Readers deserve a bigger picture on “super-vouchers”

I co-wrote this post with Amanda Kass, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s urban planning school, and Research Director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.


Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers, were intentionally designed as a segregation-fighting tool. Theoretically, their recipients can use them to rent anywhere, breaking with public housing’s sad history of concentrating low-income people—and, in Chicago, usually black people—in neighborhoods that are systematically deprived of investments.

But a new article from the Better Government Association and the Sun-Times—the first in a series on the state of the Chicago Housing Authority—has produced the following map of where vouchers actually get used:

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.33.28 AM
Credit: Sun-Times

Anyone with a basic familiarity with Chicago’s geography can see that, far from breaking with historic patterns of segregation, the vast majority of housing vouchers are used in segregated black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides—many of which are in exactly the same places where a racist mid-20th century City Council decided to concentrate the original public housing projects to begin with.

But the BGA and Sun-Times spent more time scrutinizing the small handful of voucher recipients in high-income neighborhoods than the broader failure of the program to challenge existing patterns of segregation. Nor, in a long feature, did they investigate how the CHA made its policy decisions, or in whose financial interest those decisions might be; or why moving to “opportunity areas” might be an important goal for the program to begin with.

That’s a shame, because the BGA and the Sun-Times reporters they collaborated with have a long history of producing excellent work that shines a light on true injustice and mismanagement. But this particular effort falls far short of that standard.

The March 11th piece is couched in the language of “inequities.” Not inequity between the rich and poor, but between different low-income households receiving vouchers. “The CHA pays for some to live in high-rent, luxury properties…in upscale neighborhoods that are predominantly white,” they explain. “On the other hand, thousands…remain clustered in poor, black neighborhoods on the South Side and West Side.”

Large sections of the article amount to listing particular arrangements in which voucher recipients get “rich deals” to live in “extravagant” homes, letting the reader know how the low-income person pays “little or nothing,” and how much the “taxpayers cover.” The article highlights two men in Uptown who “pay more than some voucher-holders do for high-priced condos downtown,” without connecting that to the fact that what voucher holders pay is based on their income, not their place of residence—which makes sense for a program designed to allow low-income people to move to more opportunity-rich neighborhoods and reverse decades of discriminatory policies. The cumulative effect (including how it has been promoted on social media) comes dangerously close to stoking resentment of the low-income people who happen to be using housing vouchers for the program’s intended purpose of moving from areas that have been systematically disinvested to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.



This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, the article spends an inordinate amount of time on recipients of “super-vouchers” who, by the BGA/Sun-Times’ own numbers, make up a tiny fraction of the overall voucher program. Just 298 households—out of 45,000 total families receiving voucher assistance—live in apartments that cost $2,000 or more a month, and over 97 percent of recipients live in places where the rent is under $1,500. Yet roughly half the article is devoted to detailing the supposed scourge of low-income people who are receiving too much help.

Second, the reason why the Chicago Housing Authority is even allowed to issue “super-vouchers” is never mentioned. The Chicago Housing Authority is one of a handful of housing authorities in the United States that is in a federal demonstration called Moving to Work. As a participant of that demonstration the CHA is allowed to experiment with different rent structures. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted it permission to implement its exception rent policy, and the stated purpose of that policy was to expand housing choice for low-income households.  

Third, it’s not clear what is gained by accusing an anti-poverty program of profligacy by listing, over and over again, rental subsidy figures without much context about how they came to be. For example, voucher holders with physical disabilities often have trouble finding accessible housing—and frequently their best option is a relatively new, “luxury” building. It would be helpful to know what portion of households living in very-high-rent apartments are there for accessibility reasons. (On Twitter, one of the authors indicated that roughly a tenth of “super-voucher” holders are disabled.) It would also be good to know how and why voucher holders chose the locations they did—for example, proximity to good schools or jobs. Given the documented discrimination against voucher holders, how many landlords in opportunity areas are actually willing to rent to them? Are the rents the CHA is paying for the “super-vouchers” in line with market prices for those areas? Did the CHA steer households to units in opportunity areas owned by politically connected developers?

Finally, the repeated insinuation that the handful of households receiving very large vouchers are responsible for the problems of recipients who still live in segregated neighborhoods, or who don’t receive any assistance at all, is just incorrect. “The CHA spends….$7.5 million a year on…spacious homes [and] condos in skyscrapers,” the authors say—without noting that that’s less than two percent of the CHA’s $470 million voucher budget—before pivoting to tell us that the voucher waiting list is 50,000 names long.

A casual reader would be forgiven for concluding that perhaps the list is so long because the CHA is spending all its money on these supposed high rollers. But in fact, the CHA’s voucher waiting list is so long because a) federal voucher funding covers less than a quarter of qualifying households nationwide, and b) the CHA has simply declined to use a substantial portion of the federal money it does receive for vouchers. An investigation by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability found that the CHA diverted voucher funding to build up a reserve in excess of $400 million—money that could have paid for as many as 13,534 additional vouchers. But that fact never appears in the BGA/Sun-Times story. Nor does reporting by WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune about rampant discrimination against voucher holders, which might go some way to explaining persistent patterns of segregation.

