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"Regional Housing Mobility: Promoting Housing Choice for Hartford Area Section 8 Tenants"

July 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

Although Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the nation, Hartford sits as a poor island in a sea of wealth. Hartford's ranking as the fourth poorest city in the United States (based on the percent of families living under the poverty level) appears to be unchanged from the 1980 Census.

The city is racially and economically segregated from the rest of the capital region. Eighteen percent of the region's population lives in Hartford; however, 65% of the region's minority persons are Hartford residents. Nearly 70% of Hartford's residents are minorities, in contrast to 8% of the suburban population.

Creating opportunities for housing choice is a major step toward desegregating a region. Through the use of Section certificates, a federal program whereby a participating family pays 30% of its income for rent and HUD pays the balance, regional Section 8 mobility programs can play a major role in better distribution of housing opportunities for lower-income and minority households throughout a geographical area.

There are many benefits to supporting housing choice for Section 8 tenants. Mobility programs do not require new construction or rehabilitation, which makes many suburbanites squeamish. The housing units already exist, needing only the participation of landlords. These programs provide new housing opportunities without unit identification or stigma because they involve an arrangement between the landlord, tenant and Section 8 administrative agency; they do not require direct government intervention. The neighbors and the general community do not need know, and most often are unaware of, the tenant's Section 8 status. In fact, new tenants usually blend into their new communities quite well, thus, accomplishing true integration.

Until recently, freedom of housing choice for Section 8 tenants was not possible in the Hartford area. In July, 1990, HUD approved a series of changes in Hartford's Section 8 Administrative Plan, which made it possible for families receiving tenant-based Section 8 subsidies to take their certificates with them to towns other than Hartford. These changes not only put Hartford into compliance with federal "portability" law, but they also included affirmative steps to be taken by the city to increase awareness of this new policy.

In the fast year of the program, despite notification of tenants by mail and orally by Hartford's Section 8 contractor (Hartford employs a private contractor rather than the more usual arrangement with the local housing authority), only about 100 out of 3,680 families had actually moved to suburban areas. The Citizens' Research Education Network (CREN), along with the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society of Hartford, devised a study to test the interest of Hartford Section 8 families in learning about their housing options.

Using its PRRAC grant, CREN surveyed 401 Hartford Section 8 certificate holders in July and August, 1991. Survey respondents were asked a series of questions including: reasons why they live in Hartford; current housing conditions; interest in relocating to the suburbs; and obstacles to moving. The major findings are as follows:

- Sixty-eight percent of the respondents were interested in suburban housing opportunities.
- A majority of the respondents (52%) indicated they would face obstacles to moving. Lack of transportation was the barrier cited most often. The need for specific services and day care problems were among other obstacles respondents identified.
- A variety of reasons were listed for wishing to seek suburban housing: Many respondents perceived that other towns would offer less crime, better schools, and more "peace and quiet."
- Overall, 72% of the respondents were aware that they can use their Section 8 certificates outside of Hartford, yet only 25% had taken any steps toward relocating.

Based on the experiences of mobility program operators such as those who manage the highly successful Gautreaux program in Chicago [see reference in Resource Section under "Housing"], it is important to recognize that the notion of low-income, mostly minority, female-headed households moving to mainly white communities is difficult to fathom for either the Section 8 tenants or the suburban landlords. It became apparent that if any mobility program was to succeed in Hartford, it would require more than just giving families a Section 8 certificate and telling them where they could look for housing. Consequently, the program was designed to provide a comprehensive counseling, placement and support program.

In January, 1992, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the region's major philanthropic organization, created an important new initiative. They awarded a three-year, $250,000 grant to the Housing Education Resource Center (HERC) to fund three housing counselor positions. These counselors will recruit participants and work with referrals from the Section 8 roster. They will also be responsible for ascertaining tenants' motives for wishing to move and helping them seek appropriate housing both in and outside of Hartford. The counselors will also need to grapple with issues of discrimination and assisting in the transition of families into their suburban environments. HERC will work in the suburban towns to identify landlords willing to rent to Section 8 families. They also intend to recruit local residents as "support network" volunteers to help ease the transition from urban to suburban living.

During the past 18 months, Section 8 tenants' interest in moving to the suburbshas grown. CREN's survey of Section 8 tenants had the effect of spurring curiosity. While the survey was taking place, CREN handled a large volume of calls from Section 8 certificate holders inquiring about mobility. Although it has been 10 months since the survey was completed, CREN still receives requests from Section 8 tenants seeking information about moving to the suburbs.

As of May, 1992, approximately 160 families have used their certificates to move out of Hartford. While this is not a dramatic increase, the progress has been steady. It is just within the past few weeks that HERC's counseling program has become fully operational. The counselors have begun to work with referrals from Hartford's Section 8 contractor. It is anticipated that once the HERO program has been successful in moving the first group of participants, word will spread among other Section 8 tenants and the number of new low-income suburban residents will increase.

There was a great deal of skepticism about the mobility program when it first began in the Hartford region. The debate still continues among elected officials and others. Some persons question whether mobility will "dilute" the minority population in the city. Others look at mobility as a method of offering a greater array of opportunities to inner-city families.

CREN is continuing to monitor the progress of Hartford's mobility program, and we have just received another grant, to produce a "Welcome Wagon" type of manual to assist newly arriving families. It is hoped that our research will lead to proving that the program is cost-effective and should be supported by government entities. The survey revealed some surprising results and focused the efforts of those who are assisting Section 8 tenants wishing to move to the suburbs. It demonstrated the importance of giving freedom of choice to all those who seek to explore other housing options. Mobility is only a first, albeit giant, step in breaking down the walls of segregation in the region. The pace may be slow, but progress is being made.

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