Saturday, January 13, 2007

HUD "Section 8" housing: The revenge of the Trailer Trash?

I live in a HUD-subsidized "Section 8" housing project. Section 8 is a good thing. If it weren't for all the Section 8 vouchers and projects supplied by HUD, millions of families here in America would be homeless. If HUD's Section 8 program was to be suddenly canceled tomorrow morning, on the first day of next month when all the Section 8 people get evicted for non-payment of rent, America would suddenly have thousands of homeless camps and hobo jungles stretching from coast to coast and this place would look like the Great Depression was being re-enacted all over again.

So. What are we buying when we spend our hard-earned tax dollars on housing subsidies? We are buying an illusion -- that America is NOT a third-world country after all and that we are not even close.

Here are two facets of Section 8 housing -- the good and the bad. First, here's an essay I wrote regarding the good part:

Section 8 Housing: An important issue for African-Americans

For the African-American community, Section 8 has been a very important way to help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I myself can be a witness to this. I live in a HUD-subsidized Section 8 housing project and if there is one thing I have learned from living here it is that the benefits of Section 8 housing go far beyond just paying cheap rent.

The 57-unit project that I live in has been in existence for 27 years. How do I know? Because I moved into my unit when I was nine months pregnant and gave birth to my son the very next day. So. My son and the project are the same age -- only one day apart. And did you know that there is a HUD Section 8-based project just like this one in every city and town in America? All built in 1979. Thank you, Jimmy Carter! But I digress.

In the last 27 years that I have lived here, I have watched my African-American neighbors put the money they have saved on rent to very good use. Sure, some of them have used this opportunity to run up credit card debt or purchase a brand new Lincoln Navigator but for the most part they have used this opportunity wisely. They have used Section 8 as a springboard to send their children to college.

Because of Section 8 and HUD and Jimmy Carter, there are now at least 30 more African-American college graduates today that I personally know of than there would have been without Section 8.

As I write this, I'm looking back in my mind's eye, thinking about the 57 families who moved in here back in 1979. Many of us were on welfare. Some of us were on drugs. A couple of prostitutes, a handful of working single mothers desperately struggling to hold things together. Grandparents raising their abandoned grandkids. Battered women running away from brutal spouses. Some homeless types. Redneck meth freaks. We were a sorry lot.

But slowly, surely, all of us started to relax and unwind. With a decent roof over our heads, we began to recover. And to focus. Now three out of four of my children are college graduates. Of the five families who are my immediate neighbors, we have nine college graduates, including one PhD and a girl who lived her dream -- graduating from UCLA with a degree in dance and going on to dance on Broadway in the cast of The Lion King.

Lately, neo-cons in Washington have been systematically attacking HUD-subsidized Section 8 housing programs. "It's just more welfare," they say. "It's just giving our hard-earned money to a bunch of lazy slackers." No. The war-profiteering that is going in in Iraq is "just more welfare". Unlike our tax money that has been "invested" in war profiteering, tax money invested in Section 8 housing, like tax money invested in education and healthcare, is an investment in America's future and the future of our children and grandchildren -- African-American, Latino, Asian and white alike.

But for African-Americans, Section 8 housing is an especially important issue -- an issue well worth fighting for.


Now here is an essay I wrote about the bad part of Section 8 -- wherein the Board of Directors of my Section 8 housing co-op got a little too zealous and started to think that their poop didn't stink like everyone else's:

An Ode to HUD Section 8 Housing -- and a Word of Caution for those who mess with it!

Did you know that the housing co-op where I live is a 100% Section 8 HUD-sponsored housing project? I am so proud of this fact – that I live in a place that offers hope, a chance for improvement, a roof over one’s head, safety for children, a helping hand to people so that they can take a step upwards toward being a part of the American Dream and the opportunity to make the most of one’s life without worry or fear.

In addition, Section 8 housing provides the City of Berkeley – now in the throes of gentrification – with much-needed diversity. Berkeley used to be a guiding light and sanctuary that was known all over the world for progressive ideas and civil rights. But now it is becoming merely just another bedroom community where heroes and idealists can’t even afford the rent.

But apparently Section 8 subsidies are not looked upon so kindly by the people who now control the majority vote on our housing co-op's Board of Directors. For example, I recently heard one market-rate resident [a market-rate resident is one who pays "full market" rent – which is still $200 to $500 less than Berkeley’s average rent, thanks to HUD subsidies] state that she was tired of our co-op being referred to as "public housing". Well, duh. If market-rate residents don’t like the idea, they can move and make room for others who are dying – sometimes literally – to live in "public housing". What? She thinks that the rest of us are just welfare queens and/or trailer trash?

"Market-rate people don’t have to follow HUD rules," one Board member stated recently. Yeah they do. Our housing co-op was not conceived so it can serve people who simply live here because it is close to shops and BART. We are in the business of helping people, helping children and saving lives! Get over it.

Regarding our co-op's up-coming $6,000,000 rehabilitation project that some market-rate Board members are trying to block so that their monthly rents won't go up, HUD and the bank that is sponsoring our loan just informed our co-op's Board members that if they have not selected a building siding material by January 31, 2007 so that the contractors can finally get to work on the rehab, the rehab will be canceled. And we will owe the bank and HUD their seed money of $330,00 as well – not to mention that our co-op will then lose Section 8 because without the rehab it will very quickly become sub-standard housing. This Board has truly screwed up.

What to do? At our co-op's up-coming February 2007 annual meeting and election, we residents have the right – according to the bylaws – to get rid of the entire co-op Board and vote in a whole new Board; one that is more interested in representing our needs rather than putting all of their energy into blocking the rehab, moving themselves/their relatives/their friends into vacated units, turning one of Berkeley’s few sources of affordable housing into "garden apartments" and forgetting our co-op's true purpose and roots.