Friday, February 26

Section 8 Housing In Jax and St. Johns

section 8 jax

I first heard of Section 8 housing when I saw a news story about St. Johns County. That story said St. Johns had some kind of law against Section 8 housing, which resulted in fewer options to house the homeless contingent in St. Augustine. I never looked up Section 8 at the time, though I did wonder how St. Johns could ban Section 8 while Duval can't. I'm still not all that sure about how or why, but I do know most of us don't want Section 8 in our back yards. In fact, I just discussed something similar to Section 8 with my kids, as we drove past the Dunes Apartments next to Ed Austin Park. I said the apartments looked so bad that it might make sense to pull them down and build some smaller single-family homes, which might result in some of the people who no one really wants hanging out in a park being forced to move away. But then one of my kids asked me where they'd go, and that's what makes it complicated. I'd like to say, "St. Johns County," but I can't. And so that means that those of us in Duval who live too close to Section 8 housing will eventually move to where that type of housing can't exist.

According to the news, about 7,000 recipients of Section 8 housing live somewhere in Jacksonville. And there's a big waiting list. I guess that makes sense if Section 8 substantially cuts rent payments. Here's an example on the Jax Housing Authority website:
The Max Rent approved for zip code 32244 is $821 (highlighted in yellow). C ‐ The Participant’s rent portion is $386

The idea is that people participating in the program pay 30% of income. The rest of us pay for the balance. The scenario listed is for someone making around $15,000 a year, apparently. But you can see that as a single parent who pays childcare and other payments that limit taxable income.

The idea is that if people can just get a little ahead, and do it in decent living conditions, all of our social ills will be solved. The problem might be in the target audience for this assistance.

Limiting Section 8 to Duval means more people with poverty congregate in the counties where they can get assistance. Some might move to the more affluent Zip Codes as they are able to get ahead, but all that really means is a landlord in that Zip Code is willing to get some government cheese and let an older apartment complex go to hell. Then a decline in the area, crime, etc. In general, once a complex starts accepting Section 8 tenants, it's probably a sign the owners of the complex have given up on maintenance and improvements for all tenants.

Theoretically, you want to spread Section 8 tenants all around the city. However, this never really works in practice, especially when some apartment complexes are still out of range of these tenants. And it's the right of rich people to pay way more for rent than what an apartment seems to be worth in order to avoid unsavory neighbors. It's what "Location, location, location" means in real estate. And those of us who own houses certainly want those rich folks in overpriced apartments as our neighbors rather than Section 8ers, even if it's not prudent to say that too loudly. Rich folks in St. Johns can act as if they support Section 8 and other social programs, as long as those programs stay in Duval. It's OK to work in Jacksonville and attend events in the big city, but suburban counties will no longer play nice if poor folks from Duval start migrating to those locations.

But here's the other issue with Section 8 being relegated to Duval: we're not just stuck with our own low-income residents. If you can't afford St. Johns County, you end up moving into a lower-rent place in Duval, and then sign up for Section 8. If you live in New Jersey and want a fresh start, you might get an apartment in Duval and then try to get Section 8 subsidies when you can't afford it. Basically, Duval never gets the chance to spread poverty out across the metro area because the vicious cycle stays right here. 

One solution, of course, is to keep all the lowest-income people in one section of the city and police the heck out of that area. That's kind of the traditional way to do things. In Jax, we have a hybrid second solution, wherein lower income folks are concentrated in certain areas and then new areas for them have sprung up, maybe because of older housing, lazy landlords, or Section 8. So it's more spread out here than in other cities, but it's still stuck in the city, and it's still concentrated. The last solution is to really spread things out, and force every landlord to keep a small percentage for subsidized rent, maybe even each single-family neighborhood. The idea would be that if you spread all the poor folk over Duval, St. Johns, and Clay, they'd never create a tipping point to ruin communities.

If that kind of super-spread-out system were implemented, I'd like it to have metrics and accountability, like how you can get years shaved off of prison for good behavior. Renters that stay out of trouble, keep jobs, pay on time, etc., can work their way up to the next level of rentals. Every renter gets a scorecard and every neighbor is allowed to report concerns. Too many people in the apartment or house? Visitors at all hours of the night? Trash not taken down to the street? That way, people who aren't used to living in nicer conditions get feedback, and they learn from mistakes. Get better and get rewarded, but continue to fail and lose the benefit. The current system just has unwanted people moving into neighborhoods that suffer lower values because of them. 

I've seen posts from residents of Hidden Hills telling others that if they don't help pay for the golf course, it might be turned into Section 8 housing. That's a real and tangible fear, even in a gated community, but if that community only had to offer a few homes to Section 8 Top Tier renters, then maybe that fear wouldn't be as bad, and the animosity towards people who live in their gated communities wouldn't be as strong from the other side. 

I could be wrong, but I don't like the hybrid system we currently have, and I think St. Johns and Clay need to lift some of the burden from Duval. We have a lot of smart people around here, and they need to acknowledge that the current system doesn't really work any better than the old system, and that it's probably resulting in MORE urban blight rather than less, since it's in more areas. Instead of trying to sell-off JEA, this would have been a more important issue to consider for the future of Jacksonville. Just building more and more housing doesn't fix it, especially for the 800,000 of us who live in existing, ungated neighborhoods and have to shop at the same Walmart as everyone else nearby. 


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