Kemanie and his family rent their home in this Novato neighborhood with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher. Like many, they were stuck on a waiting list for years before they were able to get a voucher. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Falling behind on rent is the primary reason that people are evicted. So how do you keep people from falling behind in the first place? Help them pay their rent.
In this final episode of the season, we’ll look at the promise, the problems and the history of Section 8, as well as the push for guaranteed income.
THE RENT EATS FIRST [TRANSCRIPT]
ERIN BALDASSARI, HOST: Kemanie and his wife were like a lot of young couples just starting out.
It was the early 2000s. He had recently started his career as a carpenter. She was a teacher. They were both in their mid-20s.
But even with two incomes, they could barely make ends meet.
KEMANIE: We were living in a, like, a small, tiny little one-bedroom apartment with roaches, like basically a little small ghetto.
ERIN: Then their son was born. His wife stopped working to take care of him. And their budget got even tighter.
KEMANIE: And things was hard, but we started falling behind on rent.
ERIN: How far behind were you on rent at that time?
KEMANIE: I was $4,000 behind on rent at the time.
MOLLY SOLOMON, HOST: They were living where they both grew up in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
KEMANIE: At that point in time there was no way for us to survive in Marin County.
They couldn’t figure out how they were going to pay the back rent and still have money for a deposit to move somewhere new.
KEMANIE: We would have been homeless. You know, it would have been really bad.
MOLLY: They thought about moving in with one of their parents or leaving Marin County altogether. Then, they got some good news.
KEMANIE: So we got it, we were out doing something — running an errand — and on the way back, my wife got the email.
ERIN: They got what some have called a “golden ticket” — a Section 8 housing voucher.
Section 8 is a federal program that helps low-income people afford rent on the private market.
Kemanie and his wife had put in their application nearly a decade ago. And they’d been stuck on a waiting list that never seemed to budge. When they finally got the news, it was like winning the lottery.
KEMANIE: We both looked at each other. And was, like, yes. I mean, it was like perfect timing.
MOLLY: It was a huge opportunity for them. With Section 8, they would only have to pay 30% of their income towards rent.
KEMANIE: It was an epiphany for us because it was like, life can go on now, like we — there’s a path forward.
MOLLY: They wouldn’t fall behind on bills. And they’d have a chance to catch up. They’d have some room to breathe.
ERIN: So, they started looking for a new place to live.
KEMANIE: And we searched and searched and searched, and went and visited and talked to people, and knowing that we had the housing voucher, we thought it was going to be easier because it was a guarantee.
ERIN: A guarantee because most of the rent money comes from the federal government. It’s usually deposited straight into the landlord’s bank account.
KEMANIE: And we found out that it was more of a hindrance than anything.
(Sold Out theme song begins.)
ERIN: It’s what most Section 8 tenants discover — the voucher is not only hard to get, it’s hard to use.
MOLLY: These problems aren’t new. And neither is Section 8. But over the past half century, it’s become the No. 1 way we subsidize rent in this country.
As rents climb higher, advocates say we need to fix the problems with Section 8 and expand it. To make it work for more people.
I’m Molly Solomon.
ERIN: And I’m Erin Baldassari. From KQED, this is Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America.
Today, the final chapter in our series on evictions.
How to keep people from getting evicted? Help pay the rent.
(Sold Out theme song ends.)
MOLLY: Kemanie and his wife have had a housing voucher for nearly two decades now. And anytime they’ve had to move, it’s always the same thing.
They apply to dozens of places, visit a ton of apartments and get the same answers.
KEMANIE: And every single time it was like, no, nope, no, no.
MOLLY: It didn’t seem to matter that they had good references from past landlords, even letters from neighbors.
KEMANIE: As soon as Section 8 comes up, you see like a glaze go over their eyes like, OK, I got to deal with this conversation and move on to the next person.
ERIN: Some landlords told them point-blank they wouldn’t accept Section 8, even though that’s illegal in California and a handful of other states.
Those laws are hard to enforce, though. And landlords find all sorts of ways of getting around them — like requiring a credit score of 700 or above.
KEMANIE: You know, it was kind of, smile in our face, “Oh, yeah, but your credit score is low.” But the bottom line is most people are on Section 8 because they’re having issues financially and their credit is not very good.
MOLLY: Or, landlords would ask them to have an income that’s at least three times the rent.
KEMANIE: It’s like, if I make three times the monthly amount, I’m buying my own place. Period, that’s it.
