San Diego Won't Join Federal Voucher Program Aimed At Desegregating Neighborhoods
The bulk of people in San Diego who use housing vouchers to help pay their rent are segregated into lower income neighborhoods. At the start of this year, the city had an opportunity to join a federal program aimed at fixing that — it would help people who want to live in more expensive areas by increasing the amount of their vouchers, which would give them access to safer neighborhoods, more grocery stores and better schools.
But that's not happening. Instead, San Diego is using its own program. It gives voucher holders some extra assistance to move to more expensive neighborhoods, but not as much as they would have gotten under the federal program.
'Now I'll be able to move into a better community'
The San Diego Housing Commission oversees the local housing voucher program and made the decision to use its own approach with approval from the San Diego City Council. The decision has a direct impact on people like Margarita Diaz, a single mother of two who lives in City Heights. She spent 10 years on a waiting list to get a housing voucher, also called Section 8, and finally received one in 2015.
"So when I applied for Section 8 I thought, 'oh well cool, now I'll be able to move into a better community,'" she said.
She had her sights set on apartments in La Mesa or North Park.
"When I first got my voucher and I started looking for apartments, two, three weeks into it I called the person that's in charge and I told them, 'hey, you know, I'm not finding any two-bedroom apartments in this price range, they're higher,'" she said.
She pays 30 percent of her income toward rent and the voucher covers the rest, up to a certain limit: $1,304 for two-bedroom apartments, which is paid directly to the landlord.
Diaz said looking for apartments and trying to communicate with her Section 8 advisor felt like another part-time job, something she didn't have time for. Diaz works and takes college classes.
"It makes it very difficult to follow through constantly," she said. "If I'm at work, I can't be on the phone trying to do personal stuff. I'm practically busy from early morning until 6 and when I'm off everything's closed."
She could not find an apartment in another neighborhood, so she stayed in her current place in City Heights. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her 11-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. They share the bedroom while she sleeps on the couch.
Federal Approach vs. San Diego's Approach
The new federal program might have changed things for Diaz's family. It was created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, during the Obama administration to roll out in 23 cities, including San Diego.
Before the program, a housing voucher's value was calculated using the median of all rents in the city. Under the new federal program, a housing voucher's value is calculated using the median rent in the zip code where the family wants to live. That means families living in more expensive neighborhoods get larger housing vouchers so they can afford rent there.
So if Diaz's family wanted to move to North Park, they could get $1,610 in a housing voucher for a two-bedroom apartment, instead of $1,304 using the city-wide median.
But that is not what San Diego is doing. Instead of setting voucher amounts for each individual zip code in the city, at the beginning of this year the San Diego Housing Commission divided neighborhoods into three tiers with a different voucher amount for each tier.
Under San Diego's program, called the Choice Communities Initiative, if Diaz's family wanted to move to North Park, their voucher amount would stay the same, at $1,304.
If they wanted to move to a more expensive neighborhood such as Point Loma, they would get a voucher worth $1,740. But that is less than the $2,000 voucher they would get to live in Point Loma under the federal zip code-based program.
Why San Diego Is Going A Different Route
Rick Gentry, the CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, gave three reasons for not using the federal zip code-based program:
1) "It’s too complicated."
San Diego has 32 different zip codes, so that would mean determining a different voucher amount for each zip code, which would require hiring extra staff, which would mean less money to go toward housing vouchers, Gentry said.
"It is one pot of money," he said. "We're trying to do all of this, including administer the programs and help people with their rents. The simpler the program, the better. The less expensive it is, the more money we have to help people pay the rents."
But Brooke Etie, the vice president of the voucher program at the Dallas Housing Authority, had a different experience. Dallas began using the zip code-based program in 2011 and sets voucher amounts for more than 350 different zip codes.
She said the Dallas Housing Authority did not have to hire any extra staff to roll out the program but instead created an online tool that housing advisors could use to calculate voucher amounts.
In written responses to KPBS, Scott Marshall, a spokesman for the San Diego Housing Commission, said the zip code-based system would require them to "hire additional staff, expand quality control efforts, expend time and resources to create a customized software system or a combination of the three."
2) Families could see decreased voucher amounts.
Gentry's second reason is that he said more than a third of the 15,500 San Diego families who currently get housing vouchers would see those voucher amounts decrease under the zip code-based program. That is because the median rents in their neighborhoods would be lower than the city-wide median, so their voucher amounts would go down.
He called the zip code-based program "social engineering" that happens "when some self-styled expert on the federal level, in particular, will tell us exactly what to do for each family and to provide punishments and sanctions for a family to live where they want to live."
