A few months before I met Vivian Warner, she got the call she had been waiting so long for that she’d forgotten to hope for it. It was Baltimore Housing, the agency that oversees subsidized housing in the city. After four years on the wait list, Vivian would receive a housing voucher, and could finally move off of her sister’s couch into her own home. A few weeks later, Vivian boarded a bus with the other lucky winners and drove around the city to visit eligible homes. At the last stop, the bus pulled up in front of a low-rise apartment complex. It was not quite what Vivian had imagined, but there was a two-bedroom available, and Vivian would pay just $55 a month out of pocket from her part-time income. She signed the lease that afternoon.
The housing voucher Vivian waited years to receive is part of the federal government’s most recent attempt to house the poor. Since the 1930s, it has employed housing assistance as a key tool in its war on urban blight and poverty. But these attempts have often failed those who they were meant to protect, at times recreating the very inequality they intended to undo.
Postwar, the Federal Housing Administration underwrote home loans for millions of white Americans, while banks systematically denied them to black families, a process called redlining. Even in federally funded public housing, the poor had no respite from the marginalizing forces of inequality. In the 1950s and ’60s, high-rise public housing was erected in neighborhoods that already suffered from segregation, underinvestment, and decline. And when the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed housing discrimination by “race or national origin,” local housing authorities in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Dallas continued to keep two separate housing lists: one for whites, and one for blacks.
Vivian is part of a generation of poor urban dwellers who left the concentrated poverty of high-rise public housing towers, which by the 1990s were crumbling from neglect. Across the country, the buildings were torn down, and along with them an entire system for housing the poor was dismantled. In the place of public housing, the federal government needed a new solution, one that would remedy the concentrated poverty and segregation it had helped to create.
This solution expanded an existing program relying on the private market to house the poor: housing vouchers. These vouchers make up the difference between what a needy household can afford and the cost of a unit in the private market. They are meant to allow families to rent in any affordable neighborhood, offering men and women like Vivian their very first chance to choose where to live. Today, of the 5 million households across the country receiving some form of federal housing assistance, over half now live in privately owned properties, many through the Housing Choice Voucher program, previously called Section 8.