MOLLY: Other times there was an online application, but no box to check to say they had Section 8.
KEMANIE: Right? And you don’t even get to talk to anybody or even see anybody or state your case. And it doesn’t say you have Section 8 on the app, so you can’t fill that out.
MOLLY: Usually, though, they just never heard back. There was no explanation at all.
ERIN: So, Kemanie and his wife tried harder. They wrote cover letters. And organized all their references and documentation into nice, neat little folders.
KEMANIE: We would put a little picture, a nice little cute picture of our Black family for people to accept and like and maybe, you know, feel sorry for us.
ERIN: It was frustrating and stressful. To Kemanie, it felt racist.
KEMANIE: And it really felt like redlining. Is, that’s how I felt about it, because they’re just like, no, you know.
MOLLY: Racial discrimination can be hard to prove, but a recent audit found it’s a pervasive problem.
The Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California conducted paired tests of white and Black renters. And found that nearly 70% of the time, landlords in the county where Kemanie lives refused to rent to Black tenants, or used more subtle behaviors, like leaving someone on hold for hours, never calling back or steering Black applicants away from certain neighborhoods. More than half the time, landlords did the same for voucher holders.
ERIN: To Kemanie, this was not news.
He and his wife had lived their whole lives in Marin County — a community where more than 70% of the residents are white, and where the average household makes over $115,000 a year.
KEMANIE: It’s hard to explain it to other people. We’re Black in America.
Every day, especially also for me, being a Black man and being very intimidating to a lot of people. Every single day, when I meet somebody, I got to put a smile on my face to like, look, I’m not threatening.
ERIN: Holding a Section 8 voucher in his hands worsens the daily strain of trying to find acceptance.
KEMANIE: And it felt like that times 10, because this time we’re looking for everyone’s approval and it’s — we’re trying to dress us up as the best we can to get accepted by people that we know maybe aren’t racist, but just aren’t as inclined to want us to be there.
That was very, very, very hard. And that was, I think, probably the most defeating part of the whole thing for us.
MOLLY: This discrimination is why we aren’t using Kemanie’s full name. Or his wife’s name.
The experience of looking for a place to live has been so traumatic, they’re afraid to do anything that might hurt their chances of finding a home the next time they have to start looking. Their struggles with Section 8 highlight two of the program’s biggest failures.
ERIN: Only 1 in 5 who qualify for rental assistance actually receives it. Meaning most people are stuck on waitlists for years — even decades.
And when people do get off those waitlists, roughly a thirdlose their vouchers because they can’t find any landlord willing to take them.
MOLLY: That’s partly because there’s an unfair stigma around Section 8, even if it isn’t backed up by evidence.
EVA ROSEN: Landlords sometimes don’t want to rent to big families. They often worry that voucher-holders might be more likely to do damage to the home or that they might be noisier tenants. And again, none of this is really backed up by any kind of data, but the stigma itself is very real.
ERIN: This unfair stigma is made worse when you add in racism — the kind that Kemanie and his family felt.
KMOX NEWS REPORT: When the temperatures dropped below freezing this week, water lines in several of the Pruitt-Igoe apartment buildings broke and the subsequent flow of water turned into ice. At 2311 Dixon, a sewer line is broken, and now raw sewage bubbles out of the ground like a malevolent spring.
And most of the housing developments were also in segregated and impoverished neighborhoods.
EVA: And that was causing all kinds of problems. And it was leaving public housing residents with very little choice about where they ended up.
ERIN: But Eva says the program hasn’t lived up to its promise of giving voucher holders a real choice of where to live. And a lot of that comes down to landlords: when they choose to participate, and why.
EVA: When we introduced these private landlords into this system, we sort of just assumed that they would play along, that they would want to participate. And that tends not always to be the case.
MOLLY: For some landlords, Section 8 works really well.
Eugene Zinchik and his brother own a real estate and property management company in San Francisco. And he’s been renting to voucher holders for about six or seven years now.
EUGENEZINCHIK: There’s more stability in knowing that your rent checks are going to be coming, you know, whatever it is that happens.
MOLLY: During the pandemic, most of Eugene’s Section 8 tenants stayed put, and their rent checks kept flowing in. But a lot of his tenants who didn’t have vouchers — they left.
Even without the coronavirus, Eugene says voucher holders just stick around longer.
