Tickets Out of Poverty?

Tickets Out of Poverty?

Housing voucher recipients can move to better neighborhoods only if states and localities break down suburban barriers.

February 8, 2016

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

For Lorraine Washington, a housing choice voucher, colloquially known as Section 8, represents escape and opportunity. Before her recent move enabled by the subsidy, she lived in the Blumberg Apartments, a public housing complex in one of the most impoverished corners of Philadelphia. Then the Philadelphia Housing Authority slated her building for demolition and offered its residents a choice: They could move to a new public housing unit in the city or accept a Section 8 voucher—which can, in theory, be used anywhere they might want to go.

“You should see the mob of people out here at night, drug dealers everywhere,” Washington said before her move. “It was terrible to come around here and try to walk around at night. I’m used to being very clean, not this trash all over the place and people disrespecting you. I have had a lot of problems around here, with people I don’t even know. Me and my daughter don’t go out very much.”

Washington (not her real name, which we’ve changed out of concern for her safety) took her Section 8 voucher to Delaware County, just west of Philadelphia—a cross-jurisdictional move termed “porting” in housing lingo. She’s found a place in Folcroft, one of a patchwork of small municipalities just over the city line that have received generations of migrants from the city. These neighborhoods were part of the nation’s first wave of mass suburbanization in the early 20th century, predating the broader postwar boom, and have an infrastructure to match: 100-year-old sewer systems, still-functioning trolley lines, and a housing stock of brick row houses and stone twins.

In the 1950s, increasing numbers of white working-class families from Philadelphia began moving to Folcroft and other inner-ring suburbs in Delaware County as the city’s growing African American population expanded into their neighborhoods. The county line was a stark racial barrier, enforced by violence. In 1963, an African American couple moved into Folcroft. Their neighbors smashed all the couple’s windows and scrawled “niggers go home” on the house. Seventeen years later, neighboring Upper Darby was the center of a Pennsylvania Commission on Human Rights investigation of racial violence for repeated incidents of violence against black families moving into the borough.

After 1990, parts of inner-ring Delaware County began to diversify. The 0.7-square-mile borough of Millbourne became the first majority–South Asian municipality in the United States, while Yeadon became almost entirely African American. Downtown Upper Darby is now a multiethnic shopping district, with Korean grocery stores, pupuserias, and Peruvian restaurants amid the fading Art Deco buildings. Asian and Hispanic immigrants and their businesses are particularly noticeable, but the majority of non-white residents are African Americans, fleeing the concentrated poverty and violence of West and Southwest Philadelphia. Folcroft is now 26 percent African American.

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.

(Photo: Paul Gargagliano)

Two-story brick rowhouses in Upper Darby

“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.

In the past year, moreover, a series of challenges to the Philadelphia pattern of segregation have emerged. The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, last year put residential segregation back in the nation’s consciousness. Last summer, the Supreme Court confirmed an expansive reading of the Fair Housing Act, strengthening the hand of groups like Building One America. HUD issued new rules to prompt local governments to pursue integrationist policies, while experimenting with a new Section 8 voucher arrangement that would make the subsidies of greater value to landlords in higher-opportunity areas. An influential study by Harvard University professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren demonstrated that moving from impoverished to middle-class communities significantly increased the upward mobility rates of poor children.

Despite this newfound momentum, there are still immense hurdles confronting those who wish to reform housing policy to combat segregation. Just last year, a housing-mobility program involving four of the Philadelphia region’s five housing authorities collapsed. Most of the Section 8 voucher holders were relocated to city neighborhoods offering limited job and educational opportunities.

“Affordable housing can be done in a way that benefits everyone, and the key there is to de-concentrate the housing,” says Douglas Massey, co-author of Climbing Mount Laurel, which describes the battle over affordable housing in the New Jersey suburb and its positive results. “Section 8 certificates can theoretically be used in any affluent area inside or outside the city; the important point is to scatter them around. If you put them in poor places in the suburbs or the city, then you are defeating the purpose. These programs have to be done on a metropolitan-wide basis, de-concentrating poverty. That’s what’s been going on in places like Upper Darby for a long time and you can see the effect it is having there.”


WHEN THE HOUSING and Community Development Act of 1974 was crafted in the waning days of the Nixon administration, a big part of the appeal was that Section 8 vouchers could de-concentrate poverty. (They were also cheaper than public housing and more ideologically palatable to the Republican Nixon and Ford administrations.) Two years after the much-dissected demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe public-housing towers, mobility was considered a top priority—in theory.

In practice, numerous policies limiting mobility were built into the Section 8 voucher program from the start. Administrative fees are distributed to housing authorities using an incentive structure that privileges a quick turnaround, rather than rewarding agencies that help families move into higher-opportunity neighborhoods. With authorities providing little guidance, voucher holders tend to gravitate to places where they already know people, or to lower-income areas where landlords are specifically seeking to attract Section 8 vouchers as a stable source of revenue.

