In April 2004, when the Bush Administration launched a major assault on the program that helps Marion Brady pay her rent, she sprang into action. Though she suffers from a debilitating illness, it did not keep her from organizing 70 hours a week that spring to protect herself and others who rely on Section 8 vouchers to stay in their homes.
“When I found out my Section 8 was threatened, I panicked,” says the Marin County, California resident. “I’d never [organized] before, although I’d gone to demonstrations. I could never even ask a question in a group, I was so shy. But I hate injustice, and all of a sudden I found myself totally overwhelmed with it.”
Section 8, also called the Housing Choice Voucher program, enables some 2 million individuals, seniors, families with children and disabled people to rent apartments. Though the program has often been at risk of cutbacks since its creation in 1983, people who had obtained vouchers and used them to find homes were never told they would lose them for this reason. They would leave the program only if their income rose or they were unable to use their vouchers to find units within a set period of time. But then in 2004 HUD changed the program’s funding formula, shortchanging housing authorities across the country and forcing them to reduce their contribution to tenants’ rents. While housing authorities are locally controlled and always had the option of making cuts to cover their costs, last year marked the first in which many of these agencies took that step to make up for a loss of federal funds. In some cities, tenants who paid 30 percent of their income for rent when they first got vouchers have seen that percentage double. At the same time, HUD promoted legislation that would end its targeting to very low-income people. In response, voucher holders have hit the streets to protest.
Brady formed Save Section 8 of Marin and began looking for support around the county. In that first month after HUD proposed changing the program’s funding formula, she helped organize a rally that attracted nearly 300 people. This was no small feat in a mostly wealthy, suburban county where tenants are isolated from each other.
Tenants and advocates across the country have been energized by the threats to the voucher program. Their main strategy has been to demonstrate, use the media and contact members of Congress to build opposition to HUD’s proposals. In some places, organizers and advocates have also taken a local approach, pressuring landlords and urging housing authorities and political leaders to set aside funds to replace or supplement Section 8 vouchers.
Nothing Energizes like a Budget Cut
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and other major advocacy groups have led many campaigns against Section 8 voucher cuts and coordinated their efforts with state and local partners. But in the last two years the link between inside-the-Beltway advocacy work and grassroots organizing has been particularly clear, as local groups get their constituents to take action on issues that have a national scope.
The Metropolitan Housing Coalition of Louisville, one of NLIHC’s partner organizations, brought 700 people out for a rally in May 2005, working with activists from faith-based and homeless advocacy groups and others who had recently mobilized to fight a local anti-gay marriage law. The MHC called the rally the “356 campaign” for the number of families who would lose their Section 8 vouchers if Bush’s latest budget cuts passed. Speakers at the rally also talked about the proposed change in income targeting, which would mean the program would no longer commit to provide most vouchers to people earning under 30 percent of their area median income. But the budget cuts and the 356 families were the rallying cry.
“Maybe we could have done this kind of organizing before, but the changes weren’t as draconian then and as easy to pinpoint,” says Cathy Hinko, MHC’s executive director. She noted that the government had tried to turn the voucher program into a block grant to the states in 2003 and to change income targeting in 2005, both of which masked the real goal to cut funding. “It’s been a war of attrition through changing regulations and the funding base, which has been hard to frame for public support. When they’re just plain cutting the budget, that’s a less nuanced issue you can communicate much more easily to people.” The coalition and its allies got rally participants to sign postcards to their members of Congress and the mayor of Louisville, and have kept participants aware of ongoing action on the budget and Section 8 legislation since then.
Demonstrations were also held in cities across the country on May 26, the second annual Housing Justice Day, a project of the National Council on Independent Living. A quarter of all voucher households have at least one member with a disability, so groups that serve disabled people have a particular interest in the housing program. But the May 26 events were intended to spotlight the needs of all tenants, whether or not they are disabled. The Housing Advocates Group (HAG), a small group of committed activists in Portland, Oregon, brought over 200 people to City Hall for one of the rallies. Meanwhile, HAG convinced the city housing authority’s director to reverse a cap he had placed on funding for vouchers, in effect reversing a rent increase for many tenants.
Section 8 Tenant Organizing
Because it has always been easier to organize tenants in project-based Section 8 buildings, where everyone in the building benefits from a subsidy, voucher holders have historically not been well-organized. Buildings have been losing their project-based subsidies for years as owners opt out of the program, so organizers’ focus has been on them. But increasingly, tenants in those buildings as well as tenants who have no government assistance are working with and in support of voucher holders.
“Everybody in our organization understood that if these kinds of cutbacks, rent increases and time limits are adopted in the voucher program, project-based tenants are likely to be targeted next,” says Michael Kane, who directs the National Alliance of HUD Tenants.
At the same time, voucher holders’ concerns are unique, so City Life/Vida Urbana, a group in Boston that organizes tenant unions in unsubsidized buildings, formed a Section 8 Tenants Committee this year. City Life has helped tenant unions to negotiate rent contracts with landlords for the past five years; many Section 8 voucher holders are residents of the affected buildings. Now, the committee helps ensure that when contracts are negotiated in buildings where voucher holders live, the contracts include clauses that limit how much of their income voucher holders pay toward rent.
Preparing for the Worst
Resistance to Bush’s budget cuts was strong enough that the outlook for the voucher program is somewhat better this year. Congress has been unwilling to go along with all of the proposed cuts, and the legislation that would change the program’s income guidelines was not expected to pass in 2005. But given that the administration is likely to keep trying to wreck Section 8, some advocates hope local and state officials will find replacement funding for any lost vouchers.
The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco used the threat of cuts to Section 8 as a reason for the city to strengthen its inclusionary zoning ordinance, which has not been targeted to help very low-income people, says Sara Shortt, an organizer for the group.
Other activists question whether asking state and local government to provide backup is the right approach. “I don’t want to say to the state, fund Section 8 so you can replace the federal government’s funding,” says Steve Meacham, tenant organizer for City Life. “There would be a lot of resistance in the affordable housing community to doing that because it lets the federal government off the hook. On the other hand, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be calling for increased state funding for vouchers, since the federal program, even if it were fully funded, wouldn’t meet the need anyway.”
While advocates demand a baseline of funding in Congress and activists debate the best strategy for success, on the ground tenants see they have a long battle ahead. Brady knows how difficult it is to sustain an organizing effort when tenants have busy, stressful lives and live far apart from each other. When she can decipher the scribbled names and addresses on old rally sign-up sheets, she contacts other voucher holders to keep them aware of what’s happening in Washington. Though she is often discouraged, she is also motivated by the memory of recent rallies when hundreds of tenants came together to demand that Section 8 be saved.
On Oct. 1, HUD created an emergency voucher program for Section 8 voucher recipients displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The agency didn’t provide an estimate of how many voucher holders were affected, but one estimate was that 47,000 HUD-assisted units were damaged or destroyed. This number includes Section 8 voucher units as well as public housing and other programs. Tenants don’t have to contribute any income for emergency vouchers, provided their rent doesn’t exceed the area fair market value set by HUD. The vouchers will be good for up to 18 months, after which recipients can revert to the traditional vouchers they held before the storm.