Section 8 housing program reinforces a Jim Crow pattern in the South, data shows

·11 min read

Note: This story is part of a six-month investigation by USA TODAY Network-Southeast called "Segregated by Section 8," which followed public housing seekers and analyzed available data in new ways. Read more about the series here.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — When a surveyor came to the west side of this racially divided city in the 1930s to appraise an area called Yamacraw for the federal government, he listed what he saw as problems.

Rowhouses were aging and crumbling, roads were narrow and unpaved and the overcrowded living conditions and vandalism were among the worst in the city, he wrote.

Another big problem, as he saw it: “The houses are occupied by the lowest class negro tenants.”

The federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation marked Yamacraw on a map with red ink and graded it a “D,” the worst grade, which segregated residents from access to credit, homeownership and a better life.

In color-coded maps drawn for 239 cities throughout the nation, officials sorted neighborhoods and deemed redlined areas — almost always where Black people, Catholics, Jews, immigrants and poor white people lived — undesirable for mortgage lending. The practice of redlining, now illegal, used banks and lending to push people of color into certain areas and keep them from living next to white neighbors.

A federal program tries to house people. But it leaves many homeless and segregated in the Southeast.

“They cemented people in place and made it hard for people to integrate,” said Ella Howard, a history professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, who has studied redlining in Savannah and other cities in Georgia. “Public housing reinforced segregation.”

Decades of government-sponsored racial discrimination still haunt Yamacraw in Savannah, Georgia.

In a city that draws millions of visitors annually to admire historic architecture, a disproportionate share of government-subsidized housing sits just west of the predominately white, wealthier district where tourists flock.

The census tract that contains the neighborhood has a poverty rate of 62%, more than four times the national average. Nearly every resident is a minority.

This is where about 140 houses or apartments are available for Section 8 voucher holders to rent if they have the hard-to-get ticket that gives government help with rent to the disabled, senior citizens, single mothers and other vulnerable people.

Across Savannah, a different census tract, No. 29, is nearly all white and has relatively low poverty.

The neighborhood is desirable, and according to the historic foundation, it features "a Beaux Arts influenced, 'City Beautiful' type plan with a grand mall, crescent-shaped avenues, and small circular parks."

In this historic neighborhood, 28% of the housing units are rentals. Yet unlike Yamacraw, it offers almost no homes for renters with a public housing voucher — despite the fact the coupons are supposed to be usable in any part of town.

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Sadaytria Davis gives meals to two students during a stop at Yamacraw Village. From problematic plumbing and electrical issues to mold and crime, residents of Yamacraw Village face difficult living situations on a daily basis in the 80-year-old public housing development. Conditions have deteriorated to the point the Housing Authority of Savannah is considering demolishing Yamacraw's 315 units. They may be replaced with new hotels instead.
Sadaytria Davis gives meals to two students during a stop at Yamacraw Village. From problematic plumbing and electrical issues to mold and crime, residents of Yamacraw Village face difficult living situations on a daily basis in the 80-year-old public housing development. Conditions have deteriorated to the point the Housing Authority of Savannah is considering demolishing Yamacraw's 315 units. They may be replaced with new hotels instead.

Young people pay the toll for a community and societal decision to shut public housing renters out of certain neighborhoods and box them into others.

Children who live in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods are more likely to attend failing schools, drop out of high school and have lower earnings over their lives, research shows.

More than a year after protests about police brutality and racial inequality spread across America, questions remain about whether government-subsidized housing can overcome Jim Crow-era policies and achieve the goal of giving poor people a chance to live in a better neighborhood.

Unless something changes, data suggests the answer is no.

Investigation finds separate and unequal housing

Nearly 50 years ago, Congress enacted the Section 8 housing voucher program and promised it would give recipients choices in where they live.

USA TODAY Network-Southeast spent months looking into what happens when people try to obtain housing with vouchers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, four states where the legacy of Jim Crow policies still influences nearly every aspect of social life.

Our Segregated by Section 8 project team partnered with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Urban Institute to analyze multi-source federal data for 19 different cities. The resulting maps reveal that housing available to voucher holders — who most often are Black and Latino — remains heavily concentrated in racially segregated and impoverished neighborhoods, including places where the federal government and real-estate industry conducted redlining.

The trend is reinforced by state laws in places like North Carolina and South Carolina allowing landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders.

Wilmington, North Carolina, is one place that illustrates what happens with public housing in the South.

These inequitable patterns of housing exist beyond the Carolinas.

In Fulton County, Georgia, which contains Atlanta, Section 8-eligible houses and apartments are concentrated on the south side, historically where Black people have lived. Wealthier, whiter census tracts in the northern part of the county have few if any voucher-eligible housing.

