PATERSON — When Michelle Jamison and her family lost their apartment in a fire, they were given a list of Section 8 properties by the city to find a new place.
“The list that they gave us was all horrible areas — all in the 4th Ward,” Jamison said. Jamison said she questioned why the city agency, seeing that she had a teenage daughter, would only recommend what she considered high-crime areas.
“I was like: ‘Do you have another list?'” Jamison said. “They said that’s what they had available, and this was their list, and pretty much take it or leave it.”
Section 8 vouchers, part of a federal rental subsidy program, are intended to help low-income working families afford prevailing rents. Eligible tenants must contribute up to 30 percent of their income and the government pays the difference directly to the landlord.
Giving tenants the option to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods is a central principle of the federal program. Housing choice and poverty de-concentration efforts are also key indicators by which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development judges the effectiveness of how Section 8 funds are administered locally.
But a Herald News analysis of the lists given out to voucher holders in Paterson, as well as the location of leased Section 8 apartments, shows them concentrated in the poorest sections of the city.
Mapping the addresses of Section 8 apartments and listings found that nearly 100 percent of them were located in Paterson. Nearly half of them were in the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, which had a concentration of Section 8 apartments more than four times the city’s average.
Paterson’s more affluent sections had just a handful of Section 8 apartments; 18 in Lakeview, seven in Hillcrest, and five on the East Side — none in the vicinity of the park.
It is up to voucher-holders to find an apartment where the landlord accepts Section 8, and property owners are not allowed to discriminate against tenants who pay rent through the program. Tenants are given 60 days to find an affordable place, and agencies that administer the program are supposed to help them by providing lists of Section 8 apartments, counseling on housing options outside low-income areas, and information on how they can use the vouchers anywhere, including in other states.
“One of the founding principals of the Section 8 program was that it would provide opportunities outside high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on civil rights issues.
“It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the program started to be run in an affirmative manner to give people those choices, and the requirement to give families better choices outside of segregated areas was taken more seriously. Today in 2007, they are supposed to provide listings in a wide range of areas.”
Placement not intentional
Irma Gorham, director of the Paterson Housing Authority, also oversees the city’s now-defunct Section 8 program, once run by the Department of Community Development. Gorham acknowledged that most of the Section 8 listings in the city were in the 1st, 4th and 5th wards. She said there were many reasons why they were concentrated in those areas — none of which had to do with intentionally making people remain in low-income neighborhoods.
“Number one, when they come in for a briefing — I can’t tell you how the city program was run — but here, when they come in, we brief them, we give them a handbook and maps of the area. This whole poverty de-concentration piece — Paterson is what it is. We know the areas that may be attractive, but they might not have the availability of units.”
Gorham said that much of the available apartment stock in Paterson’s tight rental market — as well as most of the newly built housing — was concentrated in the lowest-income wards.
She added that lack of information on housing in other areas was not always the reason people choose to remain in high-poverty enclaves.
“When folks come in to look for a unit, the typical person will go to a community they are familiar with, have relatives in, know the services available,” Gorham said. “They want to be in a place convenient to their child’s school, a job, transportation; all of those things that make it easier for them.”