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"HUD-Assisted Low-Income Housing: Is It Working and for Whom?,"

by Elizabeth Julian & Michael M. Daniel July/August 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works....Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.
—President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

There are many ways to assess whether a government program “works.” Most programs have some type of monitoring and reporting requirements that allow the administering agency, if it is so inclined, to determine whether and how well a particular program is serving the purpose for which it was created. Still other requirements are imposed to allow the agency to determine whether the benefits of that program are being provided on a non-discriminatory, equal opportunity basis. Certainly, one measure of whether a program is working can and should be how the individuals whom the program is designed to benefit view the situation. In the case of low-income housing programs, particularly, the residents of such housing are in a unique position to report on the conditions in which they live.

In May of 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a report titled “Characteristics of HUD-Assisted Renters and Their Units in 2003.” The report is based upon detailed tables produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, and contains all of the data available from a match of the American Housing Survey (AHS) to the households receiving rental assistance from HUD. The information includes demographic data for hundreds of units, projects and neighborhood conditions for individuals living in HUD-assisted housing and those eligible for, but not receiving, such assistance. Our analysis looks at the data through the lens of race because of the history of racial inequality in federal housing programs for low-income people.

As Gunner Myrdal observed in 1944 in The American Dilemma:
Urban Negro housing is poorer than even the low income status of the Negroes would enable them to buy. . . It seems, however, that there is another and even more fundamental cause: the artificial limitation in the choice of housing for Negroes brought about by residential segregation. (page 377)

In relief work the popular theory of the Negroes’ “lower cost of living” as a motivation for discrimination is often given in terms more directly and honestly related to actual custom and social policy. Some social workers in the Deep South explained …that the appropriation did not suffice for the full “budgetary deficiency” of the clients, for they had to give each one just the barest minimum they could get along with. Rents were usually lower for Negro clients, since they lived in the Negro sections. (page 217).
At the dawn of the 21st century, low-income residents reported conditions that again raise questions about whether HUD-assisted low-income housing programs are continuing the pattern of racially disparate conditions of the past:
  1. There are significant differences in reported conditions by Blacks and Whites who received assistance through HUD’s low-income housing programs. The greatest disparities are in public housing. The voucher program shows the least racial disparities.
  2. There are differences in the reported conditions in neighborhood, projects and units in which Black low-income assisted families live compared to Black low-income families who are eligible for but do not receive assistance (non-assisted eligible renters). In general, Black families receiving assistance reported that they are worse off than their non-assisted eligible, Black counterparts on a number of important indicators (presence of crime, neighborhood ratings, structure ratings, access to suburban locations).
  3. Spatial segregation as it relates to access to suburban areas continues to be a characteristic of HUD housing assistance programs overall, but it is most pronounced in the public housing program and most alleviated in the voucher program.

Detailed Findings: White and Black Family Perceptions of Housing & Neighborhood Quality

Black renters reported substantially inferior unit, project and neighborhood conditions in public housing compared to that reported by White renters. The disparity is greatest for neighborhood conditions but also exists for unit and project conditions.

