“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
For people living on the margins in the cities, towns, and suburbs around Boston, the available housing subsidies are painfully inadequate—just like the public transportation and job opportunities
I grew up in a crumbling two-bedroom tenement apartment with my family of five in Brooklyn. It was cold and drafty in the winter and sweltering in the summer, but it was home. Despite often falling on hard times financially, my family was able to never miss a rent payment because of a certain staple in New York City: rent control. To this day, my disabled brother lives in the apartment we grew up in for only a few hundred dollars more than my grandparents paid when they first signed the lease in 1970. Without rent stability, he’d be homeless.
But here in Greater Boston, we don’t have rent control, which was banned by referendum in the area in the mid-1990s. While landlords at the time were faced with ballooning property taxes they couldn’t compensate for by increasing the rents of their tenants, we now seem to have swung far into the other direction. People owning multiple properties around Boston are increasing rents at a rate that far outpaces inflation and wage growth—which among lower and median earners has more or less remained static since the 2008 recession. This is not only causing displacement of lower and middle income residents from the city but contributing to a decrease in racial and class diversity that extends beyond Boston proper, to encompass the area’s smaller surrounding cities and suburbs.
In the absence of rent control in the Boston area, which is the fifth most expensive area to live in the nation, Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers can be a crucial way to enable lower income families the opportunity to remain in the metro area. That is, if they can actually access one and find a landlord willing to rent to them. I have been on the waitlist for a voucher for four years and probably have at least another two years until my name comes up. This multiyear wait is not unusual.
Established in 1974, the Section 8 program was created with the intent of expanding housing options for low-income families and individuals, who can rent any approved units that match their family size. Serving approximately 2.2 million households in the United States (and nearly 90,000 households in Mass in 2016) and accounting for about 6 percent of the nation’s rental housing market, the voucher caps the amount of rent the holder has to pay to no more than a third of their monthly income, while the government covers the remaining cost.
Housing choice vouchers are an alternative to Section 8 project vouchers that are tied to specific buildings, in order to allow the holder more mobility and options. But there’s a big catch: Voucher holders can only rent apartments that fit the costs determined by the housing authority—calculated at the 40th to 50th percentile of rents in a general metro area. For instance, in October 2016, the payment standard for a one-bedroom in Arlington, according to the Arlington Housing Authority, was $1,318, even though the average monthly rent for such a unit in the town actually went for $1,643 according to the rental site Rent Jungle. This basically means unless an individual is extraordinarily lucky and finds housing that is artificially reduced way below market price (such as those offered through the AHA), they won’t be able to rent in the town and will either have to move elsewhere or lose their voucher altogether.
This is the situation Fiona will probably be facing soon. Fiona, who asked that her real name not be used, received her Section 8 voucher approximately 15 years ago after her divorce left her in a precarious financial situation. A single mother with two young sons at the time, she was able to find an apartment in Arlington, where she has been living ever since. However, her landlords intend to sell her building soon, and she doubts she will find another unit in town that is covered by her voucher under the current payment standard.
“My biggest problem [with Section 8] has always been the uncertainty and being at the whims of the landlords,” says Fiona, 55, who notes people are often reluctant to rent to voucher holders due to stigma.
Overcoming stigma has also been a challenge for Donna, 73, who has been living with her voucher in the same apartment complex in East Arlington for over eight years. Prior to that, she lived in another apartment in a large complex located near the Capitol Square movie theater on Mass Ave. She has tried multiple times to find an apartment in a two-family home or triple-decker, but anytime she mentioned she had a voucher, she was met with immediate resistance.
Donna hopes to move soon, but she doesn’t think she’ll be able to find a place locally that will take her voucher, and she can’t afford to rent without it.
“I can’t imagine how to do it,” says Donna, who plans on trying to relocate to Seattle where her daughter lives, even as transferring a voucher out of state comes with its own set of complicated obstacles.
Rents are also increasing rapidly across the Arlington border in Somerville. Namely, 21 percent of Somerville renter households are rent-burdened, while 17.8 percent are severely rent-burdened—meaning they pay more than a third or half of their monthly incomes toward rent, respectively.
In Union Square, the number of severely rent-burdened residents hovers at 15.5 percent of those residing in the neighborhood. While this is low compared to some other sections of Somerville, in terms of sheer numbers, Union Square contains the most rent-burdened households in the city, according to the Somerville Housing Needs Assessment report published in 2015. In fact, the report notes that the majority of units at risk of losing their affordability are located in Union Square, as increased gentrification due to the anticipated extension of the Green Line to the neighborhood has caused dramatic spikes in the cost of commercial property. Specifically, says a report issued by the Department of Urban Environmental Policy and Planning of Tufts University, property values rose more than 20 percent in FY 2014 following the state’s approval of the Union Square Revitalization Plan.
“I know at least three people offhand who have gotten a Section 8 voucher and really struggled to find places where they can use it in Somerville,” says Karen Narefsky, community organizer with the Somerville Community Corporation, who explains some of the hardest hit are those in the immigrant community.
