you arrange Section 8 housing.
Under a tenant-based voucher, a tenant gets a voucher and can move into a unit with financial assistance. If that tenant chooses to move to another unit, the voucher carries over to the next unit, offering continued assistance to the tenant wherever they decide to live.
Under a project-based voucher, a tenant gets assistance so long as they remain in the unit that the voucher was issued for. The voucher lasts for a specified unit and time. If the family chooses to leave the unit, the assistance does not carry over to the next unit. A family may still, however, be eligible for a tenant-based voucher.
Determine your eligibility. Whether or not you qualify for Section 8 housing is based on multiple factors, including your family's income, the median income in your area, how much rent you're paying, your assets, and the composition of your family. Here's a general breakdown of the eligibility requirements:
You are a US citizen or non-citizen who has eligible immigration status.
You earn, as a family, less than 50% of the median income for the county or city in which you choose to live. In fact, most Section 8 recipients earn closer to 30% of the median income for the county or metro area in which they choose to live. That's because the PHA must provide 75% of its vouchers to families who earn less than 30% of the median income.
You meet other criteria based on assets and family composition.
Document your income and housing costs. Have pay stubs from your employer verifying your salary, and either your mortgage information or something in writing from your property owner that confirms your current rent. You'll need these documents to apply for vouchers.
Know what kind of voucher you need. HUD provides assistance to both renters and homeowners. Apply for a tenant voucher if you rent the premises where you’re living. Complete a property voucher application if you would like financial assistance with paying a mortgage for a condominium, townhouse or home that you own. In some cases, Section 8 vouchers can be used to purchase a modest home and make mortgage payments.
Apply for vouchers. Contact your local PHA to begin the application process. Find a list of PHAs here. Ask if it's possible to complete the forms online.
Get assistance with completing the necessary paperwork if you’re not fluent in English. Call your local public housing authority to find out their office hours so you can complete the paperwork in person. You should be able to schedule a time with someone who can translate or to help you complete the forms
Enrolling in Section 8 Assistance
Be prepared for a long wait. In many cases, people who apply for Section 8 are waitlisted. Your local PHA may have more applications than it can afford to approve vouchers for, and will therefore have a waiting list for applicants.
In some cases, there are as many as 100,000 applicants for only 10,000 spots. It can take upwards of 3 to 6 years in these areas to be enrolled in Section 8 while on the waiting list.
Be aware of prioritizing. PHAs develop local preferences for moving applications up or down the waiting list, and may give preference to families who are currently homeless or living in substandard housing, families who pay more than 50% of their income in rent, or families who are involuntarily displaced. Inquire at your local PHA office if you have any questions about how prioritizing is allotted.
If the PHA in your area has more applicants than it can assist in the near future, it may temporarily stop accepting new applications. Although this type of closure is not permanent, it may be beneficial to look for Section 8 housing in another county or metropolitan area if your local office is not open to new applicants.
Know your responsibilities if you do get accepted. If your local PHA does approve your application and provide you with a housing voucher, you'll need to make sure that your current or intended living situation fits HUD health and safety requirements.
Safety requirements include appropriate thermal controls, running water and sanitation systems, lack of toxic building materials, and structural integrity among other criteria.
If you're renting, you'll be required to sign a year lease with a cooperating property owner, who will be obligated to both you and your local PHA to provide safe housing and reasonable rent.
You'll also be required to make payments on time, maintain the unit in good condition, and comply with the terms of the lease. If you fail to pay the landlord on time, your Section 8 assistance could be revoked.
Calculate your rent responsibility. Under Section 8 housing, you and your family will pay 30% of your monthly adjusted gross income on housing and utilities. Your voucher will cover the remainder of the cost. Your local PHA can help you calculate how much you need to budget for each month.
Say, for example, your monthly income is $1,000. You'd pay $300, even if the rent of the unit is $1,000. There will likely be a cap on the maximum amount the voucher can pay based on the cost of living in your area.
Avoid housing discrimination. A landlord may legally refuse occupancy for failure to pass background checks, poor credit, and other determinations, but cannot refuse occupancy to you based solely on your Section 8 enrollment. Nor can a landlord charge a section 8 voucher holder more than a non-section-8 tenant.
If you think a landlord has refused occupancy to you based solely on your Section 8 enrollment, contact your local PHA.
Know what role geography plays in Section 8 enrollment. Section 8 guidelines are different from location to location. But in general, residents who receive a tenant-based voucher for the current jurisdiction in which they live may use that voucher to live anywhere in the country. Residents who do not live in the same jurisdiction in which they applied must move to the jurisdiction that issues the voucher for at least 12 months; after 12 months, they are free to move.
Section 8 vouchers can also help you buy your home by getting a home loan at below-market interest rates. This enables you to use your voucher as a credit toward your mortgage rather than rent. Consult your local housing authority for more information.
Don't commit fraud. Fraud can result in termination of Section 8 assistance, as well as restitution of funds, probation, or even prison. Fraud may be defined as any of the following offenses:
Knowingly omitting or under-reporting income or assets from household income.
Transferring assets or income to achieve eligibility.
Falsifying or using false Social Security documents.
Falsifying the number of members in your household.
Getting assistance on top of Section 8 without notifying the appropriate parties
Renting out or subletting all or part of the unit.
Charging rent from any tenants who may be living with you.
You can move without losing your access to Section 8 housing. Be sure to notify your local PHA in advance, terminate your lease within lease provisions, and find new housing that fits within HUD health and safety standards.
Expect to wait before you hear a final determination on your application. Many Section 8 housing applicants are on waiting lists for months and even years.
Note that landlords must return any deposits held if the unit doesn’t pass the HUD inspection, and they have the right to turn away an applicant if the inspection cannot be completed within 10 days.
Click here to contact your local PHA. You can find the nearest HUD office here
Don’t get tricked by professional scammers. There are fraudulent companies promising to help you complete the paperwork for Section 8 housing in return for a fee. You can get all the assistance you need to file for Section 8 housing free of charge simply by contacting the federal HUD office or your local public housing authority.
This article contains legal information, but does not constitute legal advice. If you feel that you need legal advice, consult an attorney.
Section 8 vouchers should give low-income people the opportunity to live outside poor communities. But discriminatory landlords, exclusionary zoning and the federal government’s hands-off approach leave recipients with few places to call home.
by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, The Connecticut Mirror
HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
“You own this place?” she asked the sweat-soaked man. Yes, he said. “Are you renting it out, or has it already been rented?”
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)
She and her children moved into a homeless shelter and then an extended-stay motel. She saw Section 8 as their path to independence, and she started calling housing authorities around the state to apply for and get on waiting lists for a voucher. At first, Carter limited her search to Connecticut’s middle-class and upper-income towns, hoping to settle in a place with low crime and high-performing schools.
But with each call, she lost hope. She met the income requirements — hers was less than half the state’s average household income — but the waitlists had thousands of families in front of her, if they weren’t closed entirely.
When she found out that the Winchester Housing Authority in Northwest Connecticut had just 67 people on its waitlist, she got excited; among the affluent region’s celebrity residents are Meryl Streep and Ralph Nader. The feeling was quickly dashed. Officials barred her from the list, saying it was open only to those who already lived in the predominantly white towns. The housing authority did not return calls seeking comment.
“That lady told me I would be better off living in Bridgeport,” Carter recalled. The city is one of Connecticut’s most impoverished. “She would not send me out an application for nothing in the world, no matter how many times I called. She kept saying, ‘Go to Bridgeport.’”
Blocking those who don’t live in town from getting a housing subsidy is against the law, but housing authorities are allowed to prioritize whom they award the vouchers to.
Both ways can effectively shut out minorities. And the Winchester Housing Authority is not alone. The wealthy town of Westport — where just 1% of the residents are black and 5% are Hispanic — until recently posted on its website that it gave substantial preference to current residents and those with ties to the town for its public housing. After the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica asked about the policy, officials removed the language from the site and disavowed the practice.
Carter decided to fight back. Her mother had worked for the Hartford Housing Authority for decades, so she was familiar with housing rules. “I pretty much know all my rights,” she said later. She called the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and soon sued Winchester for housing discrimination.
The housing authority denied any wrongdoing, and the case dragged on for more than a year. The parties settled, with Winchester pledging to open its waiting list to those outside its borders. But instead of accepting applications from Carter and others, Winchester stopped participating in the voucher program altogether.
Amid the legal battle, she landed a voucher from the middle-class town of West Hartford. She was jubilant. Then, she started searching. “There were no places no matter how hard I looked,” Carter said. “It’s not a golden ticket.”
