No one who lives in the Estell Village Apartments very much wants to live in Estell Village Apartments. It’s a housing project, after all, 291 units spread across a warren of white-and-beige barracks near Paul Quinn College in southeast Oak Cliff.
The apartments themselves are nice enough, no frills but decently clean and spacious and reasonably well maintained. But the complex is a dense knot of poverty, crime and violence. Nearly two-thirds of families who live in Dallas public housing make less than $10,000 per year. Even more – 88 percent – are black. Five people have been murdered in the complex since 2013, according to news reports, an astronomically high murder rate for a place that has a few hundred residents.
For many people, though, Estell Village is the least bad option. One woman, Erica, was sitting in the shade of a tree at the edge of the parking lot early one July afternoon. Her 5-year-old son played behind her with some neighbor kids, darting through a grassy corridor between barracks. Estell Village was not among the three preferred sites she listed when she applied for public housing in 2010, but after five years of scraping to pay rent on a market-rate apartment while her name inched up the waiting list, she wasn’t in a position to be picky. She moved into Estell Village in December.
Federal housing policy began a decided shift away from large-scale housing projects almost a half century ago, when the Kerner Commission concluded that that they had reinforced the intense racial segregation that sparked race riots in cities across the country in the late 1960s. In 1974, the Nixon Administration introduced Section 8 housing vouchers to give low-income families a chance to escape the distressed neighborhoods the projects had confined them to.
Families with Section 8 vouchers could use them wherever they chose to lived and paid a fixed portion of their monthly income (currently 30 percent) in rent. The federal government would pay the difference, up to a maximum subsidy set by HUD based on the local housing market. Families took the voucher with them when they moved and could keep them as long as their income fell below a certain threshold.
The government effectively jettisoned the “Section 8” label, by then little better than a slur, in the 1990s and now refers to the program as "housing choice vouchers."
Today, the voucher program is the main way the federal government provides housing assistance to the poor. The Dallas Housing Authority, for instance, has about 17,000 housing choice vouchers compared to about 4,000 units of public housing.
For the families who get them, the vouchers can be transformative. Last summer, The New York Times profiled Lamesa White, a mother of four who used her housing choice voucher to escape Estell Village for a safer neighborhood and better schools in Plano. Research on the impact of school and neighborhood quality on kids' income and quality of life as adults suggests that, by doing so, she significantly improved her kids' future.
And housing advocates view vouchers as a potent tool for promoting racial and socioeconomic integration. Because the overwhelming majority of voucher households across the country are minorities, giving them access to more affluent (and thus invariably whiter) areas can chip away at segregated residential patterns in places like Dallas.
"Having created racially segregated residential patterns over the course of 70, 80, 100 years, you don’t just say 'we aren’t going to affirm discriminate against you just because of the color of your skin,'" says John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service. "We have seen the effect of that. We’ve seen the measures of racial segregation ease ever so slightly over the past 20 years. At the same time we’ve seen levels of economic segregation — which is a proxy for race — increase over that period of time."
Minority families who hope to follow Lamesa White out of the projects face substantial barriers. Erica and many of her neighbors dream of moving to the suburbs, but they speak of Section 8 vouchers in the same way people talk about winning the lottery: fun to fantasize about but too unlikely to treat as a real possibility.
The Dallas Housing Authority opens its waiting list once a year for a two-day window during which it fields tens of thousands of applications for the couple of thousand vouchers that are likely to become available in the coming year. The housing authority then conducts a lottery; 2,500 lucky applicants are placed on the waiting list. The rest are free to try again the following year.
Even for families who beat the odds and ultimately receive a housing voucher, odds are high that they’ll wind up in exactly the type of high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhood the vouchers were designed to help them escape. This is in no small part because landlords in higher-income areas, or who can otherwise fill their units with tenants who can afford market rent, typically refuse to accept housing vouchers.
In fact, a wildly disproportionate number wind up in one of the privately run apartment complexes surrounding Estell Village. The census tract that includes Estell Village had 1,005 renter-occupied housing units in 2014 out of 1,583 occupied housing units overall. According to data from HUD, the census tract was home to 504 housing choice vouchers. Add in the 291 units at Estell Village and an astounding 79 percent of the rental units and more than half of all occupied homes are subsidized by the federal government.
Clara McDade is a leader in the Highland Hills neighborhood, a cluster of tidy, single-family homes on the other side of Simpson Stuart Road. She’s unrelentingly positive about quality of life in the area but acknowledges that living next to such a high concentration of renters can be frustrating. “Any time you live in a community and you take pride in where you stay and you just have people who live in apartments and all they do is live in there — you live in the apartment you don’t keep the trash on the ground, you don’t put any care where you stay — of course that’s a drag.”