EUGENE: There’s less turnover for a landlord. If there’s less turnover, there’s no rent that they’re losing.
MOLLY: That’s because when the government decides how much it’s willing to pay for each voucher, it doesn’t vary the amounts by neighborhood. It sets one standard for the whole city.
So it’s a pretty good deal for landlords in places like Bayview.
EUGENE: So in Bayview, in my experience, the amounts that Section 8 pays are pretty much competitive.
But landlords in high-rent places could actually lose money.
EUGENE: In at least half the neighborhoods in San Francisco, Section 8 what they pay per unit is just not compatible with the market rent.
ERIN: Eva says those incentives have created an unintended consequence: Most Section 8 tenants are trapped in low-income neighborhoods.
EVA: And this is where you start to understand how the program, which was designed and very much hoped to provide tenants choice, actually creates sort of an opposite scenario where they’re being pushed away from the kind of neighborhoods that they might want to end up in and forced into neighborhoods that they don’t necessarily want to be in.
ERIN: Eugene says even when landlords want to rent to a voucher holder, it’s not that easy. You have to jump through a lot of hoops. What kind of hoops? Well, let’s take a look.
MOLLY: First, there are the forms. For both tenants and landlords.
EUGENE: You know, forms could be scary if you’ve never seen this form before.
ERIN: Let’s say you do fill them out correctly.
EUGENE: For about two weeks, you probably hear nothing.
MOLLY: Then, hopefully, you get a call for an inspection. The housing authority needs to make sure these buildings are up to code. For that, you’ll need to take the day off work.
EUGENE: A lot of times you get a four-hour window for the inspector to come in.
ERIN: And if you have any questions, don’t try to get anyone on the phone.
EUGENE: Just talking to somebody, you’d be waiting on hold for an hour.
MOLLY: Eugene says it’s like dealing with the DMV.
EUGENE: You know, we’ve all been there, but you know, we don’t really want to do that unless we have to.
MOLLY: The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development held listening sessions with property owners across the country back in 2018.
Most of the sessions were taken up by complaints. Eighty-two percent said they had bad experiences dealing with their local housing authority.
ERIN: One of their biggest issues: how long it takes to sign up a new tenant.
The whole process can take a month or two — time spent without collecting rent.
EUGENE: For a landlord to just sit and wait for that tenant is not, is not reasonable, especially if it’s an individual like a mom-and-pop type of shop.
MOLLY: So how do we improve Section 8?
For tenants to have more choice — you know, the original goal of the program — you need more landlords with properties in more neighborhoods. Here’s Eva Rosen:
EVA: When we think about landlord participation, I think we need to think about carrots and sticks.
MOLLY: That means tougher laws to prevent landlords from discriminating against Section 8 tenants. And better enforcement.
EVA: That’s sort of like a stick, right? It’s a slap on the wrist. It’s a no, you’re not allowed to do this.
ERIN: And, then there’s the carrot: more voucher money for properties in wealthier neighborhoods.
It’s something the federal government is already trying. They’re basing the rent on the ZIP code, instead of one standard for the whole city.
EVA: Because there’s no way a landlord is going to participate in the program if they’re getting less rent than they would get from a market tenant, right?
MOLLY: An early test of the program showed it worked. More landlords in affluent areas opened their doors to Section 8.
But in a few cities, there was a downside, too. Some landlords in low-income neighborhoods stopped renting to voucher holders. That led to a drop in the number of homes available there.
Still, the results were still promising enough that they’ve expanded it to two dozen cities across the country.
ERIN: Another way to recruit more landlords? Cut the red tape.
EUGENE: Give those individuals that have the voucher more say of what they’re able to do. Give the power to that individual to sign on their own behalf to take the place or not take the place.
ERIN: After all, Section 8 was supposed to be about choice. So, Eugene says, let people make their own.
Coming up: A different solution that is all about choice. And cold, hard cash.
MOLLY: When the coronavirus hit — and the economy shut down — one thing was clear: People needed cash.
And the federal government stepped in.
WCNC: Stimulus checks are rolling in for millions of Americans today. About 80 million people are expected to receive their payments today.
NBC: Well, these direct payments are what everyone is talking about because 90% of American households should be getting some money.
ERIN: Before the pandemic, the idea of giving out free money in this country was kind of a hard sell.
Natalie Foster is the president and co-founder of the Economic Security Project.
NATALIE FOSTER: Then the pandemic hit and it became clear that cash was the currency of urgency.
