9. Come and get it: Section 8
Previously in this series:
An all-night party kept him awake and in a bad mood for work that Friday.
About 60 people - apparently without needing to worry about work that morning - were playing music, drinking in the street, smashing bottles, using drugs, and arguing. Parties in the hood always seem to devolve that way. Car headlights illuminated the proceedings, revving engines added to the cacophony.
Three times Brian Frick called the police department's non-emergency number before dialing 9-1-1. A marked squad car drove through announcing "party over" on its loudspeaker before driving away. Fifteen minutes later, the revelers coalesced back into the street. It didn't end until 4:15 in the morning when three squad cars convened on the site
"It's just ridiculous!"
Which raises the question, does it not - don't these people have to get up in the morning for work?
New arrivals seeking Madison's "better life" can sup from a smorgasbord of subsidized goodies, none more generous than the Section 8 housing voucher program.
The program combines the worst of both worlds: Uncle Sam's deep pockets administered by the City of Madison's bleeding hearts. Section 8 picks up 70 percent of recipients' rent which, in Madison, averages $810 per month in housing vouchers to 1,478 renters this July. That number of housing vouchers is up 5.6 percent from 2006.
The largest amount doled out to a single family is $1,579 a month.
The city's Community Development Authority insists that applicants can be declared ineligible for Section 8 through negative landlord references or bad behavior - especially drug related or violent criminal behavior.
But few get kicked off - only 47 leaving the program in 2007, says Madison's director of housing operations, Agustin Olvera. That's only 3 percent.
He says 16 percent of all applicants are turned down. Only three landlords have been kicked off his approved list in the last two years for taking problem tenants.
Free money and benefits
"Too many people use the excuse of being poor so they can get free money everywhere and benefits," says Allied Drive landlord Nick Dorneanu.
"I have not met one low-income housing complex that does not deal with high crime rates because of the restriction and the income levels they have to rent to. We have too many people coming from Chicago with the high crime attitude trying to get low-income housing so that way they can have extra money for their drug habits. Most of them are coming here because city life in Chicago is too expensive for them.
"They were my worst tenants," Dorneanu recalls. "The worst traffic, loitering, drugs - the most police calls."
It is a pattern that criminologists have observed elsewhere.
Wrecking balls began hitting the Chicago high-rises in the mid-1990s. Within a few years, tens of thousands of public-housing residents all over the country were leaving their apartments, The Atlantic magazine reported in a seminal cover story last year.
Memphis, Tennessee began demolishing its public-housing projects 12 years ago and gave the former residents Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move into new and stable neighborhoods. It was part of a nationwide experiment "to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty," The Atlantic reported in "American Murder Mystery."
Memphis police began noticing "once-quiet apartment complexes full of young families suddenly started turning hot on us."
Old gangs (such as) the Gangster Disciples ... had long since re-formed and gotten comfortable. Ex-convicts recently released from prison had taken up residence with girlfriends or wives or families who'd moved to the new neighborhoods. Working-class people had begun moving out to the suburbs farther east, and more recipients of Section 8 vouchers were taking their place. Now many neighborhoods were reaching their tipping points.
By 2005, a criminologist closely tracking those numbers was describing the pattern as a crime explosion. Two Memphis University academics, Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, a criminologist and a housing expert, respectively, compared notes.
Crime and Section 8 mapped
"Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts's map of Section8 rentals ... The match was near-perfect," Hanna Rosin reported in her July-August 2008 article in The Atlantic. "On the merged map, dense violent-crime areas are shaded dark blue, and Section 8 addresses are represented by little red dots. All of the dark-blue areas are covered in little red dots, like bursts of gunfire."
You can observe the same phenomenon in Madison. Call up the city's Section 8 housing at the city's web site.
Now look up the police calls at http://www.madison.com/crime (Type in 5300 Raymond Road, Madison, Wisconsin and set the calendar to February 1.)
"We're plotting that," Police Chief Noble Wray confirmed to Blaska's Blog. He said the study was not complete "but at this point we have not found a high correlation."
"I agree with The Atlantic monthly article when it says Section 8 moves to smaller cities when the recipients move out of the larger cities," Chief Wray allowed. "But I disagree with the part that says it is only Section 8."
Still, the chief did not back away from Captain Jay Lengfeld's assertion last fall that: "The at risk population in Madison has exceeded the ability of service provides to service them.? The City needs to reduce or freeze the number of subsidized housing units in the city." But Chief Wray added this perspective: "if you're not going to provide the proper resources."
Several landlords are getting out of the Section 8 business.
A year ago, Dorneanu got out of Section 8 renting in the apartments he rents for $625 to $725 for a two-bedroom apartment. In fact, he tossed out all 13 of his Section 8 recipients.
"A lot of them who are getting Section 8 don't deserve it. You should not get free money that you never have to pay back and at the same time do drugs."
"(Many) landlords look at it as guaranteed money every month," Dorneanu says. "To me, a good reputation and having a peaceful complex is more important."
Some landlords maintain that Section 8 is virtually mandatory due to city and county ordinances that prohibit discriminating against "lawful sources of income."
"I can still find a reason," Dorneanu says.
Commissioner Levitan responds
I ask Stu Levitan, chair, Community Development Authority Housing Operations Committee, for a response. Here is that response:
I certainly do not expect taxpayers to subsidize criminal activity. That is why we evict households from the Sec. 8 program when a resident is convicted of a crime related to drugs or violence. Our records show that fewer than 1% of our households have members who have been engaged in such illegal activity (which I think compares favorably to the percentage of Republican "family values" Members of Congress living at the Christianist C Street rooming house who have been engaged in adultery or other sex scandals).
I am aware that some of our high-crime neighborhoods have a high concentration of assisted housing. I guess you could call this a cartographical correlation. However, I emphatically reject the false notion that there is a causal relationship as well, especially since there are neighborhoods with a concentration of assisted housing which are not high-crime areas.
The problem is that most low-income housing is in low-income neighborhoods, already stressed by the lack of employment opportunities, affordable health care, and adequate mass transit. It is the underlying condition of a frayed social fabric (along with the sad fact that, yes, some people are just no good) that contributes to the crime rate not the presence of assisted housing. As it is said, "when there's too much of nothing, it makes a fella mean."
In fact, since Sec. 8 provides an economic foundation for both landlord and tenant, and requires certain behavioral and management standards to get in and remain on the program, a strong case could be made that Sec. 8 actually helps reduce street crime. I realize that is not the case you want to make, but I think it is a valid proposition.
The CDA has been attempting to address the issue of high concentration of assisted housing by setting the Sec. 8 reimbursement rate to 110% of fair market rents. Obviously, spreading low-income housing to moderate-income and even higher-income neighborhoods, requires a higher rental subsidy to reflect the higher rents. So before you criticize us for paying the higher rents, remember that we have been doing so to implement a policy you support. Unfortunately, the current fiscal crisis has forced us to reduce the rental subsidy to 90% of fair market.
Chair, CDA Housing Operations Committee
Next: Those damn landlords