Approaching the time limit to find housing with her voucher, she settled for Hartford, where her family ultimately moved into a quaint four-bedroom duplex on a quiet street in the South End. Another bright spot: After a few months in the city’s struggling schools, her children had won coveted spots to attend school in the suburbs of Suffield and Simsbury, which have some of the highest-performing schools in the state. (The education lottery stemmed from a Connecticut Supreme Court order in 1996 to correct the inequality inherent in the Hartford region’s segregated schools.)
The change was stark. In Simsbury, educators taught smaller classes; the school had a social worker and other staff who helped coordinate transportation for Carter’s children and enrolled them in free extracurricular programs. Clubs focused on the stock market, horticulture, mindfulness, fly fishing.
“We was grounded,” Carter said, “and didn’t have to worry about living.”
Carter found the notice under her door. It was the summer of 2018. Her landlord of four years had sold the building, and the new owner had given her just 30 days to leave.
Carter was deflated. It had taken so long to find this apartment, and she had no free time; she worked long hours as a ramp loader at the airport for an Amazon Prime subcontractor. Further, the conditions of the education lottery restricted her options; in order for her children to remain in their current schools, they had to live in either Simsbury or Hartford. So when the deadline to move passed, Carter refused to leave. Her landlord filed for eviction. The legal fight lasted for months.
On a frigid morning in January 2019, Carter saw her children off to school and then headed to Hartford Housing Court, a brown brick building a half-block from the state Capitol.
The courtroom was packed with families facing eviction and their landlords’ attorneys, but when the bailiff yelled out her name, she still felt humiliated.
Carter pleaded her case above the squeals of a restless baby in the gallery. She told the judge her choices were bleak: either remain in the duplex and eventually be evicted, or leave and become homeless.
“I just can’t find an adequate four-bedroom. It’s not like I’m just sitting there. I know the man want me out. It’s obvious the man want me out,” she told Judge Rupal Shah. “I’ve been looking in Hartford. I’ve been looking in Simsbury. …”
But not having anywhere to go is not a valid defense — the judge gave her 10 days to move.
Eviction rates are high in Connecticut, with 1 in 18 families in Hartford evicted each year. While some skipped rent or damaged property, others are forced out because of new ownership or rising rents. Landlords will often start the eviction process on tenants in good standing to speed up the move-out process, said Nancy Hronek, a housing attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid. Regardless of the circumstances, an eviction stains a tenant’s rental record, making it more difficult for them to find a new place. Some housing advocates call it the “Scarlet E.”
On the morning of Feb. 7, Carter heard a knock on the door. It was a state marshal. She hadn’t finished emptying the apartment, so the marshal began hauling her belongings outside. Within minutes, her furniture was strewn across the front lawn. Her children helped her load everything into a moving van. Fog hung in the air as they drove away in silence.
Her family crammed into a relative’s apartment in a nearby city. The whole family slept in one room; the three boys in one bed, Carter and her two girls in another. Often, one of them would sleep on the couch in the family room. Everyone stuffed their clothes into a single dresser. The rest of their things moldered in storage.
The social worker at school tried to get the kids into free camps and after-school clubs, but they started to act out. They resisted getting up for school, and their grades started to suffer. The principal called to express concern.
“Now we shelled in this house,” Carter said. “This neighborhood, it ain’t really great, so my kids are just stuck in a room all day playing video games or on YouTube.”
Then, Carter lost her job; the shipping business where she worked took a hit and the company downsized. She redoubled her housing search.
Carter woke before dawn. Sitting at a half-moon table in the dimly lit kitchen, she opened her phone to review apartment listings on a handful of websites while her children slept. Facebook Market, Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow, Apartments.com. She kept checking her phone for notifications of new offerings in Simsbury and Hartford.
It had been four months since her eviction.
“Every day, I look — and nothing works out,” she said.
Most of the listings were in impoverished communities in Hartford. Carter doesn’t drive, so she would line up tours and then ride the bus for an hour to the city. Many of the units she described as “shitholes.”
The Obama administration had tried to change this dynamic. In 2011, HUD piloted a program in the Dallas area that raised the value of vouchers in high-cost areas and decreased their value in impoverished communities as a result of a legal settlement. The idea was that more money would provide more choice, encouraging voucher holders to seek housing in safer areas with high-performing schools.
The Obama administration changed federal rules to expand the program, but the Trump administration in 2017 suspended an expansion of the initiative to poor cities like Hartford.
Carter sued HUD in 2017 in federal district court in Washington, seeking a court order increasing the value of her voucher in the more affluent neighborhoods of Hartford. The judge ruled in her favor.
Researchers have found that raising the voucher’s value in certain neighborhoods worked to make more housing available within the voucher’s price range. The share of rental units in better-off areas that voucher holders could afford jumped from 18% to 41%, according to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
But now, two years later, Carter often found herself turned away from nicer places. That summer, she saw an ad for an idyllic Cape Cod in a quiet neighborhood, so she called the management company to arrange a tour. But when she disclosed that she planned to pay with a voucher, the firm told her it was no longer available and suggested listings in poorer areas. When Carter passed by a few weeks later, she saw a “for rent” sign on the front lawn.
Frustrated with her online search, Carter sometimes asked friends and family to drive her around the better-off sides of Hartford looking for unlisted apartments. She also relied on her social network to send her tips. She heard about the yellow house in Barry Square from her oldest son, who came across it while he was out with friends.
“There is no place for us,” Carter said. “How can I say this without being too blunt: Everybody don’t want us in their backyard. It’s not a color thing. It’s a voucher thing. Nobody wants us.”
Around the country, the federal government has largely outsourced investigating housing discrimination complaints to watchdogs like the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
After disability discrimination, the second most common type of complaint Connecticut’s watchdogs receive is that a landlord won’t take a voucher or another legal source of income. But only 17% of people who suffer discrimination actually end up filing a complaint, research shows.
Like most apartment hunters, Carter had no time to file complaints. After the Barry Square landlord rejected her, she headed to another open house, which she had found on Craigslist. It was a five-bedroom in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood, a part of Hartford known for drug dealing. Her oldest son had once witnessed his friend being shot in this neighborhood in a carjacking.
“My brain is telling me don’t do this,” she said. “My kids aren’t built for this life”
She pushed her hair into her black duckbill newsboy cap and walked up the stairs. Inside, she scanned the floor and saw glue traps to catch mice. “It’s just as a precaution,” the owner said. Carter thought about her 13-year-old daughter, who has severe asthma; rodent infestations can trigger the condition.
As she made her way into the main bedroom, she looked at the doors. A dog had scratched through the flimsy material. The carpet was worn. And a hallway closet had been turned into a bedroom. The rent: $1,600.
Carter couldn’t wait to leave. She stepped outside, and the landlord assured her that she would have the carpets cleaned and the doors repaired. An exterminator would come monthly.
“Do you take vouchers?” Carter asked.
“That’s not a problem,” the owner responded.
Time was running out. In late July, Carter’s relative heard from their landlord. There were too many people in the apartment.
Carter and three of her children stayed while her two older sons moved in with her brother about 20 miles away. Her grasp on her voucher was also tenuous. It had been set to expire in August but, after attorneys at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the civil rights group Open Communities Alliance took up her case, she won a 30-day reprieve.
She’d turned down the apartment with mouse traps. But now she was forced to consider a different place in the same neighborhood; it too had mouse traps. Panicked, she started the process of finalizing a lease by sending paperwork to the Hartford Housing Authority.
Even then, she hit a snag: Housing officials approved the apartment but not the entire rent.
Carter called everyone she thought could help. Among them was Erin Boggs, a civil rights attorney she met years ago during the waiting list lawsuit.
It was a long shot, but Boggs sent emails to her advocacy network, including a Catholic deacon whose parish is in Simsbury. The town is mostly wealthy and white, with a latticework of bike trails and a pedestrian bridge lined with flower pots. Rental stock was sparse. In her note, Boggs described Carter as a “civil rights hero” who needed a hand. Within hours, the deacon called a member of his congregation.
Josh Livingston rented a handful of houses in town and had just purchased a four-bedroom Cape Cod set on a wooded lot, just off the main road. The two talked about how much harder life is for people with fewer resources. The next morning, Livingston emailed Boggs, “I can’t stop thinking about the chance to help Crystal and her family live in Simsbury.”
Livingston had listed the Cape for $2,300 a month, plus utilities. But Carter’s voucher, adjusted for the area’s higher income, would only cover $2,222. He agreed to the reduced price and to cover utilities.