ERIN: And it wasn’t just stimulus checks.
NATALIE: Pandemic unemployment insurance was important for supporting people in the midst of job loss, expanding tax credits like the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.
These were all things that the government did.
MOLLY: For a lot of families, that extra money was a lifeline. Despite a recession and a global pandemic, poverty in this country actually decreased.
NATALIE: We saw a decrease in poverty, and that is because the government realized that poverty is a policy choice and we could make different choices. And so the politics of the moment allowed for us to make a different choice.
ERIN: We also made a choice to keep more people housed, with eviction moratoriums and rent relief.
For progressives and others, those pandemic-era programs were a golden opportunity to tackle poverty and housing insecurity on a grand scale. And test an idea that’s been gaining steam over the past couple years.
NEWS CLIPS: It’s an idea known as guaranteed basic income.
A monthly, no-strings-attached cash payment given directly to individuals.
MOLLY: A guaranteed income.
MOLLY: Basically, if you want to solve poverty, give people money.
Here’s how it would work: The money would come from the federal government, ideally in the form of a regular, monthly payment.
The amount wouldn’t make you rich, but it could help pay for your housing, your food or whatever else you need.
ERIN: For all the excitement around guaranteed income today, it’s not actually a new idea.
Thomas Paine argued for it way back in the 18th century. And over the years, its supporters have come from all over the political spectrum.
From the Black Panthers, to President Richard Nixon.
RECORDING OF PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON DISCUSSING GUARANTEED INCOME: What I am proposing is that the federal government build a foundation under the income of every American family with dependent children that cannot care for itself.
From libertarian economist Milton Friedman to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
It seems to me that the civil rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income, begin to organize people all over our country and mobilize forces, so that we can bring to the attention of our nation, this need and this something which I believe will go a long, long way toward dealing with the Negros’ economic problem and the economic problem with many other poor people confronting our nation.
MOLLY: Alaska’s been doing this since the 1980s, paying out oil dividends to all its residents — on average, about $1,600 a year.
But more recently, about 90 guaranteed-income experiments have popped up across the country. Most were inspired by one city: Stockton, California.
Michael wanted to bring a guaranteed income to Stockton because the old way of addressing poverty wasn’t working.
The programs we have now — like welfare or food stamps or housing vouchers — they have a lot of rules and regulations.
MICHAEL: When you’re on welfare, you have to spend so much time being with case managers, filling out forms, doing this, doing that, which robs you of the ability to do all the other things you need to do.
MOLLY: Guaranteed-income programs don’t require all that micromanagement, which frees up people’s time.
And, they have another benefit: You can spend the money however you need.
MICHAEL: Whether it’s on new tires, a transmission, a new washer and dryer, school clothes, a wedding, going to visit your parents you haven’t seen in a while.
MOLLY: When people in Stockton were given the choice of how to use the $500 they got each month, they tended to spend it on food and other essentials.
Some also used it to help pay for housing.
MICHAEL: They were able to sort of save up for a down payment to move to safer living conditions. Or some people use it to cope with sort of small rises in rent that occur: $50 here or $100 here, $125 here.
ERIN: Researchers in Stockton didn’t look specifically at the impact of a guaranteed income on evictions. But the small stipend could help.
Just knowing you have enough money to get to the end of the month also goes a long way for your mental health.
MICHAEL: Folks who received the guaranteed income went from elevated levels of stress to regular levels of stress. And that just was like, wow, like money really sort of affects health and mental health and well-being and how we show up in the world.
MOLLY: But probably one of the biggest findings from Stockton: It challenged a widely held criticism of guaranteed income, that it would cause people to stop working.
MICHAEL: Guaranteed income is great, but we don’t want all that money to be spent on housing because people have other needs, right? So I think a guaranteed income is a powerful tool. But like any toolbox, you need more than one tool to really get the job done.
MOLLY: Guaranteed income can’t solve poverty on its own. But Michael says it’s a good place to start if we want to solve other big problems, like evictions.
Evictions perpetuate inequality, and they push more people into poverty.
ERIN: When you’re evicted, you lose your neighborhood, your school, your support network. You can be trapped in a cycle of debt, even become homeless.
But the solutions are within our reach, and people are already pushing for them.
MOLLY: Activists in Fresno are fighting for a fair shot in court.
Tenants in Antioch are demanding more protection against rising rents.