The Fastest way to Clean up the Projects — Give Poor People Vouchers

Edgar Olson is calling for an end to public housing as we know it. Rather than sticking poor families in federally run housing projects, the University of Virginia economics professors argues, the government should give them vouchers. (Read the UVa profile here.)

“It costs much less to provide equally good housing with housing vouchers than with public housing projects,” Olsen wrote in a prepared statement he was scheduled to deliver in testimony to Congress Wednesday. “Therefore, shifting the budget for public housing to housing vouchers would allow us to serve all of the families served by public housing equally well … and serve hundreds of thousands of additional families.”

The federal government has proven itself to be one of the world’s worst property managers, but it is proficient at redistributing income. It just makes sense: Instead of building housing for poor people, just stroke them a check to find an apartment of their own.

Vouchers would make good social policy too, a point that the brief article doesn’t make. Housing projects concentrate poor people in places where there are few successful role models and few working/middle class people to constrain criminal behavior. Giving poor people vouchers gives them more latitude in where they live.

Sounds great… except for one thing. It’s the old slippery slope argument. Give ’em vouchers for housing, and the next thing you know, they’ll be asking for vouchers for schools. Can’t have that!

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11 responses to “The Fastest way to Clean up the Projects — Give Poor People Vouchers”

  1. Lucy Jones Avatar

    I’m pretty sure they already do that… Maybe it’s just in our county? I think they get housing allowance and they can rent any apartment that will accept the vouchers.

  2. I think Lucy is partly right. the vouchers are state run, but probably federally funded. I’m not clear on this.

    The real problem is that they are vouchers, which means the landlord knows the drill.

    I like the vouchers concept, but like so many things, the execution is lacking.

    If you really want to get some mileage out of vouchers, use them for schools. Clearly the government is even worse at schools than it is at housing: it is entirely too politicicized. Apparently Hindus are trying to affect the way Indian History is protrayed in California schools.

    Because California textbooks are widely accepted nationwide, special interestes are able to affect how history is taught. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    My father was a public school teacher, and he favored vouchers. I respect his knowledge and experience.

  3. I think this is a good idea. And Jim, if you distribute the poor throughout a community via housing vouchers might you not als be distributing them throughout the public school system?

  4. Avatar

    The voucher programs already exists – it’s called “Section 8” housing. Bush talked a lot about this in 2000 and with his Ownership Society program, which fell by the wayside as his other “priorities” took precendence. The Section 8 program basically provides a baseline rent subsidy, and the only drawback is that the waitlists are enormous. Property owners have to agree to keep the rental units in the program for a certain amount of time (I think 5 years), and provide certain basic features to avoid slumlording on the government dime.

    All in all, this program is much more effective, like the professor’s argument, than housing projects. Increasing Section 8 subsidies is a much better way at tackling low-income housing than public housing – even project residents agree. As the experiences with Food Stamps and Welfare Reform show, targeted vouchers for specific services are more effective at helping the poor – and sometimes transitioning them out of poverty – than general lifestyle subsidies. A little paternalism can go a long way.

  5. Avatar

    PS – these vouchers work because they are more market-oriented. They work on the demand side of the equation by providing more financial capital versus artificially inflating or skewing the supply-side of the housing market through projects.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Kingfish, You’re very right — addressing the residential segregation of the projects also addresses the resulting school discrimination to the extent that some poor people choose, and can afford, to move into neighborhood that have greater ethnic and income diversity.

    Conaway, Great line! “A little paternalism can go a long way”

  7. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    The problem with Section 8 housing is that it’s contract housing, not vouchers. Landlords ‘do their time’ to pay off construction costs, then convert to better types of arrangements.

    Food stamps are vouchers; they are accepted in almost any food store, are usable as cash for food products. They are also sent in varying amounts depending on need. A very poor individual may get all their food subsidized by stamps, another less in need may get only $25 worth sent to them.

  8. Avatar

    Jim – your bit about the landlords holds true, but the payment mechanism to the Section 8 renter is essentially a voucher. I say remove the perverse incentive for landlords and make it a straight up rental voucher with regional economic indexing to account for market price differences.

    Also, food stamps also have “contract” elements as there are restrictions on food products that can be purchased (i.e. no prepared, hot foods a la Ukrops Cafe, etc). Hence, they are not a liquid as cash.

  9. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    Conway, I appreciate your position, but food stamps are vouchers. They are vouchers for “most-foods-but-not-prepared-food-but-confectionary-but-not-candy-and…”. The reasonable solution is call them “food stamps”. It’s reasonably accurate; a good, close description. For the range of products allowed, the food stamp is equivalent to cash.

    Section 8 housing is not voucher-like in that it requires a contract with the landlord. It is preferable to government housing, but by the nature of contracting, Section 8 still creates blocks of aid recipients.

    A true rent-voucher system would –like food stamps– be restricted to certain types of housing. Probably some definition of non-luxury, a requirement of bathroom and kitchen, perhaps a size range to avoid five bedrooms for a single person or one bedroom for a family.

    Once those basics are met, a person getting $500 of rent-voucher should be able to use it at any housing for rent. For the range of housing allowed, the rent-voucher should be the equivalent to cash.

    Though much reduced, there will still be some concentrations of aid recipients; people getting aid would have the option to move at will within the housing market.

  10. Thank You, Jim Patrick. That ws a good explanation. I knew there was some problems with this and you nailed it. If they were true vouchers, they could be used for any rental within reason.

  11. You know, I just don’t understand the whole public housing/voucher controversy. In either situation, the advocates are saying that anyone…..Anyone…….for any reason for being “poor” can get housing. Nothing is being advocated that the recipients should feel a reciprocal obligation, i.e. not having any children while on the government dole, not turning to crime, drugs whatever to “supplement” the inadequate immediate money supply. When will the advocates advocate individual responsibility and hold recipients accountable, not just saying the way of life is the best that can be done?

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