In mid-August, Boggs called Carter with the news. Carter was shocked. She had roughly two weeks left on her voucher and soon went to tour the house. The Cape was across the street from a “Welcome to Simsbury” sign adorned with purple mums. It was bigger than any place Carter had ever imagined herself living in. Fronted by a lawn peppered with colorful leaves from the tall trees, the two-story house had a detached garage and carport. Inside, there was an eat-in kitchen, a fireplace and a sunroom.
Later, when a housing inspector came to confirm that the property was safe, Livingston glimpsed the prejudice that Carter experienced. “He said to me: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a fantastic house. I really hope they don’t ruin it,’” the landlord recalled.
Carter and her family moved in just before Halloween. Someone left a welcome pumpkin and leaf wreath on her front stoop.
On a recent Saturday morning, she was busy tidying the kitchen before work; she had found a job at the Stop and Shop grocery store across the street. A roast defrosted on the counter, near a stack of coupon leaflets. On the windowsill above the sink was a homemade blue and red painted welcome plaque given to her by one of her children. Next to the dinner table, a sign reading, “Life is better at the beach.”
“It’s just so cozy,” Carter said.
In the living room, family photos rested on built-in bookshelves, and donations from the nearby Catholic Church were slowly filling the space: pots and pans, firewood, side tables. Upstairs, the children had their own bedrooms.
Carter still marvels at the turnaround. “My story is different only because I had all these people who know people,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in the slums.”
Her children are now able to participate in Simbury’s after-school clubs because they can catch the late bus home. Her 14-year-old daughter just joined the fencing team. At night, Carter and her kids spend hours sitting next to the hearth of their fireplace, scanning the woods for the bears that her neighbors talk about.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.
Formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the bill made unprecedented commitments to the nation’s veterans. For instance, it provided federal assistance to veterans in the form of housing and unemployment benefits. But of all the benefits offered through the GI Bill, funding for higher education and job training emerged as the most popular.
When he signed the bill into law, President Roosevelt assured that it would give “servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training … not only without tuition charge … but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.” So long as they had served 90 consecutive days in the U.S. Armed Forces and had not received a dishonorable discharge, veterans could have their tuition waived for the institution of their choice and cover their living expenses as they pursued a college degree.
Black service members had a different kind of experience. The GI Bill’s race-neutral language had filled the 1 million African American veterans with hope that they, too, could take advantage of federal assistance. Integrated universities and historically black colleges and universities – commonly known as HBCUs – welcomed black veterans and their federal dollars, which led to the growth of a new black middle class in the immediate postwar years.
Yet, the underfunding of HBCUs limited opportunities for these large numbers of black veterans. Schools like the Tuskegee Institute and Alcorn State lacked government investment in their infrastructure and simply could not accommodate an influx of so many students, whereas well-funded white institutions were more equipped to take in students. Research has also revealed that a lack of formal secondary education for black soldiers prior to their service inhibited their paths to colleges and universities.
Mississippi’s connection to the GI Bill goes beyond Rankin’s racist maneuvering. From 1966 to 1997, G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery represented the state in Congress and dedicated himself to veterans’ issues. In 1984, he pushed through his signature piece of federal legislation, the Montgomery GI Bill, which recommitted the nation to providing for veterans’ education and extended those funds to reserve units and the National Guard. Congress had discontinued the GI Bill after Vietnam. As historian Jennifer Mittelstadt shows, Montgomery’s bill subsidized education as a way to boost enlistment in the all-volunteer force that lagged in recruitment during the final years of the Cold War.
In August 2017, President Trump signed the Forever GI Bill, which committed $3 billion for 10 more years of education funding. As active duty service members and veterans begin to take advantage of these provisions, history provides good reason to be vigilant for the way racism still impacts who receives the most from those benefits.
The unconstitutional practice of home equity theft has allowed individuals to be stripped of their property without fair compensation.
by Brittany Hunter
For three years, the pair scrimped and saved in order to fix up the four-unit property. On the weekends, Ramouldo would spend his days off making the 11-hour drive from New Jersey to Michigan to work on the house, making the much-needed repairs himself. In addition to the small complex, the family had purchased a small home next door. The plan was to renovate and rent out each unit and then use that money to help Ramouldo retire and move his family to the small home in Michigan, where the rest of their extended family resides.
Erica, who had seen her father work long hours and sacrifice to provide for her family over the years, was happy to help her father buy the property. She was eager to begin building her own financial legacy and saw the property as an excellent investment opportunity.
These plans were derailed, however, when their property was seized by Wayne County, Michigan, in 2017 and sold to a private buyer.
All because they unknowingly underpaid their tax bill—by $144.
While the father and daughter had been paying their property taxes diligently for each year they owned the property, in 2014, they unintentionally underpaid by $144. Neither knew about this miscalculation or the situation could have quickly been remedied. And without knowledge of this outstanding debt, the small amount grew as the county tacked on interest charges to the tune of $359.
To be sure, when interest was accounted for, the Perez family did owe roughly $500 in unpaid taxes to the county. County officials used this as justification to seize, sell, and then keep the $108,000 revenue earned from the sale of said property.
The government is allowed to seize property in order to settle a debt owed by an individual. However, it isn’t allowed to take more than it is owed.
In the American legal system, there is a maxim: the punishment must fit the crime. But when considering the small amount by which the Perez family underpaid their property taxes, this seems like a disproportionate punishment to receive.
The government is allowed to seize property in order to settle a debt owed by an individual. However, it isn’t allowed to take more than it is owed. And in the instance of the Perez family property, Wayne County kept every penny it earned from the sale of their property—a practice known as home equity theft.
Fortunately, Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) has stepped in and on July 9th, announced that it had filed suit on behalf of the Perez family against Wayne County and County Treasurer Eric Sabree.
Home Equity Theft
Many of us have accidentally underpaid a bill before. Whether we were distracted, busy, or simply not paying enough attention to the total amount due, accidents happen to everyone. Eager to get the full amount owed, most companies will send strongly worded letters or call incessantly until you cough up the remaining amount due. It’s completely understandable as to why an entity would do this: they want what is owed.
However, if they tried to take your car away over the miscalculation of a few dollars, most people would be angry—and justifiably so.
When it comes to property taxes, if an individual underpays by even just a few dollars, there are 12 different state governments that can and will seize your property and sell it, without having to pay you a dime of the earnings. This is known as home equity theft. Unfortunately, the Perez family is not the only victim of this practice in Michigan.
In 2014, Uri Refaeli lost his home after it was foreclosed on and seized by Oakland County, Michigan. In 2011, Rafaeli purchased a small $60,000 property for his business, Rafaeli, LLC. While he had paid his 2012 and 2013 property taxes in full, he discovered that he had accidentally underpaid in 2011. When he made this realization and tried to correct his mistake in 2013, he forgot to account for the interest that had accrued on his back taxes. As a result, he underpaid by a measly $8.41. The county seized and sold his property for $24,500. Rafaeli never saw a dime of this money.
When it comes to outstanding debt, just like private companies, governments are eager to get what is owed and there nothing wrong with them attempting to do so. However, when they begin to go after more than they are owed, the situation becomes troublesome.
To make matters worse for Michigan, the state also has a shady reputation for using this practice to its own benefit. According to Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), local governments pad their budgets with the money earned from this stolen property. Each year in Detroit’s budget, there is a line with the estimated total revenue that the government is expecting to bring in from foreclosures of this very nature.
Earlier this year, it was discovered that Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree had violated Treasurer’s office rules by funneling foreclosed properties to family members and well-established and connected businessman for a fraction of the cost.
While state Treasurer’s office rules prohibit family members from participating in these auctions, several Freedom of Information Act requests filed on behalf of a Detroit News investigation found that transfers involving Sabree's family overlap with his time in office. Since 2011, when Sabree began as deputy treasurer, Wayne County has transferred ownership of more than 1/4 of privately owned properties in Detroit as a result of back taxes—making the whole situation in Michigan even more suspicious.
Home Equity Theft in Montana
Michigan is not the only state guilty of using the practice of home equity theft. In Montana, local governments have been known to sell private homes of those with back taxes to “preferred” private investors, a practice that helped get the practice of home equity theft banned statewide just a few months ago.
Eighty-year-old electrician Gary Guidotti once owned four homes in Great Falls, Montana, which he rented out to help support himself and pay his bills. When the Great Recession hit in 2007, some of his tenants were no longer able to afford rent and stopped paying altogether. And without their rent helping to support him, Guidotti stopped paying his property taxes.
