Trump Stokes Fear in the Suburbs, but Few Low-Income Families Ever Make It There
This story was reported in partnership with NPR, following on the 2017 documentary Poverty, Politics and Profit. That film investigates the billions spent on housing low-income people and why so few get the help they need. Stream the film.
In an effort to appeal to suburban voters, President Donald Trump has been promising to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods, saying it should be harder for families in need of affordable housing to “invade” the suburbs.
But 50 years after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, the reality is families with low incomes have never flooded into the suburbs. In fact, few have made it there.
The majority of housing built with government subsidies is still built in high poverty areas, research shows. And what’s more, fewer than 14 percent of families with children who have Section 8 housing vouchers are able to move to low-poverty neighborhoods — historically, the suburbs.
The vouchers, which pay the difference between a modest rent and what someone can afford, are supposed to be a ticket out of poverty. But in many metropolitan areas like Dallas it hasn’t worked out that way.
NPR and FRONTLINE began following several families in 2016 who were trying to use vouchers to move to neighborhoods with good schools, jobs and low poverty. In Dallas that generally means the area’s wealthy northern enclaves or a few scattered neighborhoods in the south. None of the families found that the vouchers lived up to the promise.
“I’ve been to Oak Cliff. I’ve been to South Dallas. I’ve been to Pleasant Grove. I’ve been way down south,” said Farryn Giles in 2016, who was homeless and trying to find a place for herself and her son. “Nobody wants my voucher.”
Another mother, C’Artis Harris, who had to sleep with her kids at times in her van in store parking lots, drove to and called dozens of places in the northern suburbs with no luck.
“Maybe it’s meant for me to live in the ‘hood,” she said four years ago.
Today, both women live in public or subsidized housing in areas of high poverty. Giles says she felt lucky to get a spot in Dallas public housing, so at least she hasn’t been homeless.
After a year of homelessness, living in shelters and on people’s floors with her kids, Harris finally ended up in a federally subsidized housing complex. She, like Giles, turned in her Section 8 voucher when she couldn’t find anyone to take it.
“It was so painful to finally, finally get to have [a] Section 8 voucher,” and then not be able to use it, Harris says.
They were so excited when they first got it, she says.
“We get to move! Yay!” she remembers thinking. “No, no you don’t. You get to go and be homeless again and live in shelters and hotels and live in people’s houses.”
She says the government-subsidized housing complex she lives in now is hard for the kids. There are no playgrounds, no activities, few grocery stores and little grass.
“It’s been chaotic,” she says. “It’s a lot. Daily. Crazy, chaotic arguments. Gun play. Drugs.”
Ever since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the federal government has been trying to undo a century of racist and unfair housing policies. Those policies gave white people government-backed mortgages and literal highways to prime real estate — and redlined African Americans and people of color into less desirable urban cores.
But 50 years later, while the country is more diverse than ever, studies show housing remains deeply segregated. African American homeownership rates, which had shown some improvement, backslid with the 2008 recession. They still haven’t recovered.
Now, because of COVID-19, evictions are expected to skyrocket.
Five years ago, the Obama administration created a rule that required cities and towns to try to eliminate housing segregation and tied federal funding to their efforts. But the Trump administration recently reversed that rule and changed another regulation that affects when people can sue if they face discrimination. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said the rules were overly bureaucratic.
Without them, though, housing advocates say moving low-income families into the suburbs, and getting affordable housing developments built there, will be much harder. It was already pretty difficult.
Four years ago, developer Terri Anderson faced tough local opposition when she was trying to build an apartment complex with some units set aside for Section 8 voucher holders on the line between two wealthy Dallas suburbs: McKinney and Frisco.
“The city actually called a public hearing for our property, and about 250 angry residents showed up,” she said at the time. “Our superintendent has been threatened. Police officers blocked our entrance.”
Back then, Frisco officials said the city’s opposition wasn’t about race or poverty. It was about building permits, they said.
Now four years later, the complex has been built.
On a recent day on the site, Anderson walked out of the newly completed rental office of a rustic modern apartment complex, with stone walls, a small movie theater and gym.
“We did [it],” Anderson said, waving a hand at the complex. “One hundred and thirty-two units. The greatest thing about affordable housing is that it doesn’t look affordable.”
Sitting down at a picnic table near the playground, she said it’s still difficult to believe how hard the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods fought her.
She said the neighbors complained that schools would be overcrowded, the local property values would go down and there would be too much traffic. Anderson says none of those things materialized.
Anderson says as soon as she opened up the building to renters, she was surprised that the people who showed up to fill the low income units were school teachers, day care workers, even a couple of administrative workers for the city that tried to keep the development out.
And she says, except for one guy who still drives around the complex staring at people, these days everyone in the community seems to have gotten over it. The community’s online message board, once filled with negative comments, has died down, and people seem to have gotten on with their lives.
“It’s prejudice, honestly, that is preventing the housing from being developed,” she says.
Anderson’s project was a few years too late for C’Artis Harris and her kids. Harris still wants good schools, parks, peace and quiet but she’s not sure how to find them, or if she ever will. Dallas’ wealthy suburbs don’t hold the promise they once did.
“I think they ruined it for me,” she says. “I think I’d rather go somewhere else where I’m accepted. You know?”