Many complain Section 8 lacks oversight

Landlords, tenants and neighbors accuse each other of neglecting property.
Thursday, June 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:30 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wallace Malveaux can no longer see his next-door neighbors from his front yard because he built a 10-foot wooden fence to block the view. Previous occupants of the neighboring house, who Malveaux said were Section 8 voucher holders, harassed his wife as she left for work in the mornings. One even urinated in the front yard as she passed by, Malveaux said.

A homeowner in Indian Hills for 13 years, Malveaux said Section 8 residents have ruined the area’s mortgage rates, compromised home equity and undermined the neighborhood itself.

“We’re the ones being damaged here,” he said.

Many blame a lack of required government oversight in the Housing Choice Voucher program for allowing undesirable landlords and tenants to run amok and ruin neighborhoods, especially for homeowners.

Who is responsible when something goes wrong? The tenant? The landlord? The city? The housing authority? Or is it the federal government? The answer is elusive.

Unhappy homeowners

Even if Malveaux wanted to leave Indian Hills, he couldn’t because no one would buy his house, at least not for what it would be worth in any other neighborhood, he said. Plus, Malveaux said it’s virtually impossible to get a loan from a bank at a decent interest rate.

“We’re hostages,” he said.

Malveaux said that he pays 11 percent interest on his mortgage now and that lenders red-line mortgages in Indian Hills because its reputation for crime and drug use devalues surrounding property. As if that weren’t bad enough, he said, some appraisers take advantage by unfairly underestimating the value of property in the neighborhood.

But Michael Gilbert, vice president at Boone County National Bank, disputed that assertion. Home loans, he said, are declined mostly because of the potential borrower, not the property. The appraised value determines how much the bank will lend. If houses are in rundown neighborhoods, it affects the appraisal, but Gilbert said the credit history of the borrower tends to be much more important.

“We look at individual people and individual purpose,” Gilbert said.

When he lived in Indian Hills as a child, Malveaux said things were fairly peaceful. That was until the renters and those with Section 8 vouchers moved in, he said. He’s complained to the housing authority, the city and even the federal government for more than a decade, but received little response, he said. He even filed two cases of racial discrimination with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one in 1999 and one in 2001, for its unresponsiveness, but both have been closed with no wrongdoing found by the government.

“Those Iraqi guys get more help — and I’m a citizen,” Malveaux said.

While Malveaux believes racial discrimination is the main reason for the state of his neighborhood, he said the entire Indian Hills neighborhood has suffered. “I find a whole class of people are done wrong, not just a color,” he said.

Rose Mitchell recently joined Malveaux in the fight to be heard. She lives with her elderly mother in Indian Hills. The vibrant red brick, tidy yard and meticulously arranged living room distinguish her mother’s house from most others in the subdivision. After her father died a little more than a year ago, Mitchell left her job and the big city to take care of her mother because she feared for her mother’s safety in the neighborhood.

“It’s hard for me to sleep at night not wondering what’s going on,” Mitchell said.

Section 8 residents and their slumlords have devastated the community, Mitchell said. She said if landlords want to rent houses in a residential area, they should keep up the houses like any homeowner, which usually doesn’t happen. There’s an estimated 10 to 15 renters with Section 8 vouchers in Indian Hills.

“People who own houses and rent them don’t help the houses,” she said. “They don’t care who goes in there and rents their property.”

Lack of care from absentee landlords leads to bad neighbors, Mitchell said, adding that more government oversight is necessary.

“The Section 8 people need to monitor more closely people renting houses from slumlords,” she said.

Columbia Housing Authority Director Doris Chiles doesn’t believe the agency needs any more responsibility. “It’s a program where the contract is between the tenant and the landlord,” she said.

Dale Palmer, who rents to one Section 8 tenant and six others in Indian Hills, said the wear and tear on houses of voucher-holders happens simply because the homes are used more. Not only are voucher-holders more transient, but they often can’t work. So they stay in and use the home all day, he said. Palmer said he puts a lot of care into his rental properties and making sure they pass inspections.

As for abuses of the system, he said it is a given — for voucher-holders and other renters alike — that people end up living in the house who aren’t on the lease. He said he doesn’t actively monitor this but does notice police reports where someone lists the address of one of his rental properties and isn’t on the lease. If the person is staying with a voucher-holder, Palmer said the housing authority knows and intervenes.

