by Drew Johnson
Urban News Service
Congress created Section 8 vouchers to offer very-low-income Americans “decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market.” But recent examinations have found many such homes far from decent, safe or sanitary.
Despite these promises from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website, this federal housing voucher program places some Americans in dangerous and filthy conditions, according to former residents and federal investigators.
While touring Jacksonville, Florida’s Section 8 Eureka Garden Apartments last May, Senator Marco Rubio (R – Florida) called conditions there “atrocious” and “truly unbelievable.” The former GOP presidential candidate probed Eureka Garden after his staffers visited and discovered crumbling stairs, black mold, exposed electrical wires and the smell of natural gas.
What Rubio saw may have been troubling, but not so rare, according to one former Section 8 beneficiary.
“I’ve lived in a bunch of Section 8 s***holes,” said Krissy Walker, a native of Chattanooga, who occupied several Section 8 rental properties in Tennessee and Georgia over 12 years.
“Broken plumbing, mice, no heat in the winter, no air conditioner in the summer – I’ve dealt with it all,” Walker said.
Despite costing U.S. taxpayers $21.1 billion annually, HUD’s Section 8 program seemingly fails to provide safe, quality housing to many Americans who struggle to make ends meet.
Section 8 gives very-low-income families taxpayer-subsidized vouchers towards monthly rent payments. Beneficiaries typically devote about 30 percent of their incomes towards rent. The Section 8 voucher pays their landlords the balance.
Thus, 2.2 million families rent homes that they otherwise might not afford.
However, these properties often are maintained inadequately. Inspectors found that local housing authorities let Section 8 landlords pocket federal tax dollars without ensuring that properties meet minimum federal safety and livability guidelines.
A federal audit of Durham, North Carolina’s Housing Authority revealed in May that many of the city’s Section 8 recipients live in dangerous conditions. Among 75 Section 8 homes that HUD officials scrutinized, 69 violated basic federal and local housing-quality standards. This is a 92-percent failure rate.
Thirty of these homes included electrical violations considered “life-threatening” due to potential fire or electrocution. Also in these Section 8 units, cracks in foundations and holes in ceilings and walls commonly allowed insect infestations.
HUD gave property owners $100,000 of taxpayers’ money to fix these violations.
“These deadbeat landlords ripped off taxpayers once by taking tax dollars from the Section 8 program for properties that were in disrepair and never should’ve been rented out,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a D.C.-based fiscal watchdog. “Now they’re ripping off taxpayers a second time by getting even more of our hard-earned money to fix up their seedy, unsafe houses and apartment buildings.”
Federal inspectors in 2014 checked 80 Section 8 housing units managed by the Lackawanna County Housing Authority in Dunmore, Pennsylvania. Seventy-two of those 80 units violated HUD’s minimum livability requirements — a 90-percent failure rate.
Those 72 units contained “284 violations that needed to be corrected within 24 hours because the violations posed a serious threat to the safety of the tenants,” according to federal auditors.
In one Lackawanna County Section 8 home, furnace and hot-water-heater flue pipes were not sealed, so hazardous fumes entered the unit. The floor beneath the toilet had rotted in another home. This left its only bathroom unusable, as the commode sank into the floorboards.
Elsewhere, one unit’s garage was structurally unsound and at serious risk of collapse. Rotten walls made the garage lean, so the landlord rigged support beams to prop up the ceiling. The unit’s kitchen was above the garage, which put the tenants in grave danger.
Lackawanna housing officials greeted these urgent federal findings by hiring a local inspector and retraining three staffers.
These examinations left Lackawanna County’s Housing Authority more “knowledgeable, efficient and better suited to meet the needs of our residents,” executive director James Dartt wrote in a June 2014 letter to HUD officials.
Krissy Walker believes HUD officials may be getting more serious about cleaning up unsafe and unhealthy Section 8 properties, but there is still a long way to go.
“In 12 years, no inspector ever set foot in one of the places I lived in. And there are filthy, dangerous Section 8 houses all across America – thousands of them,” Walker said. “It will take years and years to get every Section 8 house fixed up to where they’re all places fit for people to live.”