By Brandee Perez, Chief Operating Officer at Opportunity Home
When people think about residents who live in Public Housing or Housing Choice Voucher recipients, they often have stereotypes about who “those people” are, and they make judgments about these residents without knowing anything about their journeys.
Many who make these judgments have never met a person who has benefited from living in Public Housing or receiving a Housing Choice Voucher, and they don’t realize that “those people” are working hard towards a better life for themselves and their families, and just need support getting there.
The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, also known as Section 8, was established by the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 to provide subsidized rental income to thousands of individuals and families across the country who needed some assistance in paying for rent. Housing Choice Voucher recipients are able to use their vouchers to pay for rent at properties where private landlords have agreed to accept the vouchers. On average, HCV recipients pay 30% of their income towards rent, and the remainder is subsidized by the local housing authority.
The HCV program provides more than two million households across the country an opportunity to live in affordable housing, but there are hundreds of thousands on waiting lists because the supply of affordable housing is much lower than the demand. In fact, nearly 100,000 families, almost 250,000 people, are on an Opportunity Home San Antonio waitlist. Part of this shortage is due to the fact that many landlords are reluctant to rent to HCV recipients. They believe the stereotypes that “those people” will destroy their properties, are not willing to work, and will bring crime to the neighborhood. In Texas, the shortage is compounded because it is legal for landlords to discriminate against potential tenants based on source of income, such as Housing Choice Vouchers.
Brandee Perez, the chief operating officer at Opportunity Home San Antonio, oversees the Housing Choice Voucher program and Public Housing within her organization. She has worked with many HCV families, and she wants to change the perceptions about who “those people” actually are.
“The perceptions that are across the country or across the city are not always factual,” shares Perez. “What we find are ‘those’ families are grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Those people are the ones sitting across the table at a family dinner. Those people are the ones that had one tragic event in their life that led them down the path. They will oftentimes tell you, ‘I’m sorry that I have to be on this program.’ We have to tell them there is no reason to be sorry. We’ve all had challenges in our lives, we’ve all had some struggles in our lives, and these programs were built to help provide you a home and get you where you need to be in life.”
HCV Recipients Move Towards Self-Sufficiency
While the perception is that HCV recipients stay on the program for the rest of their lives, and take advantage of the benefits without trying to move toward economic independence, this is not the reality for most individuals and families. For many, like those Brandee Perez meets every day, the HCV program is just a stepping stone that provides the resources and support services needed to help them overcome challenging life situations and get back on their feet.
The Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program is a great example of this. FSS is a self-paced voluntary program that helps HCV program participants and Public Housing residents set goals to achieve in a five-year period that will allow them to move out of Public Housing or the HCV program. Program participants have access to education and training, career counseling, and classes on money management and parenting. They are also provided with an interest-bearing escrow account made up of the difference of the rent the family pays when entering the program and the increased rent that would be charged as the family’s earned income increased.
Upon the successful completion of the program, participants will have the knowledge, skills, financial resources, and career stability that will allow them to move out of Public Housing or the HCV program. They can claim their escrow account and use the funds to purchase their own home, or move into an apartment to continue to save towards their goals.
HCV Recipients are Good Tenants and Good Neighbors
Another stereotype of HCV participants is that they are not good tenants or good neighbors. The perception is that they damage the units they live in, and bring crime to the neighborhood.
When Burt and Dr. Alicia Villareal, landlords and owners of the BAABCO Companies, were initially thinking about getting involved with the HCV program, they were warned against it. They were told these tenants would ruin their homes or apartment units, and would cause trouble in their communities, but admit they have not had this experience with their HCV tenants.
“Our tenants, they just need an opportunity. An opportunity to be able to be in a good home for their children. We have not had or experienced any of those typical stereotypes that we heard of when we first got into working with housing [HCV program]. It has been such a win-win for us,” says Dr. Villareal.
She credits this positive experience to their vetting process. They really take the time to get to know their prospective tenants. She feels that “…looking at the humanistic part of this kind of partnership is really what informs us in making the selection of who will be moving into our home.”
Working To Overcome the Stigma and Create More Affordable Housing Options
In order to create more affordable housing options for families in Texas, we need to remove the stigma placed on HCV recipients by educating landlords and the general public about who “those people” truly are. If these negative stereotypes can be changed, it might also be easier to change the laws that allow for discrimination based on source of income.
David Wheaton, the Advocacy Director of Texas Housers, an affordable housing nonprofit and advocacy group, believes that integrating HCV recipients into communities is the key to breaking down stereotypes and ending discrimination.
“One of the big things is making sure that we don’t have source of income discrimination, so that people who are Housing Choice Vouchers [recipients] can be integrated within private landlords, so you don’t know that you are living right next to somebody who may be getting a housing choice voucher. They are neighbors and you can be cool with them, and then that hopefully changes that stigma. They live their lives just like you live your life,” says Wheaton.
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