Palmer said he thinks Indian Hills has greatly improved with the help of the city’s neighborhood response team.

“It’s gone nothing but uphill,” Palmer said of the subdivision.

Landlords screen tenants

Jim Stelle, a Columbia property owner and manager who specializes in government subsidy, said it’s the nature of Section 8: Basically, there’s not enough oversight by the government over the landlords, and screening of voucher-holders is insufficient. Chiles has said that the housing authority relies on landlords to screen prospective tenants and is required to issue vouchers to those who meet basic federal guidelines.

Stelle, however, likes the idea promoted by HUD, which would give more power to local housing authorities to administer the voucher program. That, he said, would hold housing authorities directly accountable and prevent them from claiming their hands are tied by the federal government.

Stelle doesn’t blame homeowners who oppose the construction of government subsidized housing, such as the proposed Wyatt Lane Acres, which was defeated by fierce neighborhood opposition.

“They need to operate these programs to be compatible with good people,” Stelle said.

He points to the original purpose of government subsidized housing, which was to help families on hard times, not to harbor generation after generation. He said more cities should follow the example of Chicago, which demolished and rebuilt its public housing “projects,” then targeted a more mixed-income population and became stricter in determining who could live there.

“The worst part of it is that the housing authority refuses to respect homeowners in the neighborhood,” Stelle said. “They don’t care. They don’t do anything but keep subsidizing.”

Chiles said the matter is out of the authority’s hands.

“It is not CHA’s role to tell voucher-holders where they can or cannot rent,” she said. “In fact, it would be against the law for CHA to do so.”

She said private homeowners should contact local authorities, such as the building inspector or code compliance department, if they think a landlord is not following regulations. If a prospective landlord has been convicted of drug trafficking or has committed fraud in a housing program, then the authority can refuse the landlord, Chiles said.

Breaking the cycle of renters

Although some renters in Section 8 housing trouble homeowners, the program has helped others work toward their dreams of becoming homeowners themselves.

The housing authority runs two homeownership programs and recently began a Money Smart program to offer financial counseling, especially to those who are saving for a home.

One homeownership program specifically helps Section 8 families by helping them make down payments. Two families have bought homes under this program. Roberta Mahannah and Marcie Luebbert hope to be the third. They said they tried to buy a home through the program but found it difficult to get banks to accept payments from both them and the housing authority.

Chiles said this problem previously has been solved by opening an escrow account that hold both the tenant’s and CHA’s payments. The lender then would draw from the account. Chiles said she sees no reason why that wouldn’t work in this case.

Mahannah and Luebbert finally persuaded a bank to provide a loan but lost the home they wanted when the mortgage company mysteriously backed out. By attending Money Smart, they learned that their situation was not rare. Some illegitimate lenders participate in a common scam in which one denies a loan, then refers the prospective homebuyer to another lender that charges higher interest rates, even though nothing in the buyer’s credit history warrants it. The lenders often work together by charging referral fees.

The women are trying to find a home again. They now live in an apartment with a Section 8 voucher. Mahannah said it’s extremely hard to find a house that’s handicapped accessible, which they need because Luebbert uses a wheelchair.

“There are more handicapped people than there are homes,” Mahannah said.

Right now, they’re waiting for information from the Human Development Corp. on lenders who will work with the Section 8 homeownership program. Mahannah said they have their eye on a house and hope to make a bid soon.

“Marcie’s really happy to have someone new working with her,” Mahannah said.

Section 8 skeptics remain

Despite the praise that some have for Section 8 and its efforts to help people get off government assistance, Malveaux thinks the costs of the program, at least in Indian Hills, far outweigh the benefits.

Stelle said his problem with Section 8 happens all across the country. “It’s destabilizing urban life,” he said.

Stelle said Section 8 has changed with regulations that limit owners’ ability to run a clean, safe community and that allow criminals, drug dealers and other unsavory people to live off the government.

“Everything invested is being lost because the neighbors are making the neighborhood a disaster area,” Stelle said of the homeowners’ situation.

Some who are disenchanted with the effects of Section 8 believe HUD should go back to the drawing board and redesign the entire program. Until it does, Malveaux plans to continue fighting for fellow homeowners and his neighborhood.

The story, he said, “needs to be told over and over until someone does something about it.”

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