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For Section 8 Holders, Cleveland's Geography Can Be A Big Hurdle

Bonita Sopshire at her apartment building on Cleveland's east side. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]

This story is part one of three on affordable housing in Cleveland. The others can be found here and here.

Bonita Sopshire lives in a subsidized apartment building between the Hough and University Circle neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side. Her block is one multi-apartment building after another, a few doors down is another subsidized high rise.

Sopshire is 55, the building she lives in is for the disabled and senior citizens, the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays the building’s owners for most of the rent. Sopshire’s been here for 15 years, and she says this particular patch of land next to Rockefeller Park can be a dangerous one.

“You know, all of the activities that go on in most high-rises - drug activities basically...Oh you figured just because they older they don't do drugs...well that's nice," says Sopshire.

In Cuyahoga County, more than 20,000 households use federal subsidies to help pay for their rent. This sort of situation, where participants in the subsidized housing program in Cuyahoga County are concentrated in low opportunity neighborhoods, is common. In 2016, the Housing Research and Advocacy Center mapped out where holders of Housing Choice Vouchers, the new name for Section 8, lived. Michael Lepley is a senior research associate and author of the study.

“Households using the housing choice vouchers in Cuyahoga County are clustered in areas with high poverty, high racial concentration, high crime, low educational opportunities, so failing schools, higher exposure to environmental health hazards," says Lepley.

Lepley says a survey of 500 housing voucher holders found they would like to live in suburbs like Beachwood or Lyndhurst but for a variety of reasons were unable to find housing there. Instead, they’re concentrated in poor areas on the east side of Cleveland.

Sopshire does what she can to improve her living situation. She’s the president of her building’s tenants organization. She brings maintenance issues to management on behalf of tenants and she says she turned down apartments in her building because they didn’t feel right to her.

“Everybody has choices, to me, I'm not going to just take some place just because it's given to me. If I'm not comfortable there and I don't have a good vibe there and it's not a good environment, if I have kids, no, I'm not going to accept that," says Sopshire.

For some, with restrictions on their search, finding a home can be a struggle. Jean is staying in a shelter downtown right now, she didn’t want to use her full name while she’s there. Jean and her two sons, both with special needs, have been searching for a home since August, and homeless since November. She says they’re all starting to give up on the search.

“Because they just don't respect your time. They don't respect the fact that you really need a place, this is not a plaything," says Jean.

Jean has restrictions: she says her son suffered lead poisoning as a child. So that eliminates the city of Cleveland for her. Landlords aren’t required to take Section 8, except for in a few inner ring suburbs. She says there are plenty of listings out there, it’s just too easy for a landlord to say no.

“You call people, you leave your name, your phone number, they don't always call you back. And when they do sometimes answer the phone they say it's rented and they say it in a nasty tone. And then a lot of things you see in a paper, a lot of time it says no Section 8," says Jean.

Jean is working with Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, who say hers is an unusually long delay. Section 8, now the Housing Choice Voucher Program, replaced new housing projects in the 80's. It was supposed to help break up concentrations of subsidized poverty and offer people more choice about where they live. That hasn’t exactly happened.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.