In 2008, Cascade County, Montana issued a tax lien of $1,125.45 on one of his homes. Just 17 months after issuing the lien, the county ended up selling it to a well-connected private entity for pennies on the dollar at $667.20. The private company, Sunrise Financial, acquired the deed to the property in 2011 and in 2015, sold the property for $139,300. Guidotti, of course, received no compensation from the sale of his home.
“This can’t be fair,” Guidotti said. “It (the law) has to be changed, but what’s the sense in fighting? The lawyers will have it all anyway. It’s just the way it goes.”
Without his properties, Guidotti was forced to move into a motorhome parked behind one of the homes that he used to own.
Challenging Home Equity Theft in Court
Our country was founded on the fervent belief that individuals have the right to their life, liberty, and, as is especially applicable here, their property. Greatly influenced by philosopher John Locke and his Second Treatise on Government, our country’s Founders understood how important property rights were to securing individual liberty and protecting Americans against government overreach.
In chapter five of Locke’s famous essay, “On Property,” he writes:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to (emphasis added), at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.
When a person works, like Ramouldo Perez did, and uses the fruits of his or her labor to purchase property, that property is theirs and theirs alone. This respect for the sanctity of property rights has been one of the most defining characteristics of the American idea.
Yet, practices like home equity theft and civil asset forfeiture, which allow law enforcement to strip individuals of their property without due process, have belittled this sacred principle and harmed many innocent people in the process. The confiscation of a person’s property, especially over a few dollars of unpaid taxes, is thoroughly unAmerican. Private property should be protected by the government, not seized and sold off before an individual has an opportunity to remedy the situation.
The unconstitutional practice of home equity theft has allowed individuals to be stripped of their property without fair compensation. But there is hope that this practice could soon be reined in or perhaps even stopped altogether.
In May, after diligent efforts made by PLF, Montana passed Senate Bill 253, giving property owners further protections against home equity theft.
The new law protects homeowners’ equity by requiring homes be sold to the highest bidder. Now the extra profits must be returned to the former owner after deducting taxes, interest, penalties, and costs,
The system for inspecting federally subsidized properties is failing low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities and undermining the agency’s oversight.
by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan
In the winter of 2017, a toddler was rushed to the emergency room after swallowing rodent poison inside her family’s unit at the federally subsidized Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother had placed sticky traps throughout the house after another one of her children was bitten on the arm by a mouse, according to a local housing advocate who worked with the family.
This August, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley sued the St. Louis Housing Authority and the private management company it hired to run the Clinton-Peabody Housing Complex, saying they both violated the state’s consumer protection laws by advertising that the development was habitable even though it was plagued by a pest infestation, black mold and water damage.
That same month, residents of Texas Coppertree Village Apartments in Houston filed suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the federal government had failed to hold their landlord accountable for deplorable conditions and criminal activity at the federally subsidized complex, including rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies.
In all three cases, despite well-known, long-standing problems, the properties had passed their most-recent inspections mandated by HUD.
Apartment complexes subsidized by HUD collectively house more than 2 million low-income families around the country. Some are run by public housing authorities and others are owned by private for-profit or nonprofit landlords. By law, the owners of such complexes must pass inspections demonstrating they are decent, safe and sanitary in exchange for millions of dollars in federal money each year.
But as thousands of renters across the country have discovered, passing scores on HUD inspections often don’t match the reality of renters’ living conditions. The two-decade-old inspection system — the federal housing agency’s primary oversight tool — is failing low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities and undermining the agency’s oversight of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded rental subsidies, an investigation by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica has found.
HUD has given passing inspection grades for years to dangerous buildings filled with rats and roaches, toxic mold and peeling lead-based paint, which can cause lifelong learning delays when ingested by young children. The same goes for buildings where people with disabilities have been stranded in high-rise apartments without working elevators, or where raw sewage backs up into bathtubs and utility drains. The agency has passed buildings where ceilings are caving in and the heat won’t kick on in frigid winter months as old boiler systems give out.
The failure of HUD’s inspection system has been on display in the southern Illinois towns of Cairo and East St. Louis, which have had their public housing taken over by HUD. In both towns, complexes received passing scores as decades-old buildings deteriorated.
HUD’s inspection system “is pretty much a failure,” and the agency’s staffing levels after years of budget cuts are “wholly inadequate” to assess properties, said Sara Pratt, a former senior HUD official who worked at the agency under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Kate Walz, director of housing justice with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, a social justice and legal advocacy organization based in Chicago, said, “We just shake our heads sometimes.”
“Some owners fail an inspection and they have a great building, and some owners pass it, and they have just a horrible building,” she added. “We’re running up against this all the time.”
The consequences of these failures are made more severe by the paucity of affordable housing in communities across the country. Nearly one in five of the nation’s 43 million renters spend more than half of their income on housing, according to an April report by The Pew Charitable Trusts. With few alternatives available to families who live in deep poverty, many choose to stay where they are and endure their conditions rather than complain and risk eviction and homelessness.
That’s why it’s critical that HUD ensures the safety and stability of government-funded housing units set aside for low-income families, housing advocates say. It’s a difficult charge given that the vast majority of these apartments are decades old, and many of them have gone without routine maintenance for years.
Representatives of the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments have said that they tried to fix problems there and that the property’s passing scores meant it met HUD’s standards. After a yearslong effort led by tenants, HUD ended its contract with the owner in May. The St. Louis Housing Authority did not respond to a call seeking comment, but in news reports it said that efforts have been made to improve conditions at Clinton-Peabody, including by addressing the mice problem. And after tenants of the Texas Coppertree Village Apartments filed suit against HUD, inspectors gave the building a failing score and HUD has issued two default notices to its owner. HUD’s response to the tenants’ lawsuit was due on Tuesday, but the department has sought an extension.
The Southern emailed a synopsis of its findings to a HUD spokesman several weeks ago. The agency declined to comment in detail. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in an email that “the perfect system hasn’t been, and probably will not be designed. That given, the agency continues to learn and we realize the challenges of a 20-year old system.”
HUD declined to make Secretary Ben Carson available for an interview, but in late October, Carson shared a two-page statement on Twitter that said he “directed a wholesale reexamination” of how the department conducts inspections. Carson wrote that the agency is exploring “immediate improvements and those refinements over the long-term.”
The letter did not elaborate on those changes or when additional details would be made public.
“We’re simply signaling that change is coming,” Brown said. “The details will be released when we’re convinced we have a system that will better serve the residents.”
HUD’s inspection system was born out of political fallout from the agency’s previous oversight failures.
“HUD has been plagued for years by scandal and mismanagement,” then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo told lawmakers during a Senate hearing in 1997, announcing a reform plan, of which standardized inspections was a central feature. In the 1980s, he said, HUD was the “poster child for fraud, waste and abuse.”
“At the time, if you knew HUD at all, you knew it through its failures,” Cuomo said, citing as examples Cabrini-Green in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, large public housing complexes that have since been leveled.
Facing calls for his department’s elimination, Cuomo called for the creation of a Real Estate Assessment Center within HUD, which would largely rely on contractors to assess the financial and physical conditions of landlords managing HUD-subsidized properties.
All properties are supposed to be inspected at least once every three years, and poorer performing ones more often. HUD also has the ability to perform an inspection at other times in response to complaints by tenants or others. Scores are issued on a 100-point scale, with a 60 needed to pass. After the inspection, landlords receive a list of all life-threatening health and safety violations, and they have three days to fix those problems. If a privately owned property fails with a score below 30 or has two consecutive scores below 60, it is referred for enforcement action, which can include termination of a contract.
HUD survived the 1990s, but not before Congress cut a quarter of its annual budget and ordered a massive downsizing. The agency’s workforce has been reduced by more than half since the mid-1980s, from roughly 17,000 to about 8,000.
HUD has fielded complaints for years about flaws with its inspection system, particularly with respect to its complicated scoring algorithm that struggles to tell the difference between unsafe properties and decent ones, said Mike Gantt, senior vice president of The Inspection Group, a consulting company that helps properties prepare for their inspections.
“Many people have believed these scores to be largely meaningless for nearly 20 years, and this includes many HUD officials who will say so privately,” Gantt said. “This is not a newly discovered problem. Any claim to the contrary amounts to a cover up or ignorance of historical fact.”
Through a spokesman, Cuomo, now the governor of New York, defended the creation of the inspection system in the 1990s, saying that before it, there was no uniform system for inspecting federally subsidized housing across the nation. But spokesman Tyrone Stevens added that, with the passing of two decades and a dropoff in federal funding and oversight, Cuomo believes the system needs to be reevaluated.