A. Neighborhood conditions
  1. Presence of Neighborhood Crime: 25.3% of White public housing renters reported “neighborhood crime present.” The percentage of Black public housing renters who reported “neighborhood crime present” is 53%, over twice the percentage of White public housing renters so reporting.
  2. Bars on Windows (as an indicator of neighborhood health): 90% of White public housing renters reported living in neighborhoods with no bars on the windows of nearby buildings; 59% of Black public housing renters reported “no bars on windows.”
  3. “Worst Neighborhood”: 3.3% of White public housing renters ranked their neighborhood as the “worst possible” neighborhood; 13% of Black public housing renters ranked their neighborhood “worst possible.
  4. “Best Neighborhood”: 30% of White public housing renters reported that their neighborhood ranks as the best possible neighborhood; 17% of Black public housing renters gave their neighborhoods a “best neighborhood” ranking.
  5. Overall: White public housing renters are “better off” in 56 of the 70 neighborhood conditions in the data; and in 21 of the 70 conditions, they are better off by 10 or more percentage points.
B. Unit and project conditions
  1. Satisfaction with buildings and ground maintenance: 72.4% of White public housing renters reported being completely satisfied with both building and grounds maintenance; 48% of Black public housing renters reported the same.
  2. “Not uncomfortably cold last winter”: 88% of White public housing renters reported that they were not uncomfortably cold for 24 hours or more “last winter”; 66% of Black public housing renters reported the same.
  3. “Worst Structure”: 0.3% of White public housing renters reported that their structure ranks as the worst possible structure; 2.8% of Black public housing renters reported that their structure ranks as the worst possible structure.
  4. “Best Structure”: 41.5% of White public housing renters reported that their structure ranks as the best possible structure; 33% of Black public housing renters reported that their structure ranks as the best possible structure.
  5. Overall: White public housing renters are “better off” in 62 of the 93 unit and project conditions in the data used, by an average of 6 percentage points. They are “better off” by 10 or more percentage points for 14 of the 93 unit and project conditions.
C. All conditions - unit, project and neighborhood

White public housing renters are “better off” than Black public housing renters in 118 of the 162 unit, project and neighborhood conditions used from the data. White public housing renters are “better off” than Black public housing renters by an average of 7.5 percentage points for each of the 118 conditions, and are “better off” by 10 or more percentage points for 35 of the 118 conditions.

Black renters in public housing reported inferior conditions in many categories compared to Black renters who are eligible for but do not receive federal housing assistance.

Overall, Black public housing renters reported being “better off” than non-assisted Black eligible renters in 46% of the conditions surveyed, while White public housing renters reported being “better off” than non-assisted White eligible renters for 63% of the conditions surveyed.

The voucher program is the only program that, according to the data, brings poor Black assisted renters into conditions that are approximately equal to the unit, project and neighborhood conditions for similarly poor but unassisted White renters.

Black voucher residents have a 2.94 percentage point “better off” average on 83 of the total 163 conditions and a 10-point or more advantage on 5 of those 83 conditions. White eligible renters have a 2.7 percentage point “better off” average on 80 of the conditions and a 10-point or more advantage on 4 of those conditions.

While there are still disparities in the conditions in which Black voucher renters live, compared with those in which White voucher renters live, the gap is significantly smaller than in public housing or project-based housing. Twenty-eight percent of Black voucher renters reported crime present, compared to 22% of White voucher renters. This 6-point gap is significantly less than the 28-point difference between White and Black public housing renters.

Spatial segregation as it relates to access to suburban areas continues to be a characteristic of HUD housing assistance programs overall, but it is most alleviated in the voucher program.

Fifty-two percent of White eligible renters live in the suburbs, compared to 35% of Black eligible renters.

Forty-three percent of all White HUD- assisted renters live in the suburbs, compared to 30% of all Black HUD-assisted renters. While the voucher program does give Black voucher renters the highest percentage (37%) in the suburbs of any of the three programs, this is well below the 52% of White voucher renters in the suburbs. Only 37% of the non-assisted Black renters with over 50% of area median income (AMI) are in the suburbs, compared to 43% of all White assisted renters.

The Trade-Off

These data make the case for what many of our clients have told us over the years: In order to get the affordability benefit of federal housing assistance, low-income Black families must accept a higher level of both substandard living conditions and racial inequality than exists for very low-income Black tenants not using HUD rental assistance. Low-income Whites do not have to make this trade-off. Low-income Whites in public housing, in addition to having the benefit of affordable rents, reported being in better overall conditions and are in nearly as good neighborhood conditions as low-income White renters who are not receiving assistance.

Limitations of the Analysis

The data do not allow for breakdowns by individual local housing authorities or specific geographic locales, and do not allow for a definitive determination of statistical significance. Such information would be useful to better understand the above-described patterns, and to develop more effective remedies for the situation described. However, to the extent that there would be an assumption that the differences are explainable by the fact that Whites in public housing are so small in number or live in small cities and suburbs to such a degree as to make comparing Black and White experiences not valid, that assumption would not be correct. Nationally, there are 289,000 White Non-Hispanic public housing residents households, comprising 26.4% of all public housing households. Sixty-four percent of those White Non-Hispanic public housing households live in Metro Statistical Areas (MSAs), and 42% of those households live in central cities in MSAs—not small numbers or small percentages of White public housing residents.