Dallas took a pioneering step in pushing more voucher holders into wealthier neighborhoods in 2011. Before, the maximum rent subsidy for Dallas and surrounding areas was uniform, based on median rent in a huge, multi-county region that included affluent suburban areas like Collin County but also far-flung rural places like Delta County, population 5,217.
"You probably can't place it on a map unless you're a weatherman," says Demetria McCain, president of the Inclusive Communities Project, a housing advocacy nonprofit born a quarter century ago out of a protracted legal fight over Dallas' system of segregated public housing.
Delta County, for the record, is just northeast of Commerce, more northeast Texas than North Texas. But it wasn't so much about geography as the fact that rents in Delta County wouldn't pay for a dog house in places housing vouchers were supposed to be used. "That brought down the buying power [of vouchers]," McCain says.
In 2007, the year before it filed a case over low-income housing tax credits that would ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Inclusive Communities sued HUD and the Dallas Housing Authority, claiming that its one-size-fits-all housing voucher system in the Dallas area was subsidizing segregation by concentrating poor, black voucher holders in poor, black neighborhoods.
HUD settled the case several years later, agreeing to scrap the area-wide rent ceiling and instead base voucher subsidies on ZIP code. Which meant that in the Estell Village ZIP code (75241), the maximum federal subsidy for a one-bedroom apartment would be just $570 while in the almost-adjacent adjacent Downtown/Uptown ZIP code (75201), the maximum subsidy is $1,410.
"That had a huge impact," McCain says. The tweak allowed families to move into areas they’d previously been locked out of by the low area-wide subsidy. Single mothers like Lamesa White (95 percent of the 8,000 voucher-holding households with school-age children are headed by a single individual) were able to get their kids into affluent areas with good, mixed-income schools.
Given what research says about the impact school and neighborhood have on kids’ income and quality of life as adults, doing so bodes well for their future and represents a step toward breaking a cycle of intergenerational poverty that has taken hold of residents of many inner-city neighborhoods. Other families, McCain says, made more incremental changes, not quite making the leap to the suburbs but moving to a better area nearby.
The positive impact of ZIP code-based subsidies was borne out by data. Researchers from Harvard and New York University examined the Dallas Housing Authority’s program in 2014. They found that the average neighborhood quality for voucher holders, which they calculated by combining measures of violent crime, test scores, poverty, unemployment, and the share of children living with single mothers, improved significantly under the ZIP code-based system. Voucher holders who moved between 2010 and 2013 were considerably more likely to wind up in better neighborhoods than did voucher holders in Fort Worth, where there was no overhaul of subsidies, as well as voucher holders in Dallas who moved between 2007 and 2010, before the change was implemented. And because the increase in subsidy levels in higher-income areas was offset by a decrease in subsidy levels in lower-income areas, the change cost the government nothing.
The researchers also compiled a map showing the change in the number of vouchers in each neighborhood, which provides an easily digestible summary of the program’s impact.
The success of the Dallas experiment has prompted the Obama administration to take ZIP code-based voucher subsidies nationwide.
Still, while ZIP code-based subsidies clearly give low-income families a better shot at winding up in a good neighborhood, they have hardly changed the geography of Section 8. It remains heavily concentrated in poor, predominately minority areas south of the Trinity River while huge swaths of North Dallas and the suburbs contain no voucher holders.
Below is how the Dallas area's 45,484 housing vouchers were distributed in the Dallas area as of 2015, according to HUD data. Slightly more than a third of which were issued by the Dallas Housing Authority, which has vouchers in Collin, Dallas, Denton, Tarrant, Kaufman and Ellis County. The rest were distributed by neighboring housing authorities and other local agencies.
There are a lot of reasons why the map looks the way it does. Some of the deep blue neighborhoods don't have any apartments to speak of. Others are filled with units that are simply too expensive for voucher holders. Also, ZIP codes, while smaller than an entire metropolitan area, are fairly large, with significant variations in neighborhood quality and rent within a single ZIP. But one of the primary forces driving the distribution of housing vouchers is most landlords' refusal to rent to families with vouchers, regardless of whether the voucher will cover the rent.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many Dallas area landlords refuse vouchers. The number goes down during a weak housing market, when landlords covet any tenant with a reliable source of rent. It shoots up during real estate booms like the one Dallas is in presently, when landlords can easily fill units with tenants who can afford to pay market rent.
But the number is high. A 2012 audit by the Austin Tenant's Council found that, of 78,217 units whose rents were accessible to voucher holders, only 8,590 — 11 percent — actually accepted vouchers, most of them in poor, high-crime areas. The distribution of vouchers in North Texas suggests that the number in the Dallas area is at least in the same ballpark.
Many cities and states have sought to expand opportunities for voucher holders by passing source-of-income nondiscrimination laws that make it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to tenants simply because they use a housing voucher. Like other fair housing measures, source-of-income laws can be tricky to enforce. There are plenty of other plausible reasons — price, availability of units, etc. — a landlord could give for refusing a given voucher holder.
