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When Housing Assistance Fails

An NPR and PBS investigation puts two housing assistance programs under the microscope—and finds fraud, discrimination, and wasted taxpayer dollars.

Farryn Giles, a Section 8 recipient, with her son in a still from the FRONTLINE and NPR documentary investigating two key housing assistance programs. (FRONTLINE)

The federal government spends billions of dollars to help low-income Americans afford decent homes—and still, the rental housing crisis is worse than ever. Nearly every U.S. county has a deficit. Even where affordable units exist, they’re not really affordable. Cities, therefore, have become hot spots for evictions. And the average length of stay in subsidized housing is increasing.

So, what’s going on?

In a new documentary called Poverty, Politics and Profit, NPR and PBS Frontline reporters set out to answer that question. Over the course of six months, the team investigated two key housing assistance programs: the Section 8 housing voucher program, which helps Americans pay rent, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which helps developers construct more housing at price points low-income renters can afford.

Section 8 vouchers were created in 1974 to help poor residents move to neighborhoods with more jobs, better schools, and less crime. But only one in four households that need rental assistance, including Section 8, actually receives it. It’s not an entitlement as many would think, Urban Institute’s Erika C. Poethig explains—it’s a housing lottery.

But the lucky winners are often relegated to neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, thanks to the program’s design. Even if these vouchers cover the entire rent, landlords in high-opportunity areas will often refuse to take them. And even if they do, people who receive housing assistance face discrimination in their new neighborhoods. As Emily Badger explained in The Washington Post, “Section 8” has become “a racial slur” over time:

In a broad sense, this is an American tradition: conflating where people live with who they are. “We’ve been doing that as a society for a really, really long time,” says Lawrence Vale, an MIT professor who has written extensively about public housing. “And it’s been racialized for a lot of that history.”

In the documentary, NPR’s Laura Sullivan confirms these phenomena. She follows three Section 8 voucher recipients in Dallas in their quest to find an apartment. None of them succeed. “Maybe it’s meant for me to live in the hood,” C'Artis Harris, one of the recipients, says towards the end of the film. “I guess I’m acceptable [here]...they don’t discriminate.”

When it comes to the construction of affordable housing, too, problems abound. In Texas, state lawmakers openly thwart fair housing rules, so it’s no surprise that local governments follow suit. In the film, Sullivan documents the case of an apartment complex with Section 8 units, between McKinney and Frisco suburbs of Dallas. The development, constructed through LIHTC credits, met vehement opposition from community members and officials who fear the prospect of low-income people of color moving to the neighborhood. One of the locals clearly articulates why. “I feel so bad saying that,” she says, “but it’s just not people who are the same class as us.”  

The second part of the investigation focuses on why, despite costing more and more taxpayer dollars, the LIHTC program has been producing fewer units. Sullivan’s investigation finds instances of fraud from private developers who misrepresent the costs of construction to the government and carve out kickbacks for themselves. Based on her reporting, she concludes that there isn’t enough oversight of the program.

Several public, private, and nonprofit agencies working with the LIHTC have objected to this characterization: In a statement, these organizations argue that the film inflates the role of fraud, saying the higher construction costs (especially in amenity-rich neighborhoods), greater emphasis on serving the poorest households, and reduced federal financing help through other programs better explain the high expenses associated with the program. The NPR/PBS report does acknowledges these reasons, but finds that they do not account for the bulk of the increase in program costs. At the same time, it also isn’t able to detail the full scope of fraud in the LIHTC program, apart from a couple of instances.

Ultimately, the report can’t provide a comprehensive answer to the question of why there isn’t enough affordable housing to go around. But it does ask the kinds of important questions that all government programs meant to help the poor should face: Are they maximizing the good? And, if not, how can we improve them?

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.