The system’s flaws were brought into sharp relief a few years ago, when deplorable conditions in apartment buildings owned by the nonprofit Global Ministries Foundation prompted news reports and a 2016 Senate hearing that called into question HUD’s oversight.
Over a number of years, the nonprofit and a subsidiary had purchased 60 properties for low-income residents in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Tennessee. The nonprofit, run by an evangelical minister in Memphis, Tennessee, named Richard Hamlet, entered into contracts with HUD to house thousands of tenants in about 40 of the properties.
By 2014, Global Ministries was receiving about $40 million in federal funds annually to offset reduced rents through HUD’s project-based Section 8 program.
Internally, HUD officials were raising serious questions about the conditions at the properties, said John Gemmill, who retired from the department in 2016 as director of the agency’s Memphis office. But externally, little happened, and tenants suffered.
When Cynthia Crawford moved into Warren Apartments in Memphis in 2013, she was desperate for a place to live. For nearly four years prior, she had been homeless, bouncing between friends’ couches and shelters. Her children were in foster care, and to get them back, she had to have a home. But the conditions they endured were horrendous. “These were not just any house mice. I’m talking about rats so big we thought they were possums. A lot of ceilings were falling in on families. Stoves and fridges didn’t work. We had issues with floors falling out from under people,” Crawford said. “It was just an absolutely hopeless feeling.”
For years, the inspection scores assigned to the Memphis properties were inflated as they fell into disrepair, well before Global Ministries purchased them, said Brad Watkins, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, a civil rights organization that works with tenants. The scores began to drop only after Watkins and others raised concerns with HUD, he said.
Then, in the spring of 2015, Crawford and other residents began organizing and Memphis’ local paper, The Commercial Appeal, revealed that people were living in unsafe units at Warren Apartments, one of the Global Ministries properties. At roughly the same time, Hamlet paid himself a salary of $500,000. After the story ran, HUD inspectors returned, this time issuing a failing score for Warren and Tulane apartments, which were inspected jointly. Months later, HUD moved to end a contract with Global Ministries for these two properties.
This prompted reporters and advocates in other states to start asking questions. In the spring of 2016, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., visited a troubled 400-unit apartment complex in his home state that was owned by Global Ministries. During the visit to Eureka Garden Apartments in Jacksonville, Rubio told a representative of the owner that the conditions he had witnessed were “terrifying and inexcusable,” according to news reports. Days later on the Senate floor, Rubio turned his attention to HUD. He criticized the agency for not giving the property a failing inspection score.
“I, for the life of me, don’t know how they passed any inspections because, I’m telling you, I visited and I’m not a building inspector, but you don’t have to be one to visit this building and know there is no inspection that the building should ever pass,” Rubio said.
That August, under pressure from HUD and the public over poor housing conditions, Hamlet announced plans to put all of Global Ministries’ HUD-subsidized properties up for sale.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, said that Global Ministries “hurt a lot of folks in Memphis” and that the department forced Hamlet to sell his HUD-subsidized properties. But in an interview, Hamlet said that the department had been familiar with deteriorating conditions in the properties that Global Ministries bought, as they had long been a part of HUD’s rental subsidy program under prior owners. The department also had to review his financing plans, approve the purchases and enter into contracts with the nonprofit.
In the interview, Hamlet blamed tenants for lacking basic housekeeping skills, faulted the management companies he hired to run day-to-day operations and said he was targeted by HUD officials because he’s a pastor. He defended his salary, saying a consultant told the nonprofit’s board that he was “underpaid.” “It’s clear we became the pinata of all the frustrations of the whole Section 8 program on some of these older properties,” Hamlet said.
The problems with Global Ministries prompted a broad re-examination of oversight at HUD and promises of reform.
In the last two years alone, Brown said, HUD has increased training and oversight of contractors who conduct inspections on the agency’s behalf. In 2016, HUD ordered inspectors to mark down properties for shoddy repairs such as using plywood to cover holes in drywall or tape to fix a rotting refrigerator gasket. And in 2016 and 2017, the agency decertified more than 50 contract inspectors after determining they had not properly followed protocols.
These changes had a dramatic effect on inspection scores nationally. From 2015 to 2017, the failure rate nationwide roughly tripled — from 4 percent to 13 percent for public housing complexes, and more than doubled from 2 percent to 5 percent for privately owned projects subsidized under HUD’s project-based multifamily programs. About 260 private properties with housing assistance failed, roughly one of out of every 19, as did about 430 public housing complexes, roughly one in eight properties inspected in 2017.
At the same time, the number of inspections of privately owned multifamily properties has decreased dramatically over the same period, from 8,400 in 2015 to 4,900 last year. HUD declined to answer a question about the reason for the drop.
But even after the changes HUD made to improve inspection protocols, unsafe properties continue to pass in some places. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Hartford.
In early 2017, a school family resource coordinator reached out to the Christian Activities Council, a neighborhood advocacy organization in Hartford, after a child at her school said she’d been bitten by a mouse. A community organizer with the nonprofit arranged a meeting with the child’s mother to find out more. But at the appointed time, the mother wasn’t home. Her other child had swallowed rat poison and was in the emergency room at a local hospital.
Shortly after this incident, Cori Mackey, the nonprofit’s executive director, and other advocates began knocking on doors in Hartford’s North End, a distressed neighborhood that sits a half-mile from the capital city’s downtown.
The Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments consist of 26 buildings, each containing six to 12 units. Most tenants did not realize that they shared a landlord, Mackey said. But after speaking about their shared concerns, the tenants decided they wanted to take on the landlord, Ah Min Holding LLC, and its managing member, Emmanuel Ku, and ultimately, HUD. A core group of six residents led the charge.
In April 2017, the Christian Activities Council reached out to HUD’s regional office in Boston to express concerns about unsafe conditions despite the property’s passing inspection scores. The following month, a construction analyst from HUD’s Boston office visited the property and found outdated kitchens, dead mice, nonfunctioning baseboard heaters and rickety outdoor decks, according to a report obtained by The Southern in a records request.
The next month, HUD issued Ah Min Holding a notice of default, giving the owner seven days to fix the most serious health and safety violations. But nothing really changed, the residents said.
Between late June and early July 2017, a HUD inspector assessed the property again. Because the department had been made aware of problems, this particular inspection was more intensive than is typical. Still, the property passed, scoring 73, just one point less than the previous year’s 74.
The property was marked down for mold and mildew, infestation and defective windows and doors inside units. But the owner compensated for those problems by posting high scores in other categories, including the exterior of the buildings and the grounds, which tenants said were manicured in the days before HUD officials arrived, while their units received little attention.
In early July, a little more than a week after the inspection, tenants held a rally and press conference where several detailed their poor living conditions and what they said was an absentee landlord. Afterward, Joseph Crisafulli, a senior HUD official from the agency’s Boston office, addressed the tenants, saying, “The stories I’ve heard about are as far away from acceptable HUD housing as I’ve heard in my 29 years at HUD.”
That same month, a rodent expert from Cornell University found that the mouse problem at Clay Arsenal defied amateur mouse traps. Because mice were living and breeding behind fridges, in walls and cabinets and in the cushions of plush furniture, he recommended an extensive and professional extermination effort to control the problem.
In September 2017, Yulissa Espinal, one of the tenants’ leaders, gave birth to a baby girl. She and her baby had to stay in the hospital for a week and then in a hotel for another while a social worker and city code enforcement officer attempted to force her landlord to rid her unit of rodents.
When Espinal returned home two weeks later, she said she found a dead mouse in the living room. It wasn’t long before the live mice returned, she said, forcing her to set traps around her baby’s crib at night. “I worried one would get into the crib and bite her,” said Espinal, a school bus driver raising four children on a limited income.
She and others continued to plead with HUD for help, while Ah Min Holding mounted a challenge to another default notice sent by the department, threatening to cancel the company’s contract. Ku’s attorney, Carl A. S. Coan III, told HUD that such a decision was “arbitrary” and “completely contrary” to the department’s enforcement regimen for a property that had passed its most recent inspection. Ku did not respond to request for comment through Coan. HUD withdrew the second default notice and instead required Ku to fix a lengthy list of problems by January 2018, a deadline the department extended numerous times.
Dismayed, the advocates and tenants kept searching for answers. They discovered what they considered an opening: Ah Min Holding had not properly obtained certificates of occupancy for its rental buildings, which require a city inspection when there is turnover of a rental unit. The city agreed. In February of this year, city officials inspected about 100 of Ah Min’s units, and nearly all of them failed.
