February 13, 2016


Tickets Out of Poverty? : Housing voucher recipients can move to better neighborhoods only if states and localities break down suburban barriers. (Jake Blumgart, Winter 2016,  The American Prospect)

As communities like Upper Darby, Lansdowne, and Folcroft have become more diverse, many upwardly mobile white residents have moved further west in Delaware County or even to outlying Chester County. In some majority-black suburban communities, middle-class African Americans have begun moving farther out, too. Property values are declining as a result, draining resources from school districts just as those districts need more funding to provide services to lower-income and English-learning students. Many of the remaining working-class and lower-middle-class residents are stuck in dead-end, low-wage jobs.

These municipalities are also those attracting most of the Section 8 vouchers in their counties. The pro-integration and smart-growth advocacy group Building One America analyzed data provided by HUD in 2008 and 2013 and found that about a fifth of the more than 4,000 housing choice vouchers in Delaware County were located in Upper Darby (22.8 percent in 2008 and 17.2 percent in 2013). Neighboring municipalities, which are either diverse or majority-African American, also hosted triple-figure voucher households. Further west and north in the county, where median incomes are tens of thousands of dollars higher and the school districts well funded, there are comparatively few Section 8 vouchers. With almost five times the population of Folcroft, Radnor Township--the setting of Katharine Hepburn's The Philadelphia Story--supports precisely one housing choice voucher. Folcroft has 111.

"You don't get figures like that unless it's the result of policy," says John McKelligott, former school board president of the William Penn School District, which covers several of the smaller municipalities to the south of Upper Darby. "You are taking communities that are struggling, and it doesn't take much to tip them over the edge, and you are trying to tip them over the edge. These communities in eastern Delaware County are doing their part. The whole point is not to drive out the population [of voucher holders] we have but to stop stressing us [with more] so that we can deliver services to the people who are here."

This pattern is playing out to an even greater extreme in Montgomery County, the wealthier county to the northwest of Philadelphia, and home to some of the best school districts in Pennsylvania. More than 41 percent of its 2,849 housing choice vouchers are concentrated in impoverished Norristown, a city of roughly 30,000 and the only urban area in the county. By contrast, the municipality with the highest-funded schools in the state, Lower Merion, only hosts 4 percent of the vouchers--a comparatively high percentage for such a privileged area.

Philadelphia's other suburban counties, Chester and Bucks, have similar configurations. The biggest concentration is in Philadelphia itself, which suffers the highest poverty rate of any big city in the nation. At the time of Building One America's 2013 analysis, the city had 19,511 housing choice vouchers. That's 7,165 more than the four suburban counties combined, which have about one million more residents than the city. Many of the region's best jobs are located in far-flung suburban office parks.

Greater Philadelphia is anything but an outlier when it comes to the suburban perpetuation of racial and economic segregation. There are, however, notable exceptions to this rule. One is located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, where a long-running affordable-housing case resulted in a series of state supreme court rulings affirming the duty of all municipalities to allow affordable housing. The state's 1985 Fair Housing Act reaffirmed that commitment. Recent research on the affordable units built in the leafy, affluent suburb of Mount Laurel shows that property values did not fall and crime rates did not rise when 140 units of low-income housing were built there. Another exception is in suburban Baltimore. There, a court order led to the formation of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which featured counseling for voucher-holding tenants along with intensive landlord outreach in Howard County, one of the wealthiest areas in the nation. The program also provides a restricted pool of vouchers that can only be used to move to higher-income neighborhoods. Research by Stefanie DeLuca and Jennifer Darrah, based on 110 of the more than 2,000 families participating, deemed the program a success. According to Building One America's analysis, 11 percent of the vouchers were used in areas of "maximum opportunity." None of the vouchers in the Philadelphia area mobility program were and only 3.8 percent of overall vouchers are used in maximum opportunity areas.

The key is to disperse them more widely, even universally.
Posted by at February 13, 2016 9:27 AM