Policing Tenants in Rental Assistance Programs
By Rahim Kurwa | July 5, 2023
Barbara, a tenant in the Housing Choice Voucher program, stopped inviting family over to her home out of fear that the housing authority might evict her for it. She told me that the housing inspectors would look for evidence of potential rule violations in order to begin eviction proceedings. She feared that “They might see [a] family member’s toothbrush, or they might see a family member’s car. Their whole assumption will go into, ‘Oh, you have a nonauthorized tenant.’” Barbara’s experience is evidence of the pervasive policing of tenants in rental assistance programs.
Barbara was one of many voucher tenants that I interviewed for my recent research examining antifamily regulations in rental assistance programs. Like Barbara, 75% percent of voucher tenants in Lancaster, CA are Black, 80% of households are headed by women, and nearly half are raising children. The rule she feared was the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ban on unauthorized tenants residing in a voucher tenant’s home. Local housing authorities enforce this ban with significant autonomy. Tenants in Lancaster reported that the rule was weaponized against them.
They told me how clothes that stereotypically look like they belong to the other gender, mail addressed to a prior resident, or simply an extra toothbrush laying around were enough to begin an inquiry into whether an unauthorized person was living in the home. Under these conditions, tenants often felt that they could not have family, friends, or romantic partners visit.
Over the last 30 years, the Housing Choice Voucher program has supplanted public housing as the nation’s largest rental assistance program for poor families. In 1992, the federal government began the HOPE VI program, which demolished approximately 100,000 “blighted” units of public housing. Lawmakers did not require that all units be replaced, but they did mandate that vouchers be one of the key replacements. This program formalized the transition away from public housing and towards voucher rental assistance.
Vouchers were hailed as a dramatic advance in federal anti-poverty policy at a time when other federal safety net programs were being shrunk. Advocates cast the voucher as a way for poor families to “escape” public housing and benefit from life in middle-class neighborhoods. However, the voucher program is dramatically underfunded, with years-long waitlists. Simultaneously, landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods routinely discriminate against tenants with vouchers, constraining where they can actually move.
As my interviews show, voucher tenants also face significant challenges after they move. Local housing authorities often govern the voucher program antagonistically, using voucher fraud hotlines and nuisance ordinances to empower neighbors to police tenants. These practices result in evictions and the re-segregation of neighborhoods.
History of Tenant Regulation
A precedent for the regulation of voucher tenants today comes from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). AFDC was the cornerstone of America’s welfare state in the 20th century. Passed in 1935, the program aimed to combat poverty by directing cash assistance to children of single mothers. In the 1950s and early 1960s, states devised a variety of practices to surveil and regulate the lives of women in the program, in the name of ensuring that benefits only went to single mothers.
Colloquially known as the man in the house rules, states developed policies that punished AFDC recipients, disproportionately Black women. Through what became known as the midnight raids, AFDC employees would visit women’s homes, unannounced, to search for evidence of a man’s presence.
Evidence of a man’s presence would be used to kick the household off welfare, under the logic that the man should be earning the family’s income. In states like Missouri, the raids were conducted in public housing, meaning women could be both stripped of welfare and evicted. The result was that government broke up families and forced women to appear to follow cultural norms that demanded single mothers be chaste and penitent.
In theory, this type of regulation was ended by 1968’s King v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruling striking down the “man in the house” rules. This landmark case was one of the welfare rights movement’s most important victories.
Policing Tenants in Housing Policy Today
Today, rental assistance program rules don’t need to explicitly target personal lives to create similar outcomes. The expansion of the war on crime and war on drugs into the welfare state provides a key example. The Reagan and Clinton administrations pushed forward crime and drug free requirements for public housing. Known as “one-strike” eviction rules, these policies mandated that housing authorities evict tenants who were not just convicted but even simply suspected of committing crimes. In addition, tenants could be evicted if their family members or guests were suspected of violations, even if those violations occurred off-site. The Supreme Court blessed these rules in the 2002 HUD v. Rucker case.
“One-strike” eviction rules have driven a wedge into families, turning loved ones into eviction liabilities. Barbara described how her sister faced losing her voucher if she did not evict her own daughter. She recalled that her sister lost a Section 8 voucher, because “her daughter was 13 and got into some trouble for shoplifting.. they were telling her, ‘Well, you can’t have her here, because she’s on probation… She said, ‘Well [what am] I supposed to do with my 13-year-old daughter?’”
“One-strike” rules force parents to choose between immensely valuable housing support and family unity. The policing of tenants has been enduring – the man in the house rules live on in a multitude of ways.
An End to Policing Tenants in Rental Assistance Programs
The HOPE VI program was hailed by policymakers as a revolution in housing assistance. The reality is much less revolutionary. Participants personal lives continue to be regulated through the program in ways very similar to the historic regulation of welfare recipients. The experiences of participants in my study mirror the experiences of participants in other safety net programs like Medicaid, TANF, and Child Welfare. The common thread between these programs is the consistency of what Dorothy Roberts has called “family policing.”
Policymakers should reduce the degree to which subsidized housing is policed over and above any other form of housing. At the federal level, this could entail policy reforms such as:
- Ending the one-strike eviction rules.
- Federally de-scheduling marijuana so that subsidized housing tenants are not punished for possessing it in states where it is decriminalized or legalized.
- Clarifying guidelines to ensure that local housing authorities must prove that tenants are violating the unauthorized tenant rule, rather than putting the burden of proof on tenants.
At the local level, local housing authorities should:
- Cease using fraud hotlines that allow neighbors to file frivolous complaints and generate often meritless investigations of tenants.
- Resist calls from local governments to escalate the policing and eviction of their tenants. These practices amount to disparate treatment of voucher renters in a manner that may fall afoul of fair housing law.
Policymakers should move toward undoing the punitive governance of the American social safety net, which often treats its participants as cheaters who simply have not yet been caught.
A new approach towards rental assistance programs would mean that local housing authorities treat tenants with dignity, minimize inspections of their units, respect tenant privacy, and see evictions as failures rather than successes.
Rahim Kurwa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice and Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois- Chicago
Photo credit: Istock.com/mrdoomits