In April, HUD once again notified Ah Min Holding that the company was in violation of its contract with the department. On May 2, the mayor of Hartford told Ku in a letter that the city would charge Ah Min $99 per violation per day until he fixed the issues. Two weeks later, a city committee voted to end Ah Min Holding’s tax abatement, which was worth about $266,000 annually.
On May 31, tenants found letters taped to their door from HUD, announcing that the agency had pulled the company’s contract and would provide them assistance in relocating. HUD also sent Ku a letter stating that “in light of the conditions at the project, and your continuing failure to provide decent, safe housing,” the agency was denying his company’s request for additional time to fix problems.
Rhonda Siciliano, spokeswoman for HUD’s Boston office, said that routine inspections are only one of the agency’s oversight tools for holding landlords accountable: “Is it the primary one? Yes. Is it 100 percent foolproof? No.”
Siciliano said that as soon as problems were brought to HUD’s attention by the advocacy organization, the agency responded. But that’s the problem, said Mackey, the executive director of the nonprofit helping the tenants.
“HUD acted only because we put pressure on them, not because that’s part of their standard oversight system,” she said.
Even as HUD is making promises to further reform the inspection system, years of inflated scores assigned to unsafe and deteriorating properties has caused harm that will be hard to reverse.
Congress has made cuts to programs that pay for renovations at apartment complexes for years, and this has led to a massive backlog of repairs. In 2011, HUD published a study saying that some 1.2 million public housing units needed about $26 billion in large-scale repairs, and that the backlog would grow by more than $3 billion annually. (There has not been a more recent assessment.)
One of the most dramatic public housing oversight failures is playing out in New York City, in Cuomo’s home state, where nearly 400,000 people live in public housing. For decades, the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest, managed to avoid many of the pitfalls and public relations nightmares that plagued other large cities. It was considered a success story for government-run housing. But not anymore.
This winter, thousands of tenants were without heat. The housing authority later admitted it had not properly conducted inspections for lead paint in recent years, and hundreds of children were poisoned. Units are overrun with rats and mold. In a complaint, federal prosecutors accused local officials of trying to conceal the extent of the problems and mislead HUD inspectors with actions such as turning off the water to buildings to conceal leaks and posting “Do Not Enter” signs on basement rooms. The city, which manages the housing authority, has agreed to spend more than $2 billion over a decade on renovation efforts, and to be overseen by a federal monitor under the terms of a consent decree that still must be approved by a federal judge.
Yet, records show that HUD has known about serious health and safety deficiencies inside New York City’s public housing complexes for years. Some inspection reports estimated more than 1,000 health and safety deficiencies; the properties continued to receive passing scores. On Wednesday, a judge declined to sign off on the consent decree because he said it did not go far enough to address conditions he described as “somewhat reminiscent of the biblical plagues of Egypt.” He asked both sides to come back next month with a proposal for how to proceed.
Similarly, in the town of Cairo, located in the southern Illinois region known as “Little Egypt,” residents of the Elmwood and McBride apartment complexes lived with mice, mold and heating outages that forced them to heat their homes with gas ovens. And for years, HUD gave these buildings passing grades as they fell apart.
Today, both buildings are empty.
Vines stretch up their sides. Plywood boards have been stapled over windows. Mangled, wind-whipped metal awnings hang over them. Once home to hundreds of children, it’s now eerily quiet. Before HUD moved everyone out, nearly a sixth of the population of this town at Illinois’ southernmost border lived in the two 1940s-era apartment complexes.
When HUD placed the housing authority into receivership, an agency spokesman told The Southern that HUD was “stunned … at what it saw, not just in terms of deplorable living conditions” but also “poor and absent record keeping, the staggering backlog of critical repairs.”
When HUD finally announced a plan to address the unsafe conditions in the spring of 2017, officials told residents that the buildings were too far gone to save, and that the department was no longer in the business of building public housing. Residents were provided vouchers that subsidize rent in the private market, but many had to leave Cairo because it had few rental apartments. The shuttering of Elmwood and McBride leaves few public housing options: two high-rise towers and several smaller buildings.
When HUD’s inspector general released a report this summer examining why the department didn’t step in sooner, faulty inspections were identified as part of the problem.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, previously told The Southern that what happened in Cairo was a “rare” oversight failure on the department’s part. Three inspectors who had performed physical inspections at the Alexander County Housing Authority between 2009 and 2016 have been decertified for performance issues.
But Jeremy Kirkland, HUD’s acting deputy inspector general, told a House subcommittee in late September, “I am absolutely certain there are others out there like Elmwood and McBride.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
The HUD secretary came to town last year and declared residents were no longer at risk, three decades after the federal government took over public housing here. In fact, the complexes are falling apart and a woman was killed in the weeks before his visit.
By Molly Parker, The Southern Illinosian
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The city’s administrative building was decorated for a festive affair when U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson arrived here last September. An Americana themed banner draped the back of a raised stage. Red, white and blue balloons floated in the foreground.
“This is really an exciting day,” Carson told a crowd of a few dozen city and community leaders. “It is a day of transition and a day of progress.”
In October 1985, HUD officials arrived here unannounced and seized control of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, citing poor living conditions and fraud. Carson was in town to return it to local control.
In a brief speech, Carson said that when former President Ronald Reagan’s HUD took over the housing authority five presidential administrations ago, “the residents were at risk, and the future of our children was at risk.”
Inspectors reported such problems as windows and doors that didn’t lock, infestation, mold and mildew, fire safety violations, holes in walls, broken appliances, peeling paint and missing lead-based paint inspection reports. Among the properties that failed, HUD inspectors estimated an astounding 5,405 violations. One-quarter were deemed life threatening.
In at least one case, persistent security problems may have played a role in a tenant’s death.
Around 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2017, Winston made a frantic call to 911, told dispatchers someone was trying to break in, screamed and hung up the phone. When police arrived at the John Robinson Homes, they found her first-floor kitchen window shattered and Winston dead upstairs, her body on the right side of her bed. Her toddler was in a nearby playpen.
In the months preceding her death, Winston made repeated requests to the housing authority, then still under HUD’s control, to fix the window, according to family and friends. It didn’t lock and was missing a security screen, commonly seen on other windows throughout the apartment complex. Winston’s complex failed its HUD inspection last year.
Carson did not tour any public housing complexes in East St. Louis when he visited last September, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in a written response to questions. At the time, Carson also was not aware of Winston’s death, Brown wrote. Asked if Carson stood by his remarks, the spokesman declined to comment.
“The path forward for public housing is not a dilemma that is limited to East St. Louis,” Brown said in an email.
The neglect of public housing in big cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. has been widely documented. But the crisis is also hitting small towns and mid-sized cities — places like Peoria, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Hoboken, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; and Highland Park, Michigan, HUD property inspections show.
And now, after years of congressional funding cuts to public housing programs, the Trump administration has proposed slashing far more. HUD funding for major repairs at public housing complexes, for instance, has fallen 35 percent — from about $4.2 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. Earlier this year, the White House proposed completely eliminating this funding.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said a homicide investigation into Winston’s death remains open.
Kelly, who is also the Democratic nominee for a U.S. House district that includes East St. Louis, has been critical of HUD. After reviewing inspection reports for the properties given to him by The Southern Illinoisan, Kelly said they should have prompted the housing authority to further assess and fix security concerns in all units, and flagged HUD to make sure it was done.
Roughly one in every four of the 27,000 East St. Louis residents live in public housing.
“HUD failed Alexis and so many others there that simply want to live in peace and safety,” he said. “How can anyone put their lives together and lift themselves out of the circumstances that lead them to public housing if you are fighting for your own safety every day?”
A century ago, the city of East St. Louis was a powder keg. During the World War I industrial boom, African Americans flooded the city, looking for jobs. Shut out of work in the South, some were willing to cross picket lines, angering many white workers.
In the summer of 1917, a white person drove into a black neighborhood and sprayed homes with gunfire. Other black people reported being pulled from their cars by whites and beaten that night. Black citizens returned fire, unintentionally striking two police officers in a parked car who had arrived to investigate the shootings. Over the course of three days in July, dozens of black people were beaten and lynched, one of the most savage race-based attacks in the 20th century. Whites set fire to their homes and shot at them when they ran.
Some black residents fled town and never came back, but far more moved in.
In the 1930s, between the world wars, discussions began about building two public housing developments in East St. Louis — one each for black and white residents. After years of political infighting, protests and attempts to scrap plans for African-American housing altogether, more than 400 families moved into the Samuel Gompers Homes and John Robinson Homes in 1943.