"If you tell the family in San Ysidro or Nestor or City Heights or Encanto that if you want to keep staying here you can, but we're going to cut your rent subsidy because we want to provide more subsidies for people in Point Loma or La Jolla or north of the 8, I think that goes beyond choice and goes into social engineering," Gentry said. "And I'm not hesitant to use the term."
However, any housing commission can choose to decide it will not decrease voucher amounts for families who stay in lower-income neighborhoods, something called a "hold harmless" provision, said Shamus Roller, the director of the National Housing Law Project.
In addition, the lowest voucher amount set by HUD for San Diego if it used the zip code-based program would be $1,210 for a one-bedroom apartment, or $1,570 for a two-bedroom apartment. Those amounts are higher than the $1,074 for one-bedroom and $1,304 for two-bedroom vouchers the housing commission currently gives.
So even if San Diego switched to using zip codes to determine voucher amounts, it seems no families would see a decrease.
In a written response to KPBS, Marshall with the housing commission said, "Based on a review of HUD’s data in 2016, it was determined that the (zip code-based program) would have reduced the payment standards for thousands of (San Diego Housing Commission’s) more than 15,000 rental assistance families, potentially reducing their rental assistance and requiring them to pay more toward their rent. However...(San Diego Housing Commission's) Choice Communities Initiative does not reduce the payment standards for any community in the City of San Diego."
3) More expensive vouchers mean fewer families get assistance.
Gentry's third reason is that raising the voucher amounts for families who want to move to more expensive neighborhoods would mean there is less money overall in the voucher program, so fewer families would get vouchers.
"It's simple algebra," he said. "If the rents increase enough so that we don't have enough money to cover 15,500 families, we start lopping families off the list. And the last thing I want to see happen is a family not get served because we routinely and rotely increased rents for somebody else."
That could be true, said Roller of the National Housing Law Project. The federal government gives one pot of money to a housing commission, so if all the families who get vouchers move to more expensive neighborhoods, there would be fewer vouchers overall to give out.
But, Roller pointed out, Gentry's second and third reasons cannot both be true.
"If everyone is staying where they are, you won't decrease the number of vouchers you can give out," he said.
In a written response to KPBS, Marshall with the housing commission did not directly address Roller's comments, but said the San Diego program "will incur additional rental assistance costs with no additional federal funding."
He added that the San Diego program "is expected to increase the Housing Commission’s rental assistance expenses up to $4 million per year, which will be covered by streamlining and efficiencies that (San Diego Housing Commission) has implemented.
'Access to quality schools and employment hubs'
The reasons against using the zip code-based program miss the point of the program in the first place: to desegregate cities, said Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, a San Diego poverty attorney.
Right now, more than half of Latino and African-American families with housing vouchers in San Diego live in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent, according to U.S. Census Data.
The zip code-based program is "a way to allow those families to move into higher opportunity, lower poverty, less segregated areas and neighborhoods to have access to quality schools and employment hubs and public transportation," Ijadi-Maghsoodi said.
She argued the housing commission should not be focusing on what would happen if families want to stay in their current neighborhood because the goal is for families to move to more expensive neighborhoods to take advantage of their services.
"We're so racially and class segregated right now that moving forward immediately is what needs to be done right now," she said.
When asked what he would say to a voucher holder who wanted to move to a higher income neighborhood, but could not find an apartment she could afford, Gentry said, "there is a dilemma there. There's no doubt about it and I don't know of any easy way to resolve it."
He said the San Diego Housing Commission's three-tiered system aims to provide extra assistance to people who want to move.
"But I would not want to see someone make a choice to live in a higher cost area though if it caused someone else in the lower cost area to be dropped off the roles and to lose their assistance altogether," Gentry said.
He added that the housing commission will likely look into the voucher amounts in the first six months of this year and that he thinks they could increase for next year.
In Dallas, where a zip code-based program has been in place for eight years, some people stayed in their old neighborhoods and others moved, said Etie, the vice president of the voucher program.
She said Dallas did decrease voucher amounts for people who live in less expensive neighborhoods, but gave them a year's warning so they could look into moving elsewhere.
"When people saw what the situation would be for next year, a number of families requested to relocate, while some stayed in the same place and paid a higher amount," she said. "But we had a number of families who moved to higher economic areas, and that provided them the opportunity for improved employment and education."
A HUD pilot program found that zip code-based programs did lead to more voucher holders moving to the more expensive neighborhoods: 18 percent moved in 2010 before the start of the program, while 28 percent moved in 2015 after the program had rolled out.
As for Margarita Diaz, she said her family would like a larger voucher to move to a different neighborhood. When her apartment flooded, she and her two children moved in temporarily with her brother in Chula Vista.
"My kids really liked it when we came back my son was like, 'Mom I don't want to live in the ghetto,'" she said.