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Why Does Random Chance Decide Who Gets Housing Subsidies?


When the federal government provides public benefits, usually the rules are pretty simple. If you qualify based on your income, your age or your family status, you get help. Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast looks at one specific benefit, housing, where the rules are a little bit different.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Shanay Manson has been out of work for a while. But she just got some great news.

SHANAY MANSON: I start work on Thursday (laughter).

ROMER: She'll be working in a warehouse near where she lives in Hartford, Conn. But it's a minimum-wage job. And even with the new income, Shanay still isn't sure she'll be able to afford an apartment for her and her two kids. To get by, she's lived with her friends, her cousin, her sister.

MANSON: From there back to living with friends and going from couch to couch to couch.

ROMER: So this morning, Shanay tried to sign up for housing benefits in nearby West Hartford. Today, for the first time in six years, the housing authority there opened its waiting list for housing choice vouchers, what used to be called Section 8. If Shanay wins a spot and eventually makes it to the top of the waiting list, she'll get a voucher that she can take to pretty much any landlord in town and use to help pay her rent. Housing vouchers here are distributed by lottery. And to get one, Shanay will have to be very, very lucky.

MANSON: I've signed up for Norwich. I've signed up for Hartford. I've signed up for Waterbury when it was opened a few years ago. I signed up for a lot of them.

ROMER: So in six years of applying to public housing waiting lists, Section 8 voucher waiting lists, how much housing support have you gotten?


ROMER: Shanay qualified for a voucher in all of those places. But unlike with food stamps or Medicaid, for housing, just qualifying isn't enough. According to a Harvard study, among very low-income people, only about 1 in 4 actually get any kind of housing assistance. Larry Vale, a planning historian at MIT, he says there doesn't have to be a voucher shortfall.

LARRY VALE: The costs of expanding housing vouchers or finding other ways of deeply subsidizing housing are not so astronomical. So this is a deliberate choice to stop short of trying to meet that need.

ROMER: According to a government study, expanding vouchers to every low-income person who qualified would cost about $40 billion a year. For comparison, that's less than the government spends on food stamps. It's also less than what is spent on a different federal housing subsidy. This one goes not to the poor, but almost exclusively to the wealthy and middle-class - the mortgage interest deduction.

The money home owners get to write off of their taxes, that can be thousands of dollars a year. And just like a housing voucher, that's a government subsidy. As it stands though, there are a limited number of housing vouchers available. And that can make it pretty tough to get your hands on one. I checked with Eileen Kozlowski at the West Hartford Housing Authority to see what Shanay's chances were.

EILEEN KOZLOWSKI: Final accepted applications was 12,321.

ROMER: How many slots are becoming available?

KOZLOWSKI: Four hundred.

ROMER: So what are the chances for somebody who has signed up?

KOZLOWSKI: Oh, I don't know. What is it, like...

ROMER: You can hear her old-fashioned calculator in the background.

KOZLOWSKI: Four hundred divided by 12,321 - yeah, 3 percent.

ROMER: Shanay Manson and her two kids will find out in about a month or so whether or not they are in that 3 percent. Keith Romer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.