On July 21st, several news channels in Dallas covered what they referred to as a “riot” or, better yet, a “stampede” for rental assistance vouchers. (See: http://newsone.com/nation/jothomas/section-8-stampede-dallas/) Estimates ranged from hundreds to thousands of people running desperately once the local housing office was open simply for the chance to fill out an application. Prominent were images of this mass of running people and interviews with those who had been injured. “Rental assistance at what price?” asks Ron Corning of Dallas, Texas’ (http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/Hundreds-line-up-for-Dallas-County-Rental-Vouchers-125555383.html)
What story is the mainstream media telling? With words like “riot” and “stampede,” one might think they were talking about a violent, crazed and criminal group. The reality involved poor and hard working family desperate to keep or put a roof of their heads. Criminalizing people simply because they are poor is not new, however, in media or in policy. Families that receive rental assistance live under the constant threat of “one-strike” rules and are required to do monthly community service, whereas wealthier families that receive “rental assistance” through the mortgage interest tax deduction (“MID”) do not).
This is the first time in 5 years that the City of Dallas has opened its Section 8 rental assistance vouchers wait list. 15,000 families were expected to apply for roughly 3,500 newly available vouchers. Yes, families. 40-50% of recipients of rental assistance are families with children; 15% are seniors; 19% disabled. While budgets are slashed on the backs of working and middle-class people, and banks get bailed out in the trillions, people who are in need of rental assistance are set against one another in the struggle to survive with only enough assistance to house 1 in 4 of them, and that’s IF they are eligible based on an ever-narrowing set of criteria.
Put another way, we have one of the most severe human rights crisis in many decades, particularly around the human right to housing, and our government stands by mutely while families are forced to participate in a foot race for ever shrinking resources. Yet, this is not an issue of resources; it is an issue of values and whether we are committed to being an equitable society. Low-income housing programs receive less than $4 billion, while subsidies for wealthier homeowners, such as the MID, cost the government over $150 billion. Simply through equitable reforms of federal housing finance policy, rental assistance for those who need it most could be available as an entitlement and we would be one large step closer to protecting housing as a human right. Rather than forcing families to race in desperation, we should be racing to create human rights based solutions that are equitable and ensure the dignity of all our communities.