A Year After Ferguson, Housing Segregation Defies Tools to Erase It

John Eligon, New York Times, August 8, 2015

When she tore open the manila envelope on a sweltering morning in early June, Crystal Wade thought she had unlocked her ticket to freedom.

“The St. Louis Housing Authority is pleased to inform you,” the letter read, “that you have been determined eligible to participate in our Housing Choice Voucher Program.”

Colloquially referred to as a Section 8 voucher, it would allow her to use a housing subsidy at any suitable rental property she could find anywhere in the city or county of St. Louis. So as she wilted that June morning in her subsidized north side townhome, where the air conditioner was broken again, where a baseboard was black with mold from a leaky window, where she avoided the ground-floor living room for fear of catching a stray bullet, she began to dream of the possibilities.

And her top dream was a single-family rental home in the well-appointed suburbs to the west, where the school districts are among the best in the state and where she would be a quick drive to her job at a Verizon call center.

“It’s my way out from our messed-up system, our messed-up city,” said Ms. Wade, 25, who lives with her boyfriend and their three daughters.

But she quickly learned that when you’re black and poor, freedom has its limits.

A year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, unleashed a torrent of unrest in Ferguson, the St. Louis region has been embroiled in a difficult discussion about race and class–and not just regarding the police.

Questions about whether minorities have access to good jobs, high-performing schools and low-crime neighborhoods have been fiercely debated. And for many, one question informs all those others: Can the barriers that keep blacks out of prosperous, mostly white communities be toppled?

Data suggests that they often cannot. By several measures, the St. Louis region remains among the most segregated places in the country, where most blacks and whites, though sometimes separated by only a short walk, live in different worlds.

Such is the case in Ferguson. The part where Mr. Brown died is a predominantly black east side neighborhood where residents have complained of police harassment and high crime in a cluster of apartments that stretches into the census tract with the most Section 8 renters in Missouri. Life is much different just two miles away in the city’s amenity-filled central business district, surrounded by pockets of predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods with sturdy brick and clapboard homes.

Responding to concerns that the conditions in black, lower-income neighborhoods contributed to the problems that sparked the unrest after Mr. Brown’s death, the Ferguson Commission, convened by Gov. Jay Nixon, recently proposed measures to promote more integrated housing, including vigorously enforcing fair housing laws to reduce discriminatory lending practices.

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Over the years, the federal government has regularly failed to enforce fair housing laws that could reduce segregation. The Obama administration last month introduced new regulations through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that are intended to get localities to work more vigorously toward breaking down racially divided housing patterns.

The Section 8 voucher program, started four decades ago, is one of the tools that federal officials had hoped would provide access to high-opportunity communities for low-income people–and, by extension, minorities, as two out of three voucher recipients nationwide are not white.

In practice, however, the voucher system often falls short of that goal.

When she began her housing search shortly after receiving her letter, Ms. Wade plugged her wish list into the websites on which many landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers advertise–a two-bedroom house with a landlord who did not require two months’ rent upfront, something she could not afford. When the hits came back, not a single property was in one of the more affluent towns where the schools are better and crime lower. The few that were near promising areas had monthslong wait lists. Some landlords told her that they would rent to her and the children, but not to her boyfriend.

And so Ms. Wade, who grew up in all-black projects and went to predominantly black schools, recalibrated her expectations. She began to confine her search to the communities where most of the region’s black people live, where the majority of the region’s Section 8 holders–95 percent of whom are black–are able to find obliging landlords, on the city’s north side and in north St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson. Segregation was laying its trap.

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The city of St. Louis, population 317,000, is almost evenly split racially, with blacks accounting for 48 percent of residents and whites 46 percent. St. Louis County, which, at 524 square miles, is nearly eight times larger by area, surrounds the city and is separately governed. It is far less mixed, with whites accounting for about 70 percent of the approximately one million residents, and blacks about 24 percent.

Blacks are concentrated on the north side of the city and the adjacent northern part of the county. Whites, meanwhile, reside heavily in the city’s southern neighborhoods and the county’s western and southern towns.

In one measure of the region’s segregation, a Brown University study found that either 70 percent of all the black people or 70 percent of the white people would have to move to achieve racially balanced neighborhoods. The analysis named St. Louis the ninth most segregated region in the country, among metropolitan areas with large black populations. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.

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One major hurdle for blacks searching for housing in whiter communities, fair housing advocates said, was the unwillingness of many landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers. Refusing to accept vouchers is legal in most places and has contributed to the concentration of blacks in poor communities, housing experts said.

The city of St. Louis enacted an ordinance this year essentially prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on Section 8. The county has no such ordinance, and the Ferguson Commission has recommended that the Legislature pass a statewide one.

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The voucher program, with a $19.3 billion budget this year, is structured in a way that makes it difficult for the 2.2 million families that receive assistance nationally to rise into better communities. Housing officials have regularly complained that funding from Congress was inadequate and they are seeking a 9 percent increase this year that would add about 200,000 vouchers, including 67,000 eliminated by the 2013 sequestration cuts. In the city of St. Louis, 25,000 families are on the voucher waiting list.

The voucher pays a certain amount toward a family’s rent based on a regional fair market rate calculated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The family is expected to contribute some money toward the rent, usually about 30 percent of its household income. Like other metropolitan areas, the higher income parts of the St. Louis region tend to have rental rates that are too expensive for the voucher to cover. That often leaves properties in dilapidated neighborhoods as a voucher holder’s only viable option.

The disparity in property values between black and white communities also tends to push subsidized housing development toward poorer places, housing experts said. And the federal government actually gives greater financial incentives for building affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods.

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Three out of four Section 8 renters in the St. Louis region live in the northern part of the city or the county, even though it has a smaller overall population than the southern region. In the north, the median household income is less than two-thirds of what it is in the south. And in the county alone, there are nearly 20 times as many Section 8 renters in the northern part than in the southern.

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