But they do have an impact. A review by Lance Freeman, a professor at Columbia University, found that voucher holders in areas with source-of-income laws lived in neighborhoods with slightly less poverty and slightly fewer voucher holders on average. In addition, minority voucher holders lived in neighborhoods with higher percentages of whites.
Source-of-income laws don't fundamentally reshape the geography of low-income housing, but combined with the ZIP code-based rents and efforts to build more affordable developments in affluent areas (something the Supreme Court has found Dallas has done precious little of), they represent a potent tool in making housing choice vouchers live up to their name.
Two years ago, Dallas promised HUD that it would consider a source-of-income ordinance, among other measures, to help remedy what the federal government alleged to be a habit of funneling federal housing money into low-income, predominately minority neighborhoods despite promising to do the opposite.
Dallas might have been the first city in Texas to pass such a law, but Austin beat Dallas to the punch, passing a source-of-income ordinance in December of 2014. Landlords sued, but a federal judge declined to block the law. Not so the Texas legislature. Under intense pressure from the state's apartment lobby, lawmakers banned cities from banning source-of-income discrimination.
The Apartment Association of Greater Dallas commemorated the new law with a triumphant YouTube video that at once celebrates the legislation as a hard-fought victory over government overreach. "We found ourselves having to mount a real grassroots effort to generate calls and letters to legislators," the Texas Apartment Association's David Mintz said in the video. "It really took everything we had." It also highlights the, ahem, astounding racial diversity of the state's big-time owners of rental property:
But the legislature didn't kill source-of-income nondiscrimination ordinances entirely. As signed by Governor Greg Abbott, the law explicitly allows cities to protect military veterans from source-of-income discrimination. The legislature also couldn't undo the promises Dallas made to HUD to consider a source-of-income ordinance.
And so, for the past several months, the Dallas City Council has been actively mulling such a law. When the council met on June 16, it considered two possible ordinances.
One would simply add source of income — defined as any "lawful, regular, and verifiable income from whatever source derived (including housing vouchers and other subsidies provided by government or non-governmental entities, child support, or spousal maintenance)" — to the list of characteristics (e.g. race, sex, and national origin) landlords can't use to screen potential tenants. This version would be a self-conscious kiss-off to the state legislature, essentially daring landlords to file a lawsuit. "We'll win that," Councilman Philip Kingston said during the debate. "So state legislators who voted in favor of this, thank you for your kind commentary on how we run our city, but we’ll handle it ourselves."
The second version includes identical language but adds the caveat that vouchers and all the other sources of income are protected "except as prohibited by [state law]." So landlords wouldn't be required to accept housing vouchers from anyone other than military veterans unless and until state law changes.
That's a good bet, says Heather K. Way, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who studies affordable housing issues. "Federal laws do always trump state laws," she says, and Texas' law is pretty clearly at odds with federal fair housing law, not to mention the promises by the state of Texas to "affirmatively further fair housing" as a condition of receiving funding from HUD. As yet, however, no one has challenged the law in court.
The tenor of the council's discussion suggests that it will ultimately pass one of the two ordinances, but it delayed a vote until September after some last-minute lobbying by the apartment lobby. Two days before the vote, The Real Estate Council CEO Linda McMahon and Apartment Association of Greater Dallas president Mike Clark, who was prominently featured in the organization's video eight months earlier, sent a letter to the council suggesting they'd been blindsided by the proposal.
The letter warned of possible "unforeseen issues from complex policies that could result in decreased development throughout the city." Housing vouchers don't pay enough to justify development and land costs in high-opportunity areas, McMahon and Clark wrote. Requiring landlords to accept them, they suggested, might cause developers to rethink their projects. "We hope you will allow our industry and your own governing body the time to better understand the full ramifications of this policy so we can all better evaluate its effectiveness as part of the larger, ongoing discussions surrounding affordable housing."
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Several council members greeted the objections with contempt but reluctantly agreed to delay a vote. "We’ve been talking about this for probably longer than eight months," Councilwoman Tiffinni Young said. "Some of the same folks that have written in have sat in every single committee meeting." And yet only when the matter was being brought up for a final vote did the specter of vanishing development emerge. "I don’t really know what additional commentary we would get and why it hasn’t been provided yet."
In and of itself, a source-of-income ordinance won't undo decades of segregation, it won't get a voucher in the hands of project-dwellers like Erica's, and it won't touch landlords in the suburbs, where much of the opportunity dwells. But Henneberger, the Austin-based housing advocate, says it's a necessary start.
"Until you begin to actually create integration it’s really difficult to people to even imagine integration," he says. "Certainly one of the first steps is to say, when the government is going to spend billions and billions and billions with the express congressional purpose" of getting low-income families into affluent areas, is to prevent landlords from standing in the way.