Multiple surveys — including in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia — found that most landlords refused to consider renting to people with Section 8 vouchers. A national study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program, showed that rejection rates were significantly higher in predominately white, more affluent areas.

Greg Planter looks through his cabinets in his apartment at Lakeside Reserve in Wilmington, North Carolina, in July 2021. Planter was homeless for about a year before finding a spot at a local shelter in 2016. While staying there, he was able to get on disability and obtain housing vouchers, which led him to find a more permanent housing option.
Greg Planter looks through his cabinets in his apartment at Lakeside Reserve in Wilmington, North Carolina, in July 2021. Planter was homeless for about a year before finding a spot at a local shelter in 2016. While staying there, he was able to get on disability and obtain housing vouchers, which led him to find a more permanent housing option.

Katrina Knight, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center, a homeless assistance center in Wilmington, said people with vouchers sometimes spend the night in her agency’s shelter because they cannot find a landlord willing to rent to them.

When they find a place to lease, they often end up in the same impoverished and racially segregated area near downtown.

“It’s a place to live, but they are scared for their children’s safety,” Knight said. “We were calling this a crisis 15, 16 years ago and it is worse now.”

‘The ugly legacy of the South’

A 1937 "redlining" map by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation that designated Black Asheville, North Carolina, neighborhoods as "hazardous."
A 1937 "redlining" map by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation that designated Black Asheville, North Carolina, neighborhoods as "hazardous."

Historians have long investigated the role of redlining maps in shaping racial inequalities in access to housing, credit and wealth-building opportunities.

A collaboration of researchers has now digitized the maps and made them widely available to the public.

Robert Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond who helped digitize the records, said there is a connection between redlining in the past and today’s segregated Section 8 housing.

Surveyors working for the federal government wanted to separate people by race and class, Nelson said. “Redlined neighborhoods were rental neighborhoods,” Nelson said. “They were owned by slumlords. The patterns persist to this day.”

Brian Koziol, executive director of the Virginia Housing Alliance, said the Section 8 program has failed its mission to give recipients a choice in where they live. A person can see where a large share of voucher holders live today by examining redlining maps in Richmond and other cities.

“After Reconstruction and when Jim Crow took hold, these systems were formalized through policies and practices,” Koziol said. “That’s the ugly legacy of the South. It just comes back to white supremacy. … That plays out in the housing market.”

USA TODAY Network-Southeast submitted more than a dozen written questions to HUD. The agency did not directly answer most of them and did not make leaders available for on-the-record interviews.

Instead, HUD provided a written statement, noting Congress has approved plans to launch a $50 million demonstration project in which housing administrators would also provide "counseling" to help recipients move into more affluent neighborhoods.

No Section 8 accepted

When Congress set up the voucher program in 1974, it made it voluntary for landlords to participate.

A national study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the Section 8 program, showed that roughly two-thirds of landlords in Philadelphia and in Fort Worth, Texas, and other sample cities refused to accept vouchers.

“The number of landlords who said ‘no’ was higher than we ever imagined,” said Martha Galvez, now the executive director of NYU’s Housing Solutions Lab. “It would be incredibly naïve to say racism doesn’t play a role.”

Regina Mumford chats on the porch of her Yamacraw Village apartment. “Crime is bad, maintenance is jacked up. I’ve got a (handrail on my) staircase in my hallway that fell apart two weeks ago and nobody still hasn’t come to fix it,” said Mumford, who said she also faces issues with her plumbing and mold.
Regina Mumford chats on the porch of her Yamacraw Village apartment. “Crime is bad, maintenance is jacked up. I’ve got a (handrail on my) staircase in my hallway that fell apart two weeks ago and nobody still hasn’t come to fix it,” said Mumford, who said she also faces issues with her plumbing and mold.

While more than 100 cities, counties and states have outlawed what activists call “source of income discrimination,” almost none are in the traditional South. Only Virginia has passed a statewide law forbidding landlords from refusing to accept vouchers. Only Atlanta, Louisville and Memphis have enacted local ordinances.

Most legislators contacted during our investigation said they would likely oppose anti-discrimination protections for Section 8 recipients.

They said those rules violate landlords’ property rights. They also echoed complaints from landlords about negative dealings with public housing offices that operate the program on a day-to-day basis, including burdensome inspections, slow payments and failures to respond when tenants destroy property or violate leases.

“It is inherently un-American to dictate who you can choose as a tenant,” said North Carolina state Rep. William Richardson, a Democrat who represents the Fayetteville area. “It is going to discourage development. Is there a need for it? ... It’s fraught with peril.”