East St. Louis’ population peaked at more than 82,000 in the 1950s — and several additional large public housing complexes were built.
But since then, the city has been in a freefall. Between roughly 1960 and 1990, the city lost more than 13,000 jobs. The white middle class had already moved. During this time period, much of the black middle class packed up and left, too.
In 1990, about five years after HUD took over the housing authority, then-Illinois Gov. James Thompson agreed to spend $34 million to pull the city from the brink of bankruptcy. But that couldn’t prevent East St. Louis from turning over the deed to its four-year-old City Hall that same year after losing a lawsuit filed by a man who was beaten by another inmate while in jail on a traffic violation.
“Many American cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit have neighborhoods where need is urgent, but they differ from East St. Louis in one important respect,” East St. Louis noted in a 1995 report to HUD, discussing its housing needs. “They can shift resources from more affluent neighborhoods into poorer ones, whereas East St. Louis has such pervasive poverty and a woefully inadequate tax base that shifting is exceedingly difficult.”
“As an East St. Louis native, it pains me to see my old home town in such extreme distress,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was raised in East St. Louis. Residents here “suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country” and “deserve better,” he said.
Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s helped East St. Louis secure half a million dollars to install a new security and lighting system at two large public housing complexes. Durbin also supported efforts by Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks to end the receivership. In an interview last year, the senator said the federal takeover had long been a “sticking point” for city leadership because they wanted the opportunity to manage the housing authority on behalf of their residents. Durbin said he has confidence in Jackson-Hicks, who was elected in 2015, that he didn’t have in previous leaders.
“But it is clear that more work remains to keep the families living within ESLHA [housing authority] safe,” he said.
Neither Winston nor any immediate family members had ever lived in East St. Louis Housing Authority apartments, but she added her name to the waiting list in the winter of 2017.
At the time, Winston and her baby were staying with Winston’s mom, Florince Harlan, in Belleville, Illinois, a short distance away. When Royal turned 1, Winston had started working as a clerk at Circle K in St. Louis and she was eager to establish her independence.
The first apartment she was offered was in the John Robinson Homes. Harlan said she was concerned about it by reputation. “I didn’t want her to go there,” she said.
The John Robinson Homes was named for an ex-slave, a Civil War captain and turn-of-the-century civil rights leader. The complex sits downtown, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The signs of neglect are clear: holes in the soffit lining of the roof exposing ragged yellow insulation, a boarded-up community center with holes in the windows that appear to have been caused by bullets. Inside the units, there are mice, roaches, holes in walls, leaky ceilings and missing appliances.
After moving in, Winston reconnected with Devanie Moran, a close friend from grade school who lived in another public housing complex, John DeShields Homes, a half-mile away. They had children about the same age; the moms worried together about keeping their kids safe.
Moran showed Winston where the management office of the apartment complex was located, and how to file a work order. Moran knew the drill, having moved in several years before Winston. At one point, Moran’s living room ceiling leaked so badly “it was basically raining inside.”
Farlon Wilson lives on the opposite end of the complex from Winston. Leaking pipes caused a hole in Wilson’s living room ceiling that the housing authority patched over, and she continues to battle a mold problem with bleach, which she believes is making her children sick. Her bathroom sink fell off the wall. She would have preferred to live elsewhere but this was the apartment offered to her and she took it.
Winston’s mom and sister said that Winston wasn’t thrilled about moving into the John Robinson Homes, either. But she was determined to keep an upbeat attitude, her mom said.
“We accepted this because you have to accept something low in order to get to something big,” Harlan said.
When HUD officials took over the housing authority in 1985, they told reporters that they would improve living conditions and the housing authority’s finances. Over three decades, the housing authority’s financial condition improved from a $14 million deficit to a surplus. A few longtime residents said living conditions had also improved in the earlier years of HUD’s takeover, but then declined again.
Longtime tenants such as Delbra Myles have complained that the housing authority hasn’t painted occupied units for 20 years. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem. The paint chipping from window sills and bathtubs may contain toxic levels of lead, according to a lead paint assessment that was conducted in April for the Samuel Gompers Homes, which was built for whites but is now occupied almost exclusively by black families. That report was obtained by The Southern Illinoisan through a public-records request.
HUD inspectors have cited Gompers for missing lead-based paint inspection reports for years. From 1995 to 2016, while HUD was the receiver, state health department test records show at least 70 cases of children with dangerously elevated lead levels. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong developmental delays and health problems in affected children. The cause of the children’s high lead levels has not yet been established.
Mildred Motley, the East St. Louis Housing Authority’s executive director, said her agency is examining “the exact impact of the alleged lead levels” and has applied for a grant from HUD to assist with removing or sealing lead paint, if necessary. Brown, the HUD spokesman, declined comment on the missing lead paint assessments during HUD’s receivership.
The troubles go beyond lead paint. In audits of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in 2011 and 2012, HUD found that the housing authority double-billed the federal government for certain salaries and unit renovations, and mismanaged stimulus funds during the recession of the late 2000s.
In 2012, HUD’s Office of Inspector General found that the department’s failures to give East St. Louis the consistent leadership and detailed attention it needed had prolonged its receivership and led to “significant management and operational” shortcomings.
The report concluded that HUD “needs to improve its structure for managing receiverships.” Since taking over East St. Louis, HUD has placed about 20 more housing authorities into administrative receivership. Three remain under HUD’s control, all of them in small majority African-American cities in the Midwest: Gary, Indiana; Wellston, Missouri; and Alexander County, Illinois, home of Cairo, the southernmost town in the state.
The day of Winston’s death, Carson was in Cairo, about two hours from East St. Louis, speaking with tenants of two 1940s era housing complexes that HUD plans to demolish because they are no longer safe. The decision to shut down the Cairo complexes after years of neglect and HUD oversight failures was one of Carson’s first major decisions as secretary.
Five days after Carson visited East St. Louis and declared the housing authority in excellent shape, HUD’s inspector general released yet another damning report about the city’s housing agency. This one accused a private management company, working on the housing authority’s behalf, of improperly paying workers and awarding contracts to companies owned by employees or their spouses instead of honestly evaluating bids. In a response contained within the report, the company noted that its president initially contacted HUD when “made aware of an employee conducting fraudulent activities,” but disagreed with the amount of money the inspector general claimed was overpaid to workers. The housing authority has ended its relationship with the company.
It didn’t take long after Winston moved in for issues to arise, Winston’s family and friends said. For starters, the mice and roaches were everywhere, her mom said. Harlan said she bought her daughter a bug bomb, and they set it off in her apartment. But what bothered Winston the most was the lack of security.
Winston tried repeatedly to get her kitchen window fixed.
Moran, Winston’s friend from grade school, recalls going to the management office more than once to help Winston file work orders. When she visited the office a final time, an employee said, “Be patient because they barely have maintenance men,” Moran said.
When that came to nothing, Harlan said she accompanied the petite 4’ 9” Winston — her family called her “Precious” — to the housing authority’s headquarters a couple of miles away.
A few weeks before her death, one of Winston’s sisters, Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes, helped her lock the window with a broom handle and two nails. But a permanent repair was never made, and the security screen never arrived.
The inspection report noted that nearly half of inspected windows were inoperable or wouldn’t lock. More than a third had damaged or missing screens. This was out of a total of 25 units inspected between the John Robinson Homes and neighboring John DeShields Homes (the two sites are inspected together as one project).
Nationwide, the failure rate for public housing projects nearly tripled, to over 13 percent from about 4.5 percent, between 2015 and 2017. African Americans were disproportionately more likely to live in unsafe conditions, an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica of HUD inspection scores found. While apartment complexes are expected to pass routine inspections and fix problems in exchange for federal dollars, HUD rarely orders that they be closed and residents moved if that doesn’t happen.
During the past five years, at least 120,000 people, nearly half of them children, lived in public housing apartments that received repeated failing scores, the analysis found.
Earlier this year, Bejoile-Hayes asked Motley, who took over as executive director of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in late 2015, for copies of work order requests Winston had filed. Motley declined to provide them. Subsequently, The Southern Illinoisan submitted a public-records request for work orders from April to August 2017 for the development where Winston lived.
Among the roughly 130 requests for repairs, five were for window repairs. (Tenant names and unit numbers were not included for privacy reasons.) Of those five requests, the records show that an order to fix one broken window was closed on the day it was reported in late April. The others were not closed until at least mid-September, after Winston’s death, the records show.