Narefsky believes the overall reduction in public housing construction for low-income tenants makes the voucher system the more prevalent alternative. However, since the payment standard for mobile Section 8 vouchers is so much lower than market rent, the vouchers don’t really help people stay in their communities.
“While possession of a mobile Section 8 voucher guarantees subsidized rent, the units where the voucher can be used are privately owned, which allows landlords to discriminate against tenants through either outright exclusion or by charging rents that [exceed the area’s payment standards],” says Narefsky. “Part of the problem is that property values and taxes that are being inflated in the area that then gets passed onto renters.”
When renters are pushed out of the neighborhoods they called home for years or decades, it breaks down community ties. People are forced to live farther away from the family members, friends, and neighbors that served as their support system. Their children must be uprooted with them, transferring out of schools and away from teachers they trusted and classmates they grew up with.
This is what happened to Afruza Akther last year when she and her husband and daughter had to move from the Union Square neighborhood where they had lived for a decade when their landlords increased their rent beyond what their voucher would cover. Yet she doesn’t hold a grudge against her former landlords, who were private owners of the home.
“They’re good people,” says Akther, 34. “If other people are charging more, why should they charge less?”
Still, the process of finding another apartment in Somerville proved challenging.
“Moving with Section 8 is such a hassle, and there is so much paperwork,” says Akther. “Also, the landlords don’t like it when they hear you’re on it, so they don’t approve your application.”
While Akther and her family eventually found a place in nearby Winter Hill, she is now too far from her extended family for them to visit often and help her with childcare, while her daughter was forced to transfer schools midyear.
The Section 8 process can be even more fraught if you have a disability, as was discovered by Julie, 37, when she was told in December 2015 that her name was coming up soon on the voucher waitlist with the Somerville Housing Authority. After dropping off all of the required paperwork, she was told the following March it had “lost” the 12 months of bank statements she had supplied them with and that she had to drop it off again.
Julie, who is on Social Security Disability due to a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, was also unable to get any guidance from the SHA regarding finding an eligible unit that adhered to the correct payment standard.
“They didn’t have any clear answers regarding payment standards and structures, and all their online charts are all out of date,” says Julie.
Left to her own devices, she eventually found and moved from her longtime apartment in Davis Square into an affordable unit in a condo complex in Concord at the end of December.
“This is not the way you run a government program,” says Julie. “It’s only a safety net if we can actually access it.”
As of this writing, Julie still hasn’t come up on the waitlist and is unsure if her voucher would cover her current apartment, while SHA did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
So, what can be done to improve the payment standards?
In 2010, the Inclusive Communities Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for affordable housing in the state of Texas, sued the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over the methods it used to calculate payment for voucher holders in Dallas. HUD eventually reached a settlement that implemented new payment standards starting in 2011 for the larger Dallas metro area, calculated by zip code rather than a blanket rate for a larger metro area and all its outlying suburbs.
Five years after that settlement, the Dallas experiment has been deemed successful, with one comprehensive study finding that transitioning payment standards to the zip code formula in that area contributed to significant improvements in achieving mobility for voucher holders while having zero net cost to the government.
As a result, HUD proposed a new rule last summer to apply the zip code-based payment standards to another 24 metro areas across the United States by the end of 2017. Unfortunately, the Boston metro area didn’t make the cut; however, certain eligible housing authorities may opt in to use the zip formula by seeking approval by written request to the US Office of Public and Indian Housing. While this plan is still scheduled to proceed for the time being, with our new presidential administration’s proposed cuts to HUD, it is difficult to gauge what will happen.
Massachusetts state law currently mandates all cities and towns to earmark at least 10 percent of their housing stock as affordable. But many municipalities have so far failed to meet this threshold. In Arlington, for example, only 5.6 percent of rentals are technically affordable, as a loophole in the law allows them to meet the mandate if affordable housing comprises at least 1.5 percent of the total land in town, which Arlington is claiming.
The state also operates its own mobile voucher program, known as the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), which provides mobile vouchers for low-income households where income does not exceed 50 percent of the area’s median income. As with the Section 8 voucher, the holder only pays a portion of their monthly adjusted gross income toward rent—in this case, between 35 and 40 percent. MRVP vouchers are rare, though, with only approximately 2,100 of those being mobile vouchers dispersed in the state. There are an additional 3,000 MRVP vouchers in the state that are project based—meaning they are tied to certain units in specific housing complexes; an individual loses rental assistance if and when they move out of that unit.
In the meantime, rental rates in the Boston area continue to spiral out of control and push people farther out of the city in search of affordable units. As for me, I have been fortunate to find affordable housing through the Housing Corporation of Arlington. Yet, despite my unit being priced several hundred dollars under the market average for my town, it is still expensive enough to render me extremely rent-burdened, as I pay almost my entire monthly income toward rent. I’ve been biding my time, hoping my name will come up on the voucher waitlist before I can no longer afford to live in Arlington at all.
For middle- and low-income people in a similar position, especially those with Section 8 vouchers not lucky enough to live in affordable housing, it will likely get worse before it gets better.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Laura has been featured in Politico, the Washington Post, Quartz, Vice, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, and other publications. She covers housing and healthcare for BINJ.