What makes this even more frustrating is that there are serious policy issues to be debated. The tradeoffs between prioritizing higher-cost “opportunity areas,” versus maximizing the number of vouchers but sending more of them to low-income neighborhoods, as well as the systematic disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods that fuels the necessity to move to an “opportunity area,”  are thorny and worth exploring. So are questions about why and how the CHA chooses the priorities it does. In fact, there is evidence that keeping a long voucher waitlist might actually be in the agency’s financial interest. In 2013, Standard & Poor’s gave the CHA the highest credit rating among all public housing authorities, in part because of the “very strong essentiality for CHA housing as demonstrated by a waiting list that exceeds” the actual number of households receiving assistance. In other words, the CHA was rewarded with a high-profile stamp of approval, and easier, cheaper access to credit markets, because it failed to help a large proportion of the people who needed it. That fact might have helped readers understand how structural issues affect the CHA’s behavior, and Chicagoans’ lives.

But perhaps what really galls is just the spectacle of “watchdog journalism” turning its ire on the supposedly undeserving poor at a time when the wealthy are living more luxuriously than ever, and the governments that are meant to guarantee a basic standard of living for everyone else are abdicating that responsibility in astonishing ways. It is hard, in reading about a low-income, probably black family whose voucher allows them to live in a highrise with “sweeping views of Lake Michigan,” not to think of Reagan-era rhetoric about “welfare queens,” who drove in Cadillacs bought with taxpayer money. Those stories were mostly fiction, of course, but served a real role in undermining public trust in safety net programs that ultimately make all of us, as a society, stronger. This report, sadly, appears to do the same.

The March 11th article is the first of several features that the BGA and Sun-Times are collaborating on, examining the state of the Chicago Housing Authority. We’ve corresponded with some of the authors, who have been open to discussing the criticism and committed to covering this issue in a fair and contextual way. While we are disappointed by the tone and focus of the first article we are hopeful that future reports will shine a light on how important policy decisions are being made in Chicago.

8 thoughts on “Readers deserve a bigger picture on “super-vouchers”

  1. On a macro level it may appear to make sense for super vouchers, to spread out the poor, however the main issue the public has with super vouchers, is that the government subsidizes people to live in homes that working class people could never afford.

    There is a base equity question, should the government pay for people to live better than those without government subsidy? There is an enormous middle ground between luxury apartments and south / west side communities.

    Could the government house more people by integrating them into more middle class (Rather than upper class) communities in the Chicago-land area? As a wider question, could we invest more in policing and schools in impoverished areas, improving lives for all those that live in those neighborhoods?

    Could some of the CHA funds be re-directed to education and policing in those neighborhoods? We have had neighborhoods gentrify from warzones to ultra high end within a decade (Pilsen, West Town, Humboldt Park, etc).

  2. Thank you so much for this. My mom works with low-income people, and some myth from the media is always behind the heavy race and class hatred they have to answer for. The poor are seen as simultaneously passive freeloaders and actively scheming animals. I don’t think people go out of their way to believe this, but these scripts are the only things that are left to investigate when you avoid looking at austerity, Thatcherism, redlining and so forth.

  3. This comment is in response to your City Observatory piece, “Finding nuance in the housing supply arguments.” I tried to post it there, but it was incorrectly marked as spam.

    In that piece, you wrote:

    As a result, the idea that some neighborhoods might be “saved” from the interest of high-income people if only developers wouldn’t signal the value of the neighborhood by building luxury housing seems far-fetched.

    I don’t think the map shows this as clearly as you claim. See that red spot amid the green near Montrose Harbor? That’s Uptown. Adjacent to Lakeview, it’s been a target for the dynamic you describe for decades, but successfully fought it off. This is almost entirely because Helen Schiller, its long-time (1987-2011) alderman, was dead set on maintaining Uptown as a neighborhood for working-class people. Even as gentrification spread north beyond Uptown, her ward remained affordable right up until the point at which Schiller left office. The new alderman has partnered with a developer pushing 300-square-foot luxury “micro-studios” in old SROs with predictable results. Seems like a pretty clear demonstration that a neighborhood can indeed be “saved” for decades given sufficient political will.

  4. I’d like to see some follow-up from the Sun-Times on whether the “opportunity area” concept is actually working. What are the desired outcomes, and does it make a meaningful difference to house voucher recipients in these areas?

    If the metric is job accessibility, then do CHA residents in opportunity areas find higher-paying jobs? The income figures mentioned in the Sun Times article indicate no, but as you mention, disabilities play a role here as well. Do children demonstrate better performance in school when they relocate to opportunity areas? Etc.

    In the absence of any metrics for the opportunity area concept, it just seems like a solution in search of a problem.

  5. I appreciate this critique as someone who worked for the CHA and approved many of the so called “super vouchers”. Both now and when Crains did their series of articles I felt a more nuanced portrait was missing.

    Indeed many of the people I worked with, myself included, felt uneasy about subsidizing individual participants up to 300% of their voucher limit. Often the annual subsidy amount would be greater than annual salaries of the people approving the subsidies. However the program was advertised to any tenant who wanted to move and not everyone took advantage. I’m happy for those who were able to use the system effectively and to their benefit.

    Ultimately though the enhanced–“super”– voucher program was and is a inefficient way to desegregate poverty. The benefits are too narrowly distributed. True desegregation would require the CHA to prioritize the construction of subsidized units in wealthy areas where many dozens if not hundreds of families can live. Certainly many more and more damning articles would be written about that plan.


  6. Thank you for your excellent critique of the March 11 Sun-Times/BGA article. I wanted to point out some important reporting my colleagues at WBEZ have done regarding vouchers and opportunity areas. They featured practices that I think society should find much more scandalous than the Sun-Times’/BGA’s unfortunate “welfare queen” focus. These stories document precisely how racial segregation and concentration of the poor happens–and show how policies and practices of municipalities, developers, landlords and our elected officials shape the landscape of our metro area and the life chances of low-income people. These links may be of interest to people reading this critique.

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