Even if Whites do live disproportionately in smaller cities or rural areas, there is no reason to believe or assume that racial discrimination in the quality of housing and neighborhoods provided to public housing residents does not exist in those locations. Two of the early legal cases in which HUD was found liable for unconstitutional separate and unequal conditions in public housing—Young v. Pierce and Clients Council v. Pierce—involved small town and rural public housing, not large projects.

With regard to the evidence that eligible non-assisted renters report better housing and neighborhood conditions than assisted households, one may ask if that is because those non-assisted households have higher incomes than those assisted. Even if that is true, the data show that the public housing subsidy for Whites generally provides them housing with conditions substantially equal to those obtained by the higher-income White eligible non-assisted group. And it is not true for Blacks in public housing: 23% of Black public housing households have incomes less than half the poverty line, while 24% of Black eligible non-assisted households have such incomes.

Conclusion

The unavoidable conclusion one comes to after reviewing the somewhat tedious data in the HUD report is that poor Black renters, as a result of accepting HUD rental assistance, will be subjected to worse conditions or more segregated conditions, or both, compared to similarly situated Whites using HUD assistance. Moreover, and perhaps even more disturbing, poor Black renters accepting HUD rental assistance will probably be in worse conditions or more segregated locations, or both, than similarly situated poor Black renters not receiving HUD assistance. In contrast, poor White renters who have access to HUD-assisted rental programs either do not suffer the same decline in conditions as similarly situated Black renters, or substantially improve their living conditions, compared to eligible White renters.

The U.S. Constitution forbids such discrimination. (Clients’ Council v. Pierce, 711 F.2d 1406, 1419 - 8th Cir. 1983) The Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000d, provides that, “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Implementing regulations specifically prohibit a recipient of federal funds from:

. . . Provide(ing) any housing, accommodations, facilities, services, financial aid, or other benefits to a person which are different, or are provided in a different manner, from those provided to others under the program or activity. . .

And further require that :

In administering a program regarding which the recipient has previously discriminated against persons on the ground of race, color, or national origin, the recipient must take affirmative action to overcome the effects of prior discrimination. . .

Even in the absence of such prior discrimination, a recipient in administering a program should take affirmative action to overcome the effects of conditions which resulted in limiting participation by person of a particular race, color, or national origin. . .24 C.F. R. §1.4(b)(6)(i) and (ii).


Yet much of the debate about national housing policy for the poor goes on as if these conditions did not exist, do not exist, and that the nation does not know about it. While further analysis using data that allow a closer look at this and other issues would be important and useful, there is no reason to suggest that the analysis which the data do allow does not raise important questions that should be answered about how the programs are working for different participants by race. Any effort to explore these questions at a more sophisticated level should be with the goal of understanding and addressing the racial disparities that clearly exist, not excusing them or rationalizing them away. If these programs are to continue to receive support, it is time for them to work for everyone, regardless of race, on an equitable basis.

Elizabeth Julian , a PRRAC Board member, is President of Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based non-profit organization that works for the creation and maintenance of racially and economically inclusive communities, where opportunity is created through access to good schools, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunity and a healthy environment. She served as Deputy General Counsel for Civil Rights and Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD from 1994-1996. ekjulian@inclusivecommunities.net
 
Michael M. Daniel is a civil rights attorney in Dallas, Texas whose law firm, Daniel & Beshara, P.C., represents ICP in systemic civil rights litigation to expand and improve affordable housing opportunities for low-income minority families.

We thank Erin L. Eldershink and Kathryn E. Dunn, paralegals at Daniel & Beshara, for their data work.

A copy of the spreadsheet prepared for this article from the HUD report and AHS data, as well as a description of the methodology used in analyzing the data, are available from the authors.
daniel.michael@att.net
 
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