Motley would not comment on any requests made by individual tenants, including Winston, to repair their units. She said in an emailed statement to The Southern Illinoisan that “window and screen replacements are major improvements which require capital funds.”
Scared to be in her apartment at night alone, Winston spent most nights at her mom’s home. But on Aug. 7, Winston decided to stay overnight at the John Robinson Homes. She had a hearing scheduled for that week at the nearby county courthouse to get child support for her daughter.
A few hours after Winston was killed, a police officer knocked on the door of her sister’s home in Belleville. Tynesha Bejoile was at work, so her fiancé answered. The officer asked him to have Bejoile call the police department as soon as she could.
When Bejoile called the police, she was told that there had been a tragedy in Winston’s apartment. The officer asked her if any immediate relatives could arrange to pick up Royal, who had been taken into the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at the scene. “I asked if my sister was OK, and she said, ‘I can’t tell you that over the phone,” Bejoile recalled.
Bejoile-Hayes, another sister, left work and drove to their mom’s house. Florince Harlan, who was asleep, woke up to numerous missed calls, then got another from her ex-husband. A co-worker had told him that rumors were spreading on social media that Winston had been murdered in her apartment.
Bejoile-Hayes drove Harlan and Winston’s stepfather to the John Robinson Homes.
Around 8:30 a.m., they arrived at a scene filled with signs of tragedy: multiple squad cars in the parking lot, crime scene tape stretched across the apartment complex, and two armed officers guarding the front door of Winston’s apartment. Harlan collapsed in pain. Her ex-husband steadied her by the arm.
“That’s when I started screaming,” she said.
Eventually, she went to find Royal at a state office just a short drive away. An officer met Harlan there, and walked her over to the police station, where they confirmed that her daughter had been killed.
Winston’s mom and sisters spent the next 10 days planning burial services. In the days following her daughter’s death, Harlan said she kept thinking about the fact that her daughter had complained repeatedly about her unsecured apartment.
If the screen had been in place, “I think it would have saved her life,” she said.
Winston wasn’t the only East St. Louis Housing Authority tenant to die in the weeks before Carson’s visit. Last July 26, a fire broke out in an eight-story apartment complex for seniors known as the Orr-Weathers E-2 building, located about a mile from where Winston lived.
Derwin Jackson, a tenant in the building, said the alarm sounded loudly on the first floor, but was difficult for some tenants on higher floors to hear. “I’m on the sixth floor. I couldn’t hear it,” he said.
“I believe it’s going to take another life for them to even consider getting this building up to code like they are supposed to,” said Jackson, who was Jefferson’s cousin as well as his neighbor. HUD inspected the property a week before Jefferson died. Like Winston’s complex, it failed, scoring a 37 out of 100 points.
Willie McDaniel, who also lives in the building, said tenants have long complained about the building’s lack of security. People who are not authorized to be in the building sleep in the hallways at night, he said. McDaniel said that it’s not uncommon for feces and urine to linger in common areas for several days.
At a meeting last December, tenants asked for the housing authority to assign one of its security workers to patrol the hallways of this high-rise and others. The housing authority responded that security personnel visit the high-rises several times per day and monitor security cameras from their vehicles. But the housing authority “does not have sufficient resources to have Public Safety stationed at each high rise building,” according to responses included in the housing authority’s annual plan.
Terrell Wren, another resident in the Orr-Weathers high-rise, had a list of complaints, particularly about bedbugs. His bathroom is in shambles. In late April, a jammed hot water knob caused the water to run continuously. “It’s been like this going on three, maybe four months,” he said.
McDaniel said he’s so fed up that he organized a petition drive to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her office to intervene. A half dozen tenants wrote to Madigan about bugs, frequent hot water outages, and security concerns they say they’ve raised for years. “Help!!!” one tenant wrote.
“They need to condemn this building,” McDaniel said.
Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Madigan, said the attorney general’s Consumer Fraud Bureau reviewed the complaints and determined that it does not have jurisdiction in the matter. The complaints will be forwarded to the East St. Louis Housing Authority and copied to HUD, Thompson said.
Lakena Harmon remembers hearing that Winston’s had been killed last August. It was all anyone talked about for several days. “I thought of, what if this happens to me, could this happen to me, and will these windows be able to protect me?”
Although Harmon didn’t know Winston, she thought of her when her own apartment was sprayed with gunfire this spring.
In mid-April, Harmon returned to the Samuel Gompers Homes from a get-together in Belleville. Friends and family had thrown her a gender reveal party. Excited to learn she was having a boy but worn out from the festivities, Harmon said she laid down on her bed at about 10 p.m.
Soon after, she heard what she thought was a rock hitting her window.
When she heard it again, Harmon realized it was gunfire and rolled off her bed, hitting the floor with her pregnant belly. The window shattered, leaving a bullet hole in her bedroom closet door. She was unharmed, but for weeks her window was covered with a plywood board.
As she waited for the window to be replaced, Harmon slept on a mattress in her living room. Then, about two weeks after her window was shot out, she awoke to the smell of raw sewage. “As soon as I put my feet on the floor, it’s all water, all water,” she said. She shuffled across her wet floor to the bathroom and threw up. Then, she started mopping up the mess.
Neighbors have had similar experiences. After the incident, Harmon’s doctor wrote a note for her to give to the housing authority saying she needed to be moved or have her apartment repaired as “exposure to raw sewage creates a health hazard for the patient.” The housing authority hasn’t responded, though, and Harmon said her apartment flooded again on July 31.
Since HUD ended its receivership, living conditions have remained bleak.
A recent assessment showed a staggering backlog of needed repairs at East St. Louis’ public housing complexes. The report said that it would cost $42 million to immediately renovate units and building systems to HUD standards and another $180 million over 20 years.
To put that in context, the housing authority only receives about $3 million each year from HUD for major repairs. It also receives about $9 million in federal operating subsidies, intended to cover the difference between the reduced rents charged to tenants and the estimated cost of managing the apartment complexes. Roughly three of every four dollars the housing authority receives comes from the federal government.
Kelly, the prosecutor who is running for Congress, has been critical of HUD’s lack of investment to improve the East St. Louis housing complexes. He said last September that he was concerned the agency had sought to distance itself from ongoing problems by returning control of the housing authority to local officials without giving them enough resources to fix its problems.
“The aging housing stock continues to deteriorate. The prior repairs have been plagued with inferior workmanship and materials and unskilled maintenance staff. The lack of maintenance staff has also taken a toll on timely repairs,” the local housing authority wrote in a brief report on the issue. In recent years, major systems such as plumbing, electrical, roofing and heating, have not been properly maintained, the report said.
Based on the projected annual funding from HUD for major system repairs, “it will take over a 70-year period to correct the deficiencies” identified by inspectors and in a separate assessment of property conditions.
Brown, the HUD spokesman, called Motley, the local housing authority executive director, “a glimmer of hope for housing in East St. Louis.”
“As committed as she is, she cannot do it alone,” Brown wrote. “There is a direct, indisputable correlation between housing and the local economy.”
The local housing authority “strives to meet HUD standards,” Motley said in an email. “Inspections have identified several items that need to be addressed, and we are in the process of addressing those items.”
Under the transition plan back to local control, the housing authority also was asked to improve security on its properties and track monthly crime statistics.
In April, police received three reports of home invasions and two of shots fired at the John Robinson and John DeShields apartment complexes, which combined house about 300 families. In May, police responded to an aggravated assault and two incidents each of aggravated battery and criminal damage to property. In June, police responded to a criminal sexual assault. At the John Robinson Homes, some windows are still missing security screens, and are sealed with boards and nails.
Winston’s daughter, Royal, is now living with Bejoile-Hayes, her husband and their children.
Bejoile-Hayes said it pains her to think of all the moments her sister is missing, like when her little girl turned 2 this January. Royal was in her pretty white dress, squealing with delight at her brightly colored Trolls-themed birthday party and a few of her favorite foods: a pancake bar with whipped topping, fresh strawberries and chocolate chips.
Late last month, Harlan sued the East St. Louis Housing Authority in St. Clair County Circuit Court, alleging that its failure to secure the window after Winston’s multiple requests contributed to her death. Any money collected will go into a trust fund for Royal’s continued care, Harlan said. She’s also hoping it sends a strong message to the housing authority and HUD about the importance of fulfilling work orders so that “nobody else’s child has to die in those apartments down there.”
The housing authority and HUD, which is not a defendant in the suit, both declined to comment on pending litigation. The housing authority has yet to file a response in court.
“You knew my child needed help,” Harlan said, “and you turned a blind eye.”
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.