“Typically, families are pretty much on their own in terms of finding available units,” says Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). “The assistance a typical [public housing agency] might provide would be to either give people a paper list of available apartment units or to refer them to an online listing service like GoSection8. They tend to be units in higher-poverty neighborhoods where landlords are aggressively seeking Section 8 voucher tenants.”

(Photo: Paul Gargagliano)

Storefronts in Upper Darby cater to recent immigrants.

Landlords are also allowed to systemically discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders, and are substantially more likely to do so in higher-opportunity areas. This “source of income” discrimination is outlawed in some jurisdictions, including Philadelphia. But a city-only law is of limited use. Although there are plenty of stable working-class and affluent communities within the city limits, including the much-praised revitalization of Center City Philadelphia and its nimbus of gentrifying neighborhoods, the city as a whole is still more like St. Louis or Cleveland than New York. Philadelphia’s school district is mired in a perpetual funding crisis, with many schools lacking basic supplies, the result of deep cuts made by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett.

“I’m one of these people who moved back to Philadelphia, but I wouldn’t be here if I had kids because the schools still haven’t come around,” says Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers University. “The local housing agencies on the Pennsylvania side are not seen as making an effort to help. They have to come up with regional plans to provide a broader array of choices for people who are benefiting from the subsidy programs.”

None of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania-side suburban counties have banned “source of income” discrimination, so landlords are free to deny their units to those bearing Section 8 vouchers. Even if landlords in wealthier areas are willing to take vouchers, there is a ceiling on how much a voucher will cover. The Fair Market Rent that dictates the amount of HUD’s rent subsidy is predicated on prices across the whole region, so it often cannot cover units in higher-opportunity areas, which frequently don’t have many rental units anyway. In New Jersey, by contrast, the Mount Laurel doctrine and the legislation that followed affirm that all municipalities have a duty to zone for their “fair share” of affordable housing, ensuring more cheap rental units in affluent areas. No such ruling exists in Pennsylvania.

Research published earlier this year by Molly Metzger and Danilo Pelletiere found that minority voucher holders do use their federal subsidies to move to slightly higher-income areas, but also to areas with “high percentages of minority residents.” Between 2000 and 2010, there was a 12 percent population increase in diverse suburbs, such as Folcroft, which now house a quarter of the region’s people. Meanwhile, according to a 2011 analysis from Brookings, the share of voucher holders living outside the urban centers of the Philadelphia metropolitan region increased by 11.5 percent, one of the largest jumps in the nation.

Groups like Building One America, however, are concerned that these neighborhoods will not remain stable, racially mixed spaces and will instead re-segregate. “Integrated communities in the United States have a hard time staying integrated for more than 10 or 20 years,” reported a 2013 paper from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. Allowing most of the voucher holders in the suburban counties to almost exclusively settle in these areas, advocates fear, will only speed that transition.

“Vouchers tend to be part of a residential transition in an area and become symptoms of the ongoing re-segregation and decline,” says Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity and an advisory board member of Building One America. “It should be just the opposite, they should be targeted to places that are strong and stable. If integration is about having two disadvantaged groups together, it’s usually a disaster. … If it’s about making a metropolitan area systematically more fair, it’s usually a big success.”

That’s not what’s happening in Philadelphia, where voucher holders who port out of the city are almost exclusively moving to Delaware County—516 of the 552 ported families move westward, the housing authority reports—which is already the suburban jurisdiction with the largest number of voucher holders and the most troubled inner-ring municipalities. Not only are wealthier suburbs like Radnor and Swarthmore almost entirely devoid of voucher holders, the whiter areas of inner-ring Delaware County are also largely excluded. One such suburb, Springfield, on the western border of Upper Darby, is over 93 percent white, with a median income of $92,468. It hosts three voucher holders.

These trends have been clear for years. That’s why Building One America, in partnership with the region’s housing authorities, decided to do something about them.


BUILDING ONE AMERICA is a coalition of suburban leaders from older, increasingly diverse suburbs who hope to provide the political support required to strengthen integration efforts and restrict the growth of sprawling exurbs that siphon off upwardly mobile residents. The group was formed in the early days of the Obama administration in the hope that the new administration’s HUD would be sympathetic with such efforts. In the early months of 2009, Building One America representatives met with the president himself, while high-ranking administration officials attended and spoke at their conferences.

(Photo: Paul Gargagliano)

The SEPTA elevated train stop at 63rd Street, on the edge of West Philadelphia

In 2010, the coalition decided that a multi-county mobility program centered on the Philadelphia area would be their testing ground. The idea was to equip a small group of voucher holders in deeply impoverished or simply distressed areas with the means to move to higher-opportunity suburbs. In April 2011, it convened a meeting of 520 elected officials, clergy, and activists; the housing authority leaders of Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties; and HUD’s regional administrator, Jane Vincent: All of them professed support for the new approach to voucher housing. (Bucks County, to the northeast of the city, declined to become involved from the beginning, an unfortunate irony given that Chetty and Hendren’s recently released data found that it is the best of the region’s counties for low-income children to grow up in.)