Thomas Hanchett, a historian and author of "Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte 1875-1975," said southern politicians remain resistant to protecting racial minorities and the poor from discrimination decades after Jim Crow.

“Government put its thumb on the scale,” Hanchett said. “Some areas seem to be off limits to voucher holders, and they are the same areas that were protected (in earlier decades).

"History has tremendous momentum. The decisions of the past layer upon one another so much so that they seem to have the force of nature. What we are talking about is the structure of opportunity.”

Design flaw in the system of vouchers

Gaston College student Lyn Holland waters the plants in his apartment on Loblolly PineDrive in Gastonia, North Carolina. The local housing authority, which issued Holland’s voucher, cut his benefits last year. Officials told Holland this spring he would have to move or pay $200 more a month in rent because he did not qualify for a two-bedroom apartment.
Gaston College student Lyn Holland waters the plants in his apartment on Loblolly PineDrive in Gastonia, North Carolina. The local housing authority, which issued Holland’s voucher, cut his benefits last year. Officials told Holland this spring he would have to move or pay $200 more a month in rent because he did not qualify for a two-bedroom apartment.

Section 8 recipients often have little say in where they live because in most places the benefits won’t cover rents in affluent areas. In most places, rental subsidies are based on the cost of modest housing across an entire metropolitan area instead of specific neighborhoods.

The results, activists say, is that voucher holders are often relegated to renting apartments and houses in a few spots.

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the average two-bedroom apartment rents for $900 a month, according to Zumper.com, which tracks rent prices across the country. HUD rules allow a Section 8 recipient who needs a two-bedroom apartment to rent a place that costs up to just $869 a month.

In Savannah, the average two-bedroom apartments cost about $1,413 a month. HUD lets voucher holders secure a unit that only costs $1,050 or less.

Housing agencies in about two dozen metropolitan areas, including Charlotte and Atlanta, now use a small-area fair market scale that effectively provides more money for vouchers in places with higher rents and less money for low-income areas.

Even in those metro areas, Section 8 recipients can run into other areas of trouble.

Lyn Holland uses a voucher for a two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his girlfriend in Gastonia, North Carolina.

The apartment is the first place he could call his own. The security deposit and other moving expenses were paid for with money he saved from working in a restaurant.

The rent runs $974 per month, well within the small-area fair market range set by HUD.

But the Gastonia Housing Authority, which issued Holland’s voucher, cut his benefits last year. Officials told Holland he would have to move or pay $200 more a month in rent because he did not qualify for a two-bedroom apartment.

That’s more than Holland can afford. His only income was $794 a month he received in federal disability. His girlfriend doesn’t get regular work hours at the bookstore where she is employed.

Lyn Holland, 28, practices meditation in an apartment in Gastonia, North Carolina, he was about to lose in March. Holland doesn’t work regularly because of sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that often clenches his body with pain and repeatedly sends him to the emergency room. And for his housing, he and his girlfriend need an apartment with two rooms because Holland's mental illness means there are times he has to isolate himself for his health and those who live with him.
Lyn Holland, 28, practices meditation in an apartment in Gastonia, North Carolina, he was about to lose in March. Holland doesn’t work regularly because of sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that often clenches his body with pain and repeatedly sends him to the emergency room. And for his housing, he and his girlfriend need an apartment with two rooms because Holland's mental illness means there are times he has to isolate himself for his health and those who live with him.

“If I have to move out, I don’t know where I am going to go,” he said. “Most of the places you can get on Section 8 have rats, mice. They are not clean.”

Holland, 28, doesn’t work regularly because of sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that often clenches his body with pain and repeatedly sends him to the emergency room.

Holland said he needs the second room because he suffers from mental illness, and he needs a place to get away from other people when he has episodes that can make him difficult to be around.

As the money began to drain out of his small savings account to pay the higher rent, Holland applied for a credit card that he has no strategy to pay off.

Fred Clasen-Kelly is an award-winning enterprise and investigative reporter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Reach him at fclasenkelly@gannett.com.

The team behind Segregated by Section 8

Reporting: Fred Clasen-Kelly

Visual journalism: Josh Morgan, Ariana Torrey, Mike Hensdill, Richard Burkhart

Editor: William Ramsey

Maps & Data: UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute with Providence Adu and Katie Zager, USA TODAY Network’s Chris Amico

Digital production & development: Ryan Hildebrandt, Spencer Holladay

Fact-checking: Rachel Berry

Proofing: Donnie Fetter, Amy Dunn

Social media, engagement & promotion: Kara Edgerson, Zach Dennis and Lauren Young

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Data: Section 8 voucher program reinforces Jim Crow patterns, policies