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In Public Housing, The Move Toward Choice Hasn't Broken Up Concentrated Poverty

Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority offices in Cleveland. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]

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

Several decades ago, public housing in the United States became less about funding publically owned buildings and more about offering incentives for private projects. That led to the use of Section 8, a rent subsidy now known as housing choice vouchers. And while the switch was intended to allow low income renters the chance to move to areas with more opportunities, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

At Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, one of their areas of research is on the geography of opportunity. They map out cities with an eye on the factors necessary for a decent life. Matthew Martin is a lead researcher at the institute and worked on the mapping project.

"So having a good school district is one very important factor, but also its safety, it’s quality of the housing, it’s access to jobs, access to healthcare and other services," says Martin.

Martin and other housing advocates argue that these sorts of factors should guide public housing programs. But a study last year by the Housing Research and Advocacy Center found that the 15,000 households using rent subsidies, known as Housing Choice Vouchers, in Cuyahoga County remain clustered in high poverty, high crime neighborhoods.

Jeffrey Patterson is CEO of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. He says there’s only so much an agency can do about this issue.

"For people to go into communities they have to have a level of comfort because they do get to choose in most instances where they're going. So if they don't know a lot about a community, they're not familiar with a community, the likelihood of them choosing that community is going to be limited," says Patterson.

Patterson says CMHA works with voucher holders to educate them on different parts of the city and offers social services beyond just housing. About 90% of voucher holders are African Americans. Baked into Cleveland’s geography is an east-west racial divide, and most voucher holders remain on the east side.

Back in the 1970's, the City of Parma was sued under the Fair Housing Act and forced to seek out low-income, African Americans to move there. They built a small public housing building and created their own housing agency, advertised in the Call and Post and created a marketing video. Some floated the idea of paying African Americans to move there.

“Although again unclear that all that many African Americans would have been motivated to move to Parma, even if they had some kind of housing incentive to do so," says Cleveland State University urban affairs professor Dennis Keating, who adds there wasn’t much effect from the steps taken, though the court said the issues were resolved.

The head of the Parma Public Housing Agency today is Priscilla Pointer Hicks, who spent 15 years at CMHA before coming to Parma. She says oftentimes the rent’s too high in a higher opportunity neighborhood. Other times it’s access to public transit is limited. And then there’s support networks.

“I can't move 30 miles away and then have free child care that's back in the old neighborhood. If I want to keep my free childcare, which could be a mother or a cousin or a close family member, I need to stay in that neighborhood," says Hicks.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a yearly inspection of rentals. Allan Pintner, a broker for Millenia Housing management in Cleveland, says this can lead to delays in finding new tenants.

“I know that many landlords choose not to because of the additional regulation that is imposed upon them to be able to participate in the program," says Pintner.

Pintner also says there’s not enough money to pay for all the vouchers and new homes needed to meet the demand. The last time the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority opened the waiting list for a housing voucher was two years ago. Sixty thousand were signed up, 10,000 were chosen through a lottery, and that was just to get on the waiting list.


Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.