Malique Gordon has already moved three times since his 6-year-old son, Makari, was born.
Gordon, 27, lives with his mother Maureen Nugent, who receives a Section 8 voucher. Section 8 — or the Housing Choice Voucher Program, as it’s now known — is a federal program that pays for a predetermined amount of rent. It has a lot of rules about what kind of housing voucher-holders have to live in, and Gordon and Nugent say they've had a mixed experience with the program.
Their main problem has been that the rental subsidy is far below most rents in Boston. When they first looked for a home, landlords would tell Nugent and Gordon that the voucher did not cover the rent they were charging.
“It was just leaving us stumped for a while, and we had to take pretty much whatever is given,” Gordon says. “It might not be the best neighborhood, but it’s the cheapest.”
When Makari was a baby, the family lived in Uphams Corner in Dorchester, and they were able to stay there for four years with the Section 8 subsidy. But as Makari grew older, the Section 8 program required that he have a bedroom of his own.
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The rental allowance for a three-bedroom apartment is just under $2,200. Section 8 recipients have between 60 and 90 days to secure housing. Plus, the voucher only covers first and last month’s rent, so the tenant has to put together the additional upfront costs — like the security deposit and broker's fee. These costs often present huge barriers.
“In finding a place, a three-bedroom, at one point, they told me I had to have $8,000 to get it!” Nugent says.
When they did find an apartment, it wasn't in a neighborhood that the family liked. There was a fire in the building in 2018, leaving the family in a shelter for several months. Gordon began to worry his family would be priced out of Boston.
“My mom works inside the city. My son goes to school inside the city,” he says. "People that I care about dearly are here."
'I Should Have Stayed There'
Reports from service providers find that Nugent and Gordon's experience isn't unique. For Section 8 holders seeking to live in Boston, their options are limited.
“If they are going to be finding a unit in Boston, it’s primarily in Dorchester, Roxbury or Mattapan where the units are,” says Sue Nohl, deputy director of Metro Housing Boston, one of the largest housing service providers in the area.
There are many reasons a Section 8 tenant might have to move unexpectedly. One has to do with family size, as happened to Nugent and Gordon. A second has to do with rent increases over a certain threshold. If the subsidy won't cover the increase, then the voucher-holder has to move. They don't have much buffer from the market. A move is stressful. Now add on to that additional pressures, like the lack of a financial safety net.
“They’re stressed because they have to find a unit when they didn’t plan on it,” Nohl says. “They are struggling because they may be connected to supports in their neighborhood. [Their current housing] may be convenient for them to access public transportation, or to be able to access jobs, schools, medical appointments.”
Before Nugent got the Section 8 voucher, she had lived for two decades in an apartment in Roxbury operated by a nonprofit housing organization. The rent was capped based on her income. It’s where she raised Gordon and her daughter. But she had wanted to leave the neighborhood. She worried her kids would end up victims of violence.
“I just prayed and says, ‘We got this far, and nothing has happened to my kids, so we’ll stick it out,’ ” Nugent says. “Then after leaving with the Section 8, I said, ‘Oh my God, I should have stayed there.’ I knew almost everybody in the community. And it seemed kind of tough to give it up.”
'Why Do People Have To Move To The Suburbs?'
This tension — the desire for something better, weighed against the desire for roots — speaks to a central debate around fair housing. A fundamental goal of federal housing policy is to promote residential integration and housing choice for low-income households. The Section 8 program aims to do this by providing low-income residents an avenue to move out of so-called "areas of low opportunity."
Research bears out that children who move from high-poverty neighborhoods to low-poverty areas have better financial, educational and health outcomes than children who remain in such neighborhoods.
If the government helps with the rent, the household can move to otherwise-unaffordable areas with more safety, better schools and other resources. Often those areas are out of the city. But some question why families should have to move to access greater opportunities.
“Suburban communities ... that are supposed to be the target for integration have certain characteristics, and we think those characteristics are good: They're clean, they're open, children have good schools,” says David Harris, managing director of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. “The question becomes, why it is that people have to move to the suburbs to have access to those things? Why isn't our policy designed to make sure all communities are endowed with those characteristics, where the amenities and the benefits are all the same?”
Before his position at Harvard, Harris was the director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. He argues “mobility” — moving people out of cities and to affluent suburbs — is the wrong solution. He calls it "policy by lottery."
"They create opportunities for some, if you happen to be lucky enough or patient enough,” Harris says. "My take on this is to redistribute opportunity rather than redistribute people."
“We oftentimes think we are helping people move to better neighborhoods, but [it] ... isn't always that it's a better neighborhood for them or their children.”Sue Nohl, deputy director of Metro Housing Boston
Promoting mobility doesn't address what created the inequity in the first place. And asking families to move can be a heavy burden.
Nohl, of Metro Housing Boston, remembers helping a client move from public housing in South Boston to a single-family house in a suburb north of the city.
“Shortly after she relocated herself and her children, she called,” Nohl says. “She called me almost daily for a period of time. That wasn’t where she wanted to be. And she had made a huge mistake, and how could I help her get her housing unit back in South Boston?”
While a single-family home in a suburb might objectively look better than a public housing unit in Boston, there are intangible qualities about her life in Boston that Nohl's client missed desperately.
“She felt as though her kids didn't have any friends at school. She didn't know anybody. She didn't know how to get around,” Nohl says. “We oftentimes think that we are helping people move to better neighborhoods, but oftentimes the experience ... isn't always that it's a better neighborhood for them or their children.”
Nohl says some families decide moving to a more affluent area is the best opportunity, and Section 8 can make it possible.
But she says those who want to stay should have opportunities too. "How do we support them in the neighborhood, and building up that neighborhood?”
Researchers have recognized the importance of having roots in a neighborhood, even in poor neighborhoods. These benefits include creating networks and investing in neighbors and local businesses — that is, social capital.
'It Was My Great'
Gordon and Nugent recently did find housing in Mattapan and moved out of the shelter. It isn’t necessarily what they would choose, but it's what they could afford.
"I'm thankful that I have a place to live," Nugent says. "[The Section 8 voucher] does a lot. If I had to come up with all that money on my own, I'd be living outside."
For his part, Gordon wants simple things for his son, Makari.
“We like going to the park. And take walks. And then go to Burger King. That’s his favorite thing,” Gordon says.
He wants to be able to establish roots in a neighborhood, in Boston, that has green space. He wants a neighborhood where his son can make friends with kids like him. He wants to have access to reliable public transportation. He wants to stay in a house long enough so he can make friends with his neighbors.
Gordon had some of this when he grew up in Roxbury. Even though it is described as an "area of concentrated poverty," he liked living there.
“It was a real neighborhood; I had major friends that I have until now because of that neighborhood,” Gordon says. “It wasn’t the greatest but it was my great, you know what I'm saying? I wouldn't trade it for the world.”
For Harvard's Harris, allowing Gordon to stay in Roxbury should be a goal of fair housing. And the remedy is to create the conditions for his and his son's life to flourish there, conditions that already exist in white, affluent suburbs.
"The problem is that, as Brown v. Board of Education taught us, separate cannot be equal in the United States,” Harris says. “We do not distribute opportunity equally — and if you’re a person of color and you want opportunity, you need to be among whites. And that’s a very difficult thing for us to think about and acknowledge.”
Those conditions didn't appear by chance, Harris says. They were created for suburban residents through government policy and denied to people of color who were relegated to urban communities with few resources and few opportunities.
Harris points to a report that found a white family in Greater Boston has an average wealth of $247,500, while a black family's average wealth is only $8.
“Now that is a structural difference,” Harris says. “That $247,500 versus $8 does not reflect different amounts of work, different amounts of effort. It reflects different amounts of opportunity and access to opportunity.”
A fair housing assessment by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that almost all black households in the region — even high-income black households — are concentrated in areas of "low opportunity," measured by educational, economic and housing quality. Ninety percent of high-income black households still live in low-opportunity areas. Compare that to low-income white households — one-third of them live in areas of high opportunity.
For Harris, the goal of fair housing should be to make urban communities — especially communities of color — whole. Make them whole from decades of disinvestment, neglect and destruction they experienced during the war on drugs.
“A just society is one in which we recognize the harms that have been done," he says, "and we think about what we can do to remedy those.”
He advocates for a community-based policymaking, in which individuals and groups who have been historically marginalized can identify problems and solutions, and get the resources to achieve those solutions.
This segment aired on February 21, 2019.