Friday, September 16, 2005

Section 8 v. Bushvilles

Last week Kevin Drum passed along a suggestion that the best way to help those who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina is by an expansion of Section 8 vouchers by HUD.

[N]o new federal program is required to match families suddenly needing housing with an existing stock of vacant apartments. The United States government already operates a program that would enable low-income families to pay the rent for these units. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program currently serves about two million families throughout the country. It enables participants to occupy privately owned units renting for up to, and somewhat above, the local median rent. Enormous numbers of vacant units could be occupied immediately by families with these housing vouchers.

Yesterday, The New Republic chimed in with their support for the idea.

According to the latest estimates, the government may need to provide homes for at least 200,000 households displaced by Katrina--an effort that would be unprecedented in scale but not in kind. Back in 1994, the Clinton administration faced a similar situation after the Northridge earthquake displaced more than 20,000 people in Southern California. It quickly dispatched Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Henry Cisneros to Los Angeles and produced a proposal to offer the newly homeless emergency vouchers, which they could apply toward apartment rents. The initiative was modeled on an existing program called Section 8, a bipartisan favorite that breaks up concentrations of poverty by providing vouchers and support services to help low-income families move into neighborhoods with better jobs and schools. Soon, vouchers were getting into the hands of displaced residents, who in turn began finding apartments. While the operation was hardly seamless, more than 10,000 people used the vouchers. Many later said they ended up better off than they had been before the earthquake. ("This is the biggest break I've had in a long time," one voucher recipient told the Los Angeles Times.)

While there has been support for this idea from people on both sides of the Washington divide - the Senate passed a proposal of this type earlier in the week - it doesn't appear that the House has any plans to take up the issue. In fact, the administration has instead ordered over 100,000 mobile homes, apparently planning to construct Bushvilles to quarter the displaced residents.

As we were all made exceedingly aware over the past few weeks, vast numbers of the people currently needing our help do not have cars. I, for one, have no confidence that these Bushvilles will be constructed with the consideration that many of the people living in them will need regular access to public transportation (which tends to be less than ideal in the Southeast to begin with). Among the many arguments why Section 8 vouchers are preferrable to concentrating these people in moble home parks (such as the usefulness of living in mixed income developments for helping impoverished people to climb higher in society), vouchers would allow people to decide for themselves how to handle their transportation situation. People without cars would tend to choose to live on a bus line, while those with reliable transportation might choose to live in other areas which they consider to be better suited to their needs.

Instead of trying to force a "one size fits all" solution to the problem these people are facing, wouldn't a solution that allows greater choices and supports the local entrepreneurs who developed and own rental housing be the better idea to work with?

But then of course,

while the pressing human crisis of Katrina (not to mention the political backlash at the bungled federal response) has forced the administration to spend lavishly on hurricane relief, it has instinctively looked away from government and toward private firms like the Shaw Group, which won a no-bid contract to construct mobile homes. (Shaw's lobbyist, in case you hadn't heard, is Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director and Bush campaign manager.)


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