In October of that year, then–HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told a meeting of housing leaders that he backed the mobility program. “[HUD] is willing, ready, and able to support that and do whatever we can to make that happen,” said Donovan. 

By the time the project actually launched, however, both Montgomery and Delaware counties were no longer participating. Only the city itself and Chester County, which shares no borders with Philadelphia and has the weakest public transit infrastructure, remained in the mobility program.

“The history of this program getting off the tracks has a very Rashomon-type quality to it,” says David Rusk, one of the architects of the mobility program and a longtime advocate of regional approaches to housing and segregation. “The housing mobility program turned out to be a total failure from the point of view of regional equity. It became just another placement service for poor Philadelphians within Philadelphia.”

The Delaware and Montgomery county housing chiefs say they were eager participants until the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) unilaterally dissolved the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and forged ahead on its own. “Everyone was very disappointed that the program didn’t move forward,” says Joel Johnson, the Montgomery County Housing Authority executive director. “I’ve heard the voucher households that moved as part of the program fell well short of the goals.” Building One America representatives, on the other hand, claim the two big suburban housing authorities were resistant from the beginning, and that it was HUD that unilaterally dropped them from the program. HUD did not respond to repeated interview requests before press time.

“We reached a point where it became unproductive,” says Kelvin Jeremiah, president of PHA. “We did terminate that MOU because we didn’t see the willingness on the part of Mr. Johnson and others in terms of their genuinely wanting to participate in the program.”

Of the 122 moves executed under the mobility project, Building One America found that 23 percent of families moved within their original census tract and 30 percent moved to poorer census tracts. Of those that moved into areas with less poverty, 46 of the 57 voucher holders moved within the city of Philadelphia itself. Of the 11 who made it into the suburbs, seven moved to inner-ring Delaware County municipalities or to impoverished Norristown.

Building One America’s executive director, Paul Scully, is bitterly disappointed by the outcome of the mobility program. The Delaware and Montgomery county housing authority chiefs say they are talking about a mobility program of their own, although nothing is official yet. Meanwhile, Jeremiah insists that the initial project was a success: “I am extremely, extremely pleased with the result. I see a lot of families who succeeded in moving into high-opportunity areas.”

Although opinions within Building One America differ about what to do next, representatives say they are heartened by the recent Supreme Court decision affirming a strong reading of 1968’s Fair Housing Act. Scully has been meeting with Michael Allen, the lawyer who helped bring a 2006 lawsuit against New York’s Westchester County for neglecting its fair-housing duties.

“A lot of [the mobility plan’s failure] was a lot of political infighting—I don’t know [the details] and I don’t care,” says Marlon Millner, a city council member in Norristown and a former Building One America member. (He estimates that 10 percent of the city’s rental housing stock is funded by Section 8 vouchers). “But [in] these places where mobility has been court-mandated [as in Baltimore], all of a sudden these barriers that people say they couldn’t overcome, they suddenly can. We were betrayed both by the feds, the county housing authorities, and PHA.”

Building One America hopes to continue the fight in Pennsylvania. Leading figures like Scully and Rusk point to their eventual victory in New Jersey against Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs), a bizarre loophole in the New Jersey Fair Housing Act that allowed affluent municipalities to pay poorer communities to take over their affordable housing responsibilities. Building One New Jersey and its allies eventually overcame conservative suburban opposition and convinced then-Governor Jon Corzine to abolish RCAs in 2008. In recent meetings with Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, leaders of Building One Pennsylvania have highlighted the parallels between the New Jersey RCAs and the failure of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania-side suburbs to distribute their housing vouchers in affluent communities. Wolf faces a Republican-controlled legislature, but he is well-versed on issues of segregation and sprawl, and could prove an able ally.


LORRAINE WASHINGTON is not a part of the housing mobility pilot program. For her, Folcroft has its problems, but compared to her former hyper-segregated North Philadelphia neighborhood, it looks like paradise. She had ended up in the Blumberg Apartments because her husband was killed by a stray bullet in 2001, after which she suffered a nervous breakdown that resulted in a period of homelessness and drug use. After Washington pulled her life together, she moved into the project.

“I went through a long process to get to this point and I just want to say that Section 8 for me is going to be a blessing if it works out,” says Washington. “The opportunity to at least live in a different neighborhood, with private landlords—I’m trying to get back to [being] a productive citizen so I can pay taxes and live normal.”

Asked if she had considered other areas in the suburbs, Washington says she wanted to move to Haverford, a Delaware County suburb closer to the Main Line. The median income there is $94,501 and the population is 91.2 percent white.

Before her move to Folcroft, Washington explained why she’d favored Haverford—and why she hadn’t been able to move there. “I wanted to move to Havertown [a section of Haverford] because it was close to some family I have. They have a YMCA and I have diabetes and when I keep my weight level down I do better. But it’s really hard [to find housing there] and you only have a certain amount of time to do it in. I’m really stressed out with it, but I’m trying to keep up with it because I want out of here.” 

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