We as a nation need to assure that affordable housing is available to the very poor, to those on welfare who are soon to enter the workforce, and to those who work 40 to 60 hours a week yet still can’t acquire decent shelter and other essentials. We also need to ensure that those unable to work or unable to find work have these same essentials. But we also need to think of all community-based housing supplements – including Section 8 – as community revitalization tools.
Section 8 is a lottery for those eligible. Currently only about one out of every five families who qualifies resides in a government-assisted housing unit. The real issue is how to meet the housing needs for the largest number of households, and the first question is: What are we going to do to improve the odds for households in desperate need of affordable housing?
Short of a dramatic increase in resources from the federal government, we need to make sure that the limited housing assistance that is available provides safe, decent, and long-term affordable housing. Second, housing assistance needs to be applied in ways that can benefit the entire community, not just those who win the Section 8 lottery.
Increasing home ownership is one of the principle means of healing distressed communities, and using Section 8 on a very limited basis to promote home ownership could spread housing subsidies to a greater number of households over time.
In many neighborhoods where NeighborWorks® organizations currently operate, some Section 8 households are excellent candidates for home ownership. Their problem is one of being able to afford home ownership based upon their limited income. If we focused on an affordable level of principle to be repaid, they could afford a mortgage.
For instance, in many cities, if the current value of 18 to 24 months of Section 8 payments was applied to down payments, many families below 50 percent of median could afford the remaining principle. In some cases you can reach families at 25 percent of median. The new homeowner benefits, the asset base of the community is improved, and the remaining housing subsidy can be used to help another needy household.
Those not in a position to benefit by this approach could benefit in much the same way if more Section 8 buildings were converted to mutual housing associations. As mixed-income, long-term affordable institutions, mutual housing associations provide the same stability benefits to families and communities as owner-occupied housing.
Certainly the number of families served by Section 8 needs to be maintained. More importantly we need to figure out ways to increase the number. Increased local flexible use of Section 8 funds could help increase the odds in the Section 8 lottery and assist in